After a long flight to London, I lay awake yet exhausted on a hotel bed, my laptop resting on the other pillow. Sleep would not come, and I was scheduled to speak at a conference in just seven hours. So, alone and desperate for a soporific remedy, I did something out of character: I began cruising YouTube. “Help me sleep,” I typed into the search bar. Soon, I was listening to a video that promised “late night pillow talk.”
The video was a half-hour recording made by someone calling himself BF Barnfield. It showed only a static photo—a black-and-white image of a young shirtless couple gazing into each other’s eyes. The lack of visual action let me focus on Barnfield’s voice. His accent was studded with thick, sleepy consonants, and his whispers, exhalations, and sighs created an aural tide for my mind to bob upon. Barnfield cooed, “Let’s go to sleep then. Okay, okay, good night, baby,” and I briefly felt guilty about my husband in Vancouver. But, eventually, sleep pulled me under, my laptop watching me from across the bed.
The next morning, I blinked at the still-open YouTube page and found the rest of Barnfield’s oeuvre. “Late Night Pillow Talk” is part of a suite of videos in which he pretends to be the viewer’s boyfriend; for each, he records long, one-way conversations with questions and pauses—so that listeners may feel they’re participating, almost speaking back, despite the fact they are (probably) alone. Never does Barnfield talk sex in detail or veer into the erotic; in fact, his role-play videos often border on the banal. In one, he picks you up from university; in another, he wakes you with cutesy encouragement; and, in one of his most popular instalments, Barnfield spends nearly twenty-two minutes jealously reacting to the fact that you’ve been texting with your ex.
It was, for me, a wholly new idea of what our devices can deliver. I knew that online porn had become a fact in many people’s lives, but I’d been slower to recognize a culture of autoromance. This burgeoning arena includes an army of chat bots trained to offer companionship and conversation. A service called Invisible Boyfriend (along with its sister service, Invisible Girlfriend) also offers text-based interactions with actors who pretend to be your romantic partner for $25 (US) a month. You never meet the guy, but you can choose his name, age, and the face that pops up when he messages. And a real, live person somewhere (presumably male, but who knows) will message you about how your day went, how good you look in those jeans.
Countless YouTube broadcasters offer “partner” videos with a variety of genders, moods, voices, and scenarios. The more popular video producers, with millions of views and thousands of comments, have sophisticated brands and deliver entire catalogues of experience. One YouTube boyfriend, for example, will care for you when you’re sick, do your makeup, and give you a manicure. The appeal is obvious: who wouldn’t like to slip past the messy experience of a flesh-and-blood first date and fall, instead, for a pleasing simulacrum—for the shape of a new romance? Viewers are deeply engaged. Some are self-critical too. One, echoing my own unease in that London hotel room, wrote under a romantic role-playing video: “Am I really this lonely?”
That some people have turned to artificial company on phones and laptops should be no surprise. The internet promised a world of connections, but it bent us inward, a self-interested turn that has coincided with a growing fear of loneliness and disenfranchisement. Governments and experts are beginning to treat loneliness as a serious health problem that could even lead to early death. In Canada, Andrew Wister, a researcher at Simon Fraser University, has said that one in five people suffer from social isolation. In the UK, a minister of loneliness has been appointed. And, in the US, Vivek Murthy, the former surgeon general, called loneliness an “epidemic” in 2018. A precarious economy and shifting social values could compound things, encouraging many of us to delay the most common form of companionship—marriage—until a much later date. (The most recent US census found that, in 2018, the median age at first marriage had reached its highest point on record.) Meanwhile, the number of American adults under thirty who aren’t having sex has risen from 9 percent to 23 percent in just this past decade. With less marriage, sex, and stability—seemingly all the trappings of social life that girded previous generations throughout adulthood—we swarm to online platforms that provide at least the “feel” of intimacy, if not the substance.
“Instead of being satisfied by digital replacements, we may end up like shipwrecked travellers who drink salt water: growing thirstier the more we consume.”
Just as fast-food chains provided an easy substitute for home-cooked dinner and the porn industry offered tailor-made satiation for more carnal hungers, apps and videos have emerged to dish out romantic calories in the easiest, most hassle-free way. Videos like Barnfield’s are joined by options that reproduce domestic affection, physical care, maternal attention; every category of intimacy is at play, reproduced for the lonely consumer. These services are addressing one of the most prominent problems of the century, but their solutions are superficial. They make it possible to live without ever facing the loneliness that makes up contemporary life, so we never discover what lies behind it.
After spending the last few years researching different kinds of loneliness in a connected world, I have come to believe that romantic loneliness leaves us the most vulnerable; we reach for quick fixes and easy comforts. Romance “comes out of one of the oldest parts of the brain,” says Helen Fisher, a senior research fellow at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute and chief scientific advisor for match.com. “The pathway lies at the very base of the brain, very close to regions orchestrating thirst and hunger.” In fact, just as thirst and hunger are designed to keep you alive, romantic feelings are a survival mechanism designed to drive your genes into the future. Ninety-seven percent of mammals propel their genes very well without this romance drive. “But,” says Fisher, “our species evolved to tack attachment and love onto sex.” Many researchers believe the romance bonus served to ensure the survival of infants. Without these romantic ties, male primates have a bad habit of killing their own offspring. With them, however, primate communities thrive and grow. The brain circuitry for these impulses has probably not changed in 4 million years. What has changed, though, is how easily we can sate that deep-seated hunger for intimacy.
Born in 1980, I’m part of the last generation to have had a childhood without digital interference, so I recall a world where the only romance available was the hazier sort, something less at the ready. Romance then meant confusion and silence, mystery and hunger. It was the opposite of my Barnfield romance: demanding and never on demand.
I remember, for example, sitting in my grade-four classroom and wondering whether a friend of mine might be my valentine. The previous weekend, we had been playing Nintendo in the basement of his parents’ house when he’d shot his hands in the air, cheering because he had finished a level. Inspired by his excitement, his open-mouthed smile, I had embraced him.
“What are you doing?” he had shouted, shaking me off.
I had hardly known. And that confusion, for me at least, was where intimacy lived—in a furtive glance, a hesitant almost touch.
It seems utterly foreign, looking back—that marooned child with his empty hands. But this absence of contact really was the norm. Even as I entered high school, the promise of “cybercommunication” was jokingly oxymoronic. Those who found solace in online “contacts” were laughed at or pitied. Who could have known that, in a couple of decades, the delineation of online spaces would be reimagined as the borders of a new romance; to go online suddenly meant blocking out the cold, physical world and living for some hours among signals of warmth, a million points of light. Eventually, “the personals” in newspapers gave way to the instantaneous appeal of match.com, in 1995, and eHarmony, in 2000. These romantic connectors were followed by social networks like Friendster in 2002 and, three years later, Facebook. Living without easy connections, without constant social grooming, became unthinkable. And today, of course, roughly half of us either met our partner online or know someone who did. Swiping through Tinder or Bumble is often done with no intention of an actual hookup—the point is to microdose personal attention. The endless string of meaningless heys, the sugary “super likes” and reassuring lists of “who viewed me”—they comfort and please without fully satisfying. But the biggest difference between contemporary patterns and older exchanges, of course, is that there’s only one body. The user is lover, loved, and cupid in one.
I was alone in that hotel room where I watched my first Barnfield video. So why do I feel, looking back, like I halfway cheated on my husband? Perhaps because our hearts can now have affairs with our screens. The only cure for loneliness is to master the art of solitude—to lean into our isolation, in other words, and understand its depths. But loneliness can make us hold tight to sweet nothings.
Perhaps the largest bank of synthetic attention is the cache of ASMR videos propagating online—clips that help viewers experience an autonomous sensory meridian response (essentially a tingling feeling of low-grade euphoria). ASMR videos work by offering rhythmic sights and sounds—the image of soap being carved, say, or the sound of someone eating a pickle. (Videos displaying those two activities have each garnered tens of millions of views.) A crucial aspect is the performer in each video: almost invariably an attractive young person, staring into the camera’s lens as though you, the viewer, are their beloved. One study found that these videos trigger a part of the mind that longs for attention—our world’s most precious commodity—and some videos tap into that need more directly. They might feature someone pretending to cut your hair, say, or shine your shoes. We feel petted and calmed by their gentle repetitions, allowing intimate touch—intimacy itself—to be abstracted through the screen.
I’m reminded of the mukbang video phenomenon in South Korea, where millions of subscribers watch—on laptops, on phones—while strangers eat elaborate meals. Broadcast jockeys (as they’re known) provide the comfort and ritual of a family dinner; they offer that comfort to, say, a lonely fellow eating takeout on his sofa. There is a neatness to the experience: the viewer doesn’t take on food preparation, consumption, cleanup, or any other effort. Boyfriend videos like BF Barnfield’s are much closer to these mukbang offerings than they are to pornography—what’s on offer is not titillation but the easiest possible check to the loneliness that pervades contemporary life.
“It’s amazing how the human brain can respond to inanimate objects,” says Fisher. “Small children will love their teddy bears. We watch movies and cry when someone gets dumped. We’re capable of responding to inanimate objects in very visceral ways. The brain can be tricked.” Our technologies capitalize on the fact that we can see human faces in piles of pixels or that we can accept the replication of a lover’s voice as the genuine article. These stand-ins are so common that we forget their strangeness. But perhaps we fool ourselves in thinking our desires for love, comfort, and belonging can be sated with an inanimate object. Instead of being satisfied by digital replacements, we may end up like shipwrecked travellers who drink salt water: growing thirstier the more we consume.
Barnfield(he stole the pseudonym from an actor in an American film) took my call from his home in Brazil. It had been two years since I discovered his videos, and I hadn’t watched them in many months, but his voice was alarmingly familiar. It had a compelling, soft timbre. Yet, having listened to him online so many times, I now found a two-way conversation oddly off-putting. The whole point of boyfriend videos—and of ASMR, mukbang, and the rest—is to create a one-way interaction from creator to silent consumer. Now that we were both talking, the effect was shattered.
Barnfield’s subscribers, though, remain in his thrall; he told me about fans who message him just to make sure he’s eaten his lunch. By the thousands, they imagine themselves his one and only partner. “They want to feel like they have someone who cares about them,” he told me. “I think 90 percent of my audience is single people.” Barnfield makes a small amount of revenue from the videos, but most of his income comes from his day job as an IT educator at a private school. The videos are merely recreation; he finds it relaxing to be part of so many abstracted relationships. There’s something attractive about the sheer ease of a Barnfield romance: “If they say, ‘I love you,’ I say, ‘I love you’ back.” But what does he really get out of it? I asked.
“It helps me to be a bit less lonely.”
I realized, the more we spoke, that this young man was also floating on the larger online tide. YouTube gave him a chance to feel loved by strangers. Many strangers. And then, just as smoothly, he could shut his laptop and walk away. He has a job, friends, a life. But, as Barnfield, he indulges in the same search for invincible intimacy that his listeners do. He, too, wants to feel close on his own terms. He hasn’t told his friends or family about the videos he makes; he doesn’t think they’d understand.
None of this is uncommon today, though it can feel unintelligible if you were born a few years too early. Romantic feelings are always composed, after all, in the vernacular of our time. When I was a child, I craved communion; I would lie for hours on a suburban lawn listening to cars whoosh by and thinking about what a friend had said the day before. When I was a teenager, we all had chunky cellphones, and my heart would race to see a certain boy’s name spelled out in the grey-on-grey digits of my call display. And, now that I inch toward middle age, married and presumably done with the heart’s shameless hunt, I find that even a stranger’s video with a million views can evoke something I didn’t realize was missing. We adapt old psychologies to new technologies. Sometimes it seems to be nothing more than that—just the same old stirrings in a new, silicone form. But, other times, I think the change is a qualitative one after all, that something fundamental has shifted. Were I a child today, I might miss out on the painful, mind-shucking loneliness that predigital life demanded. Were I a child today, my longing, from the moment it first stirred, would be satisfied by technology. So I would be deprived of deprivation.
Our new reality—omnipresent care—has a creeping price. ASMR viewers find themselves addicted to their videos, some unable to sleep without them. One mukbang video creator complained of diminished sexual appetite after days of force feeding themselves family-sized meals. The hikikomori, in Japan, are roughly a million shut-ins who eschew “real world” interactions altogether, preferring to live alone in their rooms, attended by computers that call forth food deliveries, entertainment, education, and friendship.
I had a small taste of these effects while researching this essay. I gorged myself on videos, testing the company of virtual hairdressers, virtual chefs, virtual boyfriends. A nauseous fog developed in my head—like the sickly sweet, looping feeling of playing a video game too long. I was watching a boyfriend video one day when a blur at the edge of my vision made me aware that my husband was heading out on a walk with the dog. It was a balmy spring day, the sidewalks flushed with cherry petals. And, for an instant, I was going to join him; I meant to shut the laptop, shake myself awake. But, instead, I gave myself another minute, then another. And, when I finally did look up, I was alone.