£1 = 1 hour of girlfriend experience
£3 = 1 day of girlfriend experience
£20 = 1 week of girlfriend experience
No, this is not the pricing list for a brothel. It was the pricing list for the once-popular virtual partners service on website Taobao (the Chinese Amazon equivalent). Here, you could purchase a purely virtual girlfriend or boyfriend experience which claims to give you a “falling in love experience as warm as mulled wine”.
You can take your pick of different types of partner: the next-door girl, dominating queen, sweethearts. But this is not just a site for men. It has been extremely popular among women as well.
Services provided were meant to be restricted to non-X-rated activities including text and voice messages you could wake up to, or good night messages before bed. You could even get virtual partners who could complain and whine about stuff to you.
However, since last year, these services have been taken off from Taobao due to public concerns on its ambiguity of legal and moral grounds. It’s not hard to see how such a service sold en masse could go horribly wrong. For starters, the services provided an easy route to offer prostitution services, and the result was not limited to emotional support as intended. But this wasn’t all. The virtual nature of the services took on a far more sinister nature that one might only think possible in an episode of Black Mirror. Many virtual partners would lure the often lonely buyers to video chat by saying that they had fallen in love. Here, they would initiate cybersex, all the while the virtual partner would be recording video. This recording would then be used to blackmail the buyer of the services.
So who are the users of these services? Many buyers are those who feel social anxiety and so find it hard to approach potential partners in real life. Others often find this a great way to combat the loneliness of their lives. Without a doubt, the ability to build social relationships via apps and websites like Tinder/ Match.com or even social media has made life much easier for those who find social interaction hard. Technology has been a great way to build more connections and maintain existing connections with people you know.
However, Sherry Turkle of MIT thinks there are some keys issues we are overlooking when it comes to virtual relationships. She has researched how people interact in online environments for over 20 years. The technology, she says, offers “Illusions of companionship without the demands of friendship”. Whether it’s an online only partner or Ashley Madison’s cheating website, technology offers us the control over loneliness and online relationships are far less messy because we can ‘edit, delete and retouch’. But without the detail of real life interactions, it’s real hard to learn about a person in depth if you’re not meeting them offline.
The further problem is that virtual relationships only provide a quick fix to loneliness. Research by the University of Chicago finds that loneliness makes people more hostile to real life social interactions, so online relationships offer a great escape from this. But, online relationships are not real and soon enough, people who are lonely find themselves even more isolated from real life humans.
Joshua Freeman from Columbia University Information Technology nicely summarises the paradox of technology for human relationships. He suggests that it really comes down to how we use technology.
“Spending more time online and being more wired to each other via various devices comes at the expense of real-time, deep, meaningful human interaction. But, when you’re really busy and don’t have enough time to see, call or visit with friends it’s nice to use the social networking tools to be better able to keep tabs on or ‘give tabs to’ people in your social network.”
— Joshua Freeman, Director of Interactive Services, Columbia University Information Technology
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Social Jungle.