Sex & Relationships

Don't Be So Sure About That 'Connection' You Felt on Tinder: People Are Hiring Ghostwriters to Do Their Online Flirting for Them

Ghostwriters chat with women online in order to tempt them into dates with their clients.

Photo Credit: PR Image Factory / Shutterstock.com

Perusing Craigslist recently, I came across a hiring ad with the subject line “Ninja Writing Skills Needed,” and that's how I discovered the creepier internet version of the 2005 movie Hitch (in which Will Smith plays a dating coach who uses earpiece microphones to put words into the mouths of men desperate to seem more interesting to their dates than they actually are). It was an ad for the company Virtual Dating Assistants (ViDA), which uses the wit and humor of ghostwriters to capture the hearts of potential dates for their high-paying clients.

The company is marketed toward “men who are cash rich but time poor,” according to the ad, and unsuspecting women are the guaranteed product.

In a way, this company is flipping the prostitution model on its back. Rather than paying women to date men they don’t know, people with some cash can pay the company to trick women into a false sense of security, so that they’ll date these men under false pretenses. ViDA ghostwriters pretend to be the men whose online profiles they manage. They send messages and engage in flirtations with women online, designed to emotionally ensnare them for ViDA’s clients.  

“We need a wordsmith at the black belt level to join our team ASAP. You've got to be good, really good. As Witty, Creative, Charming, Hilarious, and as ‘Cool’ as they come. Your emails and profiles must grab the reader's attention and make her feel that strange pang some refer to as ‘attraction,’” reads the ad. Here’s a screen capture:

Let's dissect this language for a moment, shall we? ViDA admittedly uses outright emotional manipulation to lure women into dates. As stated in the ad, the task of this ghostwriting job is to “make her feel” attraction. This company is preying on feelings for cash.

Sure, ViDA’s ghostwriters may be trained to include only facts that are true about the clients they represent, so they aren’t lying, exactly. However, there’s certainly nothing honest about a situation in which a person thinks they’re talking to a potential love match who’s been verified by a dating site, but they’re really talking to some random writer.

One can imagine how bad  dates might go. It’s the ultimate case of “he wasn’t the same in person.” As Anna North put it in a wry Jezebel write up:

“[T]he VDA would have to be extra-careful not to be wittier than his/her clients — imagine the disappointment of the lady or dude whose date is way less entertaining in person. But if you can satisfy these requirements, the sky's the limit! Why stop with online dating? A truly great VDA could handle busy people's valentines, birthday cards, even wedding vows. There's a budding industry here, and all you need to cash in is a good typing speed and total comfort with the grisly death of romance.”

If you apply for the job, you receive a link to an automatic online test with sample scenarios. A big part of the job is being able to shuffle out flirtations and pique the interest of as many potential dates as possible, as quickly as you can. For the test, you receive a sample client’s profile, then you have 90 minutes to partake in mock interactions with potential dates.

Out of curiousity I sent in an application. The sample client on my test was a 32-year-old man from Santa Monica who worked as a TV writer/producer and part-time DJ. The object was to study the man’s profile, study his potential date’s profile, then pretend to be him, sending messages to entice the date.

Here’s a screen capture of the part of the test instructions in which they make it doubly clear they do not want these women to know they’re not talking to the person they think they’re talking to:

Unlike the Will Smith character, ViDA is unabashed about the whole charade. Rather than attempt to operate underground or cloak its mission at all, the company’s slogan is, “Get High Quality Dates With The Women You Want.” That sums up the mentality of the venture.

Exhibit A: A screen shot of ViDA’s landing page:


 

Note the tinsy icon along the left-hand side of the landing page with an option for women to click for ViDA's serviecs. Their target client is, in no uncertain terms, male.

The commodification of unsuspecting women is blatant throughout ViDA’s website jargon. In several places (i.e. the langing page) it promises dates “delivered” to clients.

 

Here's a screen capture of that phrase repeated lower down on the site, along with some additional marketing sleaze:

 

It states, “With Virtual Dating Assistants (ViDA) on your side, you'll get top-quality dates delivered to you on a silver platter.”

Grade A meat! Rape culture lingo 101. They're not even trying to mask it.

The entire thing is so deeply sociopathic and disjointed from real human connection. It’s the ultimate case of overripe consumer culture rotting. It is a classic offshoot of this social media-obsessed world in which we now live. Everyone is a PR ad for themselves and tech bros are displacing the rest of us, culturally and physically. If you have the cash, you needn’t lift a finger. You can get anything delivered to you: food, laundry, a date with a woman who thinks she’s already shared multiple heart-to-hearts with you so that annoying “get her to let her guard down” part is already done.

ViDA oozes the classist culture of entitlement of (often wealthy) men in our society. According to a 2014 Vice interview with its CEO, Scott Valdez, it charged men between $380 and $1,320 a month for its services. The more you pay per month, the more dates are guaranteed to you. According to a 2010 article in the Washington Post, “For $600, [ViDA] guarantees clients two dates a month; the ‘executive service’ package promises five dates a month for $1,200.”

The sameVice interview explains that in Valdez’s opinion, turning unsuspecting women into a guaranteed product is just “a little bit of an ethical gray area.”

Um, excuse me, but what’s not black and white about the ethics of this? Is “gray” some sort of bad pun? Like, does he mean this in a “50 Shades” way?

It’s depressing that in 2016, the kind of marketing that not only objectifies but commodifies women is not only acceptable but apparently successful, since the company has been around some time and continue to post ads to hire new writers. Many major news outlets have written about ViDA, often in generous terms that only lightly acknowledge its backward ethics. Most (CNN, FOX, New York Times, the Washington Post, Vice) more or less normalize the venture.

If and when the press criticizes ViDA, the company has the "all press is good press" thing mastered. In its Craigslist ad, it reassures potential applicants about the company's legitimacy with the note: "Sound fishy? As the first business of our kind we've been featured in top media outlets in the US and around the world."

As if it isn’t bad enough that single women on the internet have to sift through the swarm of unsolicited dick pics and intrusive 2am “I’m so hard right now,” pings to find a decent conversation with a man online, now even the most well-spoken, thoughtful internet connections on well-verified dating sites could just be paid manipulation of the heartstrings.

Of course, everyone should know by now to keep their cynic hat on when it comes to any internet interaction, but this is a whole new level of ick. I can see it now. By the mercy of the internet gods, it seems you’ve collided with a successful, charming conversationalist; an apparent anomaly of wit and humor who invests the time to respond to you in depth. Is this a miracle? You finally agree to a date with a man you think you met online (which is, let’s not forget, a leap of vulnerability for any woman due to the risk of rape and/or death involved with meeting a strange man. The roomates in a dark comedy skit on YouTube titled “How Women Get Ready for First Dates” sum this up pretty spot on. One woman is headed out on a blind Tinder date. “Just remember exactly what I’m wearing in case I go missing,” she tells her roommate, before unceremoniously listing off the safety equipment in her purse: “rape whistle, mace, switchblade....”).

Would it not feel like identity theft of the heart if you found out the man you thought you were getting to know who seemed witty and interested in what you had to say was actually a hired hand, and the man before you now was a paying client? Ouch and yuck.

As ViDA’s website notes, not all of the men hiring this service are only looking for sex or superficial connections. Some are no doubt just busy people genuinely searching for love. But maybe these men should ask themselves whether a complete fabrication that hoodwinks someone into meeting up with them is really the best way to meet the woman of their dreams.

Another marketing gem from ViDA’s website reads: “No matter what you've experienced until now, finding beautiful women to date doesn't have to be an exhausting chore anymore." Just like that ViDA’s marketing team has reduced human connection and genuine intimacy to an “exhausting chore.”

I do understand why men hire this company (sure, some women do too, but men are the target market). Dating is hard. It’s time-consuming. Often, it sucks. But if you’re too busy to read someone’s online blurbs and send a few well-crafted messages from the heart; if your morals are so low you think it’s fine to have a stranger get paid $13-15 an hour (according to the Craigslist ad) to impersonate you to a potential lover; then maybe you should check your priorities. You probably don’t deserve a date with those “beautiful women” you’ve been searching for.

Like many marketing schemes before it, ViDA is openly misogynist, objectifying and dehumanizing. But this time its guaranteed product is an actual human being who is unaware, and in all likelihood, looking for an honest relationship. As Matt Saincome put it in his Vice piece, “Using a service like this raises obvious transparency and 'Multiplicity'-esque ethical concerns.”

I’d wager it also raises questions of humanity and decency.

April M. Short is a yoga teacher and writer who previously worked as AlterNet's drugs and health editor. She currently works part-time for AlterNet, and freelances for a number of publications nationwide. 

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