Season 3 Ep. 4

Virtual Connections

:‘-) Ever wonder why emoticons exist? They popped up in the 1980s to make online connections feel a little less digital and a little more personal :D. In this episode of IRL, host Veronica Belmont and special guest Peter Rojas explore how the Internet is both building and also confusing our relationships every day. Chloe Stuart-Ulin gives a first-hand account of her life as a “closer” for an online-dating service; we hear a dramatic, real-life story about a woman who finds her biological parent online; and Emma Brockes talks about how we can all maintain humanity while interacting with others on the internet. Show Notes

Show Notes

Read more about Chloe Rose’s experience as a “closer” for hire on online dating apps.

Emma Brockes writes a column for the Guardian called How to be Human Online. She’s just written a book too called, An Excellent Choice: Panic and Joy on My Solo Path to Motherhood.

Read Ingrid Burrington’s essay about CorrLinks, the email service providing connection for inmates at U.S. prisons.

Check out this article about how the internet has changed dating forever. Online dating coach Laurie Davis Edward shares her thoughts on the good, bad and ugly that comes with finding love on the web.

And, for more about human connection, and what our innate desire for it means for us as we — more and more — love, do business, and find our tribes online, read this piece by cultural anthropologist Genevieve Bell.

Finally, for some bonus audio on how technology interfered with a marriage proposal — and commentary on new relationship norms — head over to Mozilla’s blog.

Transcript

Speaker 1: Hey Dad, going to skip dinner. Feeling really bad. Jared broke up with me.

Speaker 2: Oh no. L-O-L.

Speaker 1: What? Dad, you know LOL means laugh out loud?

Speaker 2: I thought it meant lots of love.

Speaker 1: Dad.

Veronica Belmont: Virtual connections are a staple of online life. In fact, being like three degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon is half of why we use the internet in the first place. But that word virtual isn’t there for nothing because every time we try to send each other signals to share what we mean and what we feel, we’re also swimming through.

Speaker 1: Dad.

Veronica Belmont: A lot of static, a lot of confused parents who don’t know their acronyms for starters but also just ironic lines that get read as mean. Earnest questions that come off as sarcasm. We need a lot of help when we’re trying to connect through screens. That’s why we invented the smiley face. Emoticons arrived back in the 1980s because people saw it right away when they went online something got lost in translation. We needed help staying human so smiley faces to show you meant well, and then the laughing with tears of joy emoji, and then the super happy Jonah Hill GIF.

It’s the broken telephone game times the world wide web. This episode of IRL is all about how those basic human connections got scrambled online and what we’re doing to get them straight. And the problem’s coming at us from two directions. Just as people are getting staticky when they go online, our tech is actually getting better at simulating human style interactions. And that’s-

Speaker 4: Hey Veronica, we should get a coffee sometime. What about Tuesday afternoon?

Veronica Belmont: Yeah, well point is whether we’re using smoke signals or morse code or Snapchat, the layer of tech we connect through is never neutral. It can amplify our voices to millions or cancel out certain voices all together. It can even-

Speaker 4: I’m free anytime.

Veronica Belmont: … start talking back with a voice all its own.

Along for today’s ride we’ve got Peter Rojas. He’s the founder of Gizmodo and Engadget and he’s also a partner at Betaworks Ventures, investing in the future of how people interact with and through technology. Peter, I’m so happy you’re here with us thanks for being here.

Peter Rojas: Hey, thanks for having me.

Veronica Belmont: So we’re talking about virtual connections today so I want to just dive in and ask. You’re a guy who knows his way around the internet but when was a time when you reached out or tried to connect and just totally flubbed it?

Peter Rojas: Well, one incident that comes to mind, and it’s something where I think some of the nuance or subtlety of online communication can be lost, was when it was probably about 10 years ago and I was working on a music startup. And a friend of mine was friends with Michael Stipe and he decided to do me a huge favor he was going to connect with Michael Stipe and Michael was going to do an interview or do something for the site. And so I started exchanging emails with Michael but I tried to play it really cool like I wasn’t starstruck or overly impressed or anything. So, I took a long time to respond to one of his emails. And before I could write back, Michael wrote back saying, “Did I do something wrong?” What do I say? And it kind of killed the whole thing. Yeah I genuinely regret that. Michael, if you are listening, and I assume you are, you still have my email so we can get back in touch anytime you want.

Veronica Belmont: I like that. Making some misconnections reconnect. So Peter, stick around I want to hear your thoughts on all the stories we’ve got lined up. And this first one really gets to the heart of things. This story makes me wonder whether anybody can know what a real human connection even means anymore.

We’ve all had some odd jobs.

Chloe Rose: I actually stumbled upon this job through a friend, she emailed me this ad online for virtual dating assistance.

Veronica Belmont: This is Chloe Rose Stuart-Ulin. She’s a freelance journalist and so when she heard virtual dating assistant she figured, yeah there’s a story here.

Chloe Rose: And they were asking for closers that was the job title.

Veronica Belmont: That’s closer as in closing the deal. And in this case the deal meant making romantic connections for clients who didn’t have the time or the energy to do all that exhausting work of swiping right or messaging their matches.

Chloe Rose: Every morning I would wake up and I would log into the Tinder account of one of my various clients and I would pretend to be them through GPS and all these different devices. I would log into their accounts and write to their matches. And my goal was to get opportunities for them to get phone numbers.

Veronica Belmont: Chloe’s job here is basically professional Tinder flirter. She logs on in the persona of her clients and procures phone numbers for them.

Chloe Rose: When I first applied they were very open and candid about how it was a moral grey area and I had to be comfortable manipulating people and pretending to be someone else online. And the job really took off from there.

Veronica Belmont: There was a base salary, 12 bucks an hour, and then Chloe would get $1.75 U.S. for every phone number that she collected. But first, she had to learn how to mimic the texting style of the kind of guy who scores big on Tinder. As opposed to say the kind of guy who pays other people to flirt for him.

Chloe Rose: Yeah my first commission was with this one woman who opened the conversation with this man talking about how she just lost her dogs and I wrote a dummy reply asking her more about it and giving my condolences as this gentleman on his behalf. And then my trainer kind of swooped in and erased that reply and told me that was inappropriate and that’s … and here I’m quoting, “Alpha males don’t apologize.” And don’t give condolences, essentially.

Veronica Belmont: Oof, yeah, the company wasn’t going for nice in other words. They were going for results. Data driven results.

Chloe Rose: I was definitely reinforcing certain gender stereotypes. I was being taught to speak as an alpha male as someone who sets up dates before the woman even makes it clear that she wants to go on the date. We were told not to speak about the woman’s career. That was a very tough part of the job. And knowing that these women on the other end were learning to expect this kind of behavior from men was shocking to me. And you know what, a lot of these techniques really worked and that was a hard thing to realize.

Veronica Belmont: Another unsettling thing, the total disconnect between closers like Chloe and the people who pay for their services. Closers had access to clients introductory interviews but that’s it. Beyond that, clients were just delivered the goods, the phone numbers, without ever hearing about the work itself. All those manipulative texts, all those fake connections.

Chloe Rose: We were completely isolated from the clients.

Veronica Belmont: In exchange for these romantic shortcuts, clients ended up paying anywhere from $150 to $1500 dollars. For that, Chloe had to perform these services, but maybe more importantly, she had to not ask questions. She couldn’t ask were these guys lying during their initial interviews? Were they dangerous even? Eventually, that moral grey area just went bright red.

Chloe Rose: My breaking point was when I was given a female client, oddly. I was being trained by a man that in my mind was very sexist and he was trying to teach me how to speak as a woman. Make your voice sound more smooth, more flowing, more ladylike, more appeasing. When I was writing for this client, the company had given me a quota of phone numbers that I was supposed to get by the end of her first week with the company. But I didn’t reach that quota because none of the matches that I’d found for her on Tinder were of sufficient quality in my mind to go out with this woman.

Veronica Belmont: Keep in mind, Chloe’s a journalist. When she went on to write about her experiences, she found that Tinder closer position was actually just a tiny corner of a much larger trend.

Chloe Rose: The fact that these digital butlers exist and are becoming more and more part of our everyday lives is terrifying to me. I worry about young people getting used to just having these services around that will give them an excuse not to take things personally online.

Veronica Belmont: Of course, by researching the problem Chloe had to ask herself, “Did I just make it worse?”

Chloe Rose: You know, there were nights where I would log off having essentially tricked women into going on dates with people that they’d never met and with someone that they had no idea who they were. And that was really difficult. I had trouble on those days for sure. I didn’t cope with it well, I ended up quitting after just two months.

Veronica Belmont: I’ve got a link to Chloe’s article in the show notes along with some other deep perspectives on what our desire for human connection means in this digital age. You can find it all at irlpodcast.org.

Alright Peter, online dating is a multi-billion dollar industry at this point. Facebook’s even gotten into the Yenta game. So, it was sort of inevitable that jobs like Tinder closer were going to pop up as a consequence. How far do you imagine this going?

Peter Rojas: Well, I think the next natural step is actually to take the humans out of the equation at all and have bots that perform a lot of those tasks, essentially. I don’t think it be much of a stretch to be able to create a pretty rudimentary AI that could do a lot of the basic responses and conversations. It sounds like they’re working off something of a script already. And so I suspect that there will be, if there aren’t already frankly, bots that do perform this function for people.

Veronica Belmont: I would actually be really surprised if there weren’t or if they weren’t already being used in some capacity because I’ve seen some bots out there that make a pretty compelling argument compared to some of the Tinder messages I’ve seen on my friends phones. They’re not that off.

Peter Rojas: I missed the whole online dating thing because I’ve been in a relationship for a very long time. And so a lot of this is very foreign to me but I think the dynamics of these things when you think about Tinder as a game, they’ve essentially gamified dating. And when you turn things into a game like that it’s almost inevitable that people are going to build tools to optimize the results that they’re able to get from that game, from that experience. It’s ethically very dubious but I do think that given the exponentially growing number of relationships that we manage online, the fact that people would turn to tools to help manage them, I think that is something that is going to be very appealing to a lot of people.

Veronica Belmont: So at the end of the day the question is are digital butlers or next generation algorithms going to actually spark better human connections or are we just going to end up getting catfished by better and better catfish?

Here’s the thing, online life does abstract human relationships but that’s not the whole story. Because online life also builds connections that can never have been possible before. There are these events called daybreaker parties for example. Thousands of people are part of this movement where you wake up at 5 a.m. meet at a venue and dance your butt off for a few hours before heading to work. There’s no alcohol, no drugs, just this powerful connection between a bunch of strangers who are brought together through the magic of the internet. And that kind of magic is everywhere. When you start to look, you realize real life connections are always just one good intention away. And making something human out of the internet, something that bonds us together, is the responsibility of anybody who works on the internet or uses it. That’s a lot of responsibility I just doled out, I know. But if I’m getting kind of grand here it’s because the stakes really are ginormous. Sometimes the connections we make online can even change our lives.

Jordon: I am Jordon Rahmil I live in Portland, Oregon.

Veronica Belmont: Jordon was 22-years-old. She just got out of college when her mom came to town on a visit.

Jordon: We went to a bar and found a quiet place and we sat down. And she kind of seemed nervous right off the bat. I don’t even remember how exactly she told me but she explained to me that my dad who had passed away about six months prior he was not my biological father and I was conceived from a sperm donor.

Veronica Belmont: I’m just going to file that somewhere on my most awkward mom conversation shelf. But Jordon actually found it validating too.

Jordon: I always sort of had a gut suspicion that we weren’t related. It made a lot of sense actually.

Veronica Belmont: The thing was, Jordon’s mom didn’t know much about the donor.

Jordon: She had these notes that said, “Welsh, English, PhD.” She had his age and there was a donor number and that’s all she had.

Veronica Belmont: But Jordon was determined to make that connection.

Jordon: I called the clinic. They immediately were just … They laughed at me actually. They just said yeah there’s no way you are going to get this information it’s totally anonymous and we’re not going to break that and there’s nothing you can do about it, basically.

Veronica Belmont: Which was true, until very recently.

Jordon: There’s a website called the Donor Sibling Registry and I put his donor number in that registry to see if anyone else had a match to him.

Veronica Belmont: It didn’t work.

Jordon: Then tried a 23andMe test.

Veronica Belmont: That one didn’t work either.

Jordon: And the Family Tree DNA test.

Veronica Belmont: And neither did that one.

Jordon: So Ancestry was the last one and I wasn’t really expecting anything. It took about six weeks from the time I gave my DNA to the time that I got the email. I was at work, it was a really busy day at work. And in the middle of the day got an email that said, “Your Ancestry DNA results are in.” So I click on it and opened it up. Literally the first thing that came up it said his name, and it said, “This is your father.” And that was a crazy moment to me. I just flipped my chair around and looked at my coworker and she knew what I was doing and I was just like, “I think I just found him.”

Veronica Belmont: What’s amazing is just how new this kind of discovery is. How unprecedented Jordon’s journey is.

Jordon: When I was conceived in the late ‘80s. There was no internet there was no inclination that an anonymous sperm donor would be able to be Googled and found on the internet.

Veronica Belmont: But Jordon wasn’t in the ‘80s anymore. So, she Googled.

Jordon: And automatically there was a face that popped up that went with the name that I was searching for. And it seemed so in alignment with what I was looking for. One of his daughters lives in Portland where I live. She actually was working right around the corner from my office and I had seen her before. So there was a ton of information about them on the internet. Which was overwhelming and I just kept watching videos and looking at social media posts and just overwhelmed with all of it.

Veronica Belmont: At last, Jordon decided to act. She reached out through ancestry.com.

Jordon: He had not logged in for several months to Ancestry. And so that message went unread for a while so then I tried email. The emails weren’t responded to and then the Facebook message was not seen. And this is over probably a three month period of just trying and not hearing anything back.

Veronica Belmont: Until at last.

Jordon: He finally responded. And he said, “Sorry, there is someone else in Seattle with the same name, with the same age. We’ve actually been mixed up before. And I’m not the person you’re looking for.

It was confusing because I was so convinced that he was the guy. He looked like me, his daughters look like me.

Veronica Belmont: But at least Jordon now had another lead.

Jordon: The day that I found out that he wasn’t the right person I emailed the same exact email to the right person and he got back to me within 24 hours. His response was really kind and welcoming and he was definitely overwhelmed. He already has five kids of his own and you know I think similar to me I wasn’t in a situation where I needed more family. He definitely was warm and welcoming and kind and willing to give me any information and questions answered. I could tell from his response that he was surprised.

Veronica Belmont: Connecting with a long lost family didn’t go the way she’d planned. But Jordon did get closure in her own way.

Jordon: I mean, one thing that I was kind of hung up on once I found out about the donor was my eyebrows because my mom’s side of the family there aren’t, like the family doesn’t have eyebrows like I do and so I was always just wondering who is the person that I got my eyebrows from. I actually found out that he’s a high school teacher, and his students created a Facebook about his eyebrows, which was hilarious. And then when I met my half-sister she had the same eyebrows, and we had a lot in common. It was just it’s kind of like staring at who you are through someone else.

Veronica Belmont: Jordon Rahmil stays in touch with her new siblings through social media where they can mediate the amount of connection or distance they need.

Jordon: We’re always kind of connected which is obviously the nature of the world right now.

Veronica Belmont: That’s one of those stories that just couldn’t have happened without the online tools we now take for granted. And even with those resources, Jordon’s connection with her father almost didn’t happen.

If you’re into those crazy coincidences and unlikely connections online, you should check out the Endless Thread Podcast. There’s one episode in particular called Three Stories of Love on Reddit. And yeah it’s about romantic connections on Reddit. Subreddit romance, all good stuff.

Peter, I want to bring you back in here. When you listen to stories like Jordon’s do you feel like this was the good big ol’ internet that we were all promised? The internet that was going to make life more friendly?

Peter Rojas: Well I would say, I’ve been online for a long time. I think I first got on even before the web via I think I used a service called Prodigy back in 1990. And a lot of us back then in the ‘90s we were very optimistic about what the web was going to be able to do, about how it was going to sort of bring the world closer together and allow people to organize and interact and create a new world. It turns out that we were, obviously, overly optimistic.

I think that a lot of us, myself included, thought that a lot of the negative stuff that came out of these things and it was always there. Spam and trolling and flame wars, all of that stuff was there from the beginning. But we thought you could use algorithms and moderation and filters. You would sort of rout that stuff out. That you could create these platforms that were able to mitigate the worst aspects of human behavior and human dynamics and sort of preserve the good stuff. It turns out that is a lot harder than it appears. Especially, as the internet went from being something that had tens of millions of people on it to billions of people, the scale of the problem becomes that much more complex and difficult to solve. Especially because you get people that aren’t necessarily coming to the internet with a real sophisticated approach to how they judge and evaluate the information that’s presented to them. And I think that was one of the mistakes that we made.

Veronica Belmont: Yeah, but at the same time we have all these new technologies, things like ancestry.com, or 23andMe that kind of open up all these new doors that didn’t exist back when we were on Prodigy and CompuServe and what have you. I definitely see like it’s kind of all changed exponentially both the good and the bad. And maybe we hear a lot more of the bad side because it’s so heavily impacting everything that’s going on in the world right now.

But I think there is still some good to be had from the connections that can be made that might not have happened otherwise. People being able to find their tribes. Quite literally, like I found out that I was … My family’s Jewish and I never knew that before. And that was all because of, yeah, because of technology.

Peter Rojas: Absolutely. I absolutely do not want to minimize the positive benefits that we’ve had. I’ve made friends through the internet, people that I’m still friends with today people friends that I met 20 years ago. And I think we take, and I probably do too, we take for granted a lot of the things that are great about being able to stay in touch with people. And so I think long term the benefits will outweigh the negatives, the positives will outweigh the negatives. But what happens is we get a little bit ahead of ourselves. The technology sort of gets ahead of our ability to digest it and figure out how to manage it.

Veronica Belmont: Okay. So we know we can sometimes talk right past each other online, and we know that on the flip side, online life can be the only thing letting us make connections at all. But that leaves one last question, what’s the deciding factor? What pushes us toward friendly universe and away from soulless Silicon?

Emma Brockes: Oh okay, Emma Brockes and I’m a … oh my God, I’m sorry, I don’t even know what my title is. What is my title? I’m a columnist to the Guardian.

Veronica Belmont: Emma writes a column for the Guardian called, How to be Human Online. People write in with questions usually trying to figure out how to translate real life stuff into online culture. She’s kind of a pro at spotting the traps that we all fall into when we think we’re connecting.

Emma Brockes: When I’m looking at the wedding photos of someone I was at school with and haven’t spoken to for 25 years I’m not necessarily 100% in their corner. You know, I’m looking to remind myself of why I didn’t like them back then and why I’ll probably continue not to like them today. So, I think it’s just trying to sort of understand psychologically what’s happening when we’re interacting with these platforms, which sell a very false version of themselves to us.

Veronica Belmont: For Emma, that means managing her own media diet, curating her connections so the ones she maintains are giving her what she wants.

Emma Brockes: Well, I’ve come off Facebook. I didn’t delete my profile, I was too socially anxious for that but, I haven’t checked my feed in two months, which is amazing. But I think I’ve tried to be less judge-y. I’ve tried to do all the things that social media was said to have been set up to help us with. Like I’ve tried to not fall off the handle but to engage in discussion with people even when they’re quite angry. So, I’ve tried to sort of meet people half way. And not just get locked into my own position. I’ve tried to be calmer, I’ve tried not to take everything personally. I think if we just try to be more mature this technology is still so new that we’re all like toddlers running around screaming like stuffing candy into our faces. And I think you know in five years time we’ll look at the way that we used a lot of the internet and think it was sheer insanity. Or else we’ll be bots by then.

Veronica Belmont: Emma Brockes writes a column for the Guardian called How to be Human Online. She’s just written a book too called, An Excellent Choice:** Panic and Joy on My Solo Path to Motherhood. I’ve got a link in the show notes at irlpodcast.org.

And hey, there is so much extra goodness waiting for you in those show notes, including essays by some of the brightest people talking about online life. Right now for example, you can read a super powerful piece by Ingrid Burrington about what it’s like to just exchange emails with an inmate in a U.S. prison. It’s frankly shocking, it’s definitely enlightening. And you can read that essay right now at irlpodcast.org.

And to my real life friend Peter Rojas, thank you so much for joining us today it’s been a pleasure.

Peter Rojas: Oh, thank you so much.

Veronica Belmont: And I dare say an actual, like a real connection too.

Peter Rojas: Yeah. Thank you for having me on.

Veronica Belmont: I feel like most of you out there believe I’m a real person. Right? You can hear it in my ums, my voice patterns, all the bits of humanness that AI hasn’t figured out how to perfectly mimic. But would it surprise you to learn that I, Veronica Belmont, am often mistaken for a bot? For real.

Here’s the deal. At my day job, we use this chat software where clients can text us questions and when I write back there’s no Veronica voice. Right? I just become text on the screen. And so I spend a certain percentage of every day, every week just convincing people I’m a person and not some Veronica-esque algorithm.

Speaker 9: I feel alive.

Veronica Belmont: And let me say. There is a very special kind of blue a person feels when they have to convince people they’re human. You’ve probably heard of this idea of a hierarchy of needs right? - with water, food and shelter right there on the bottom. The thing is right on top of the basic survival stuff is our ability to belong to each other. To be authentically connected and that’s what we’re trying to get online now. That finer part of human bonding beyond just chat on a screen. All the empathy and compassion that we get when we’re face to face. Whether you’re swiping right or requesting a follow or chatting with a definitely human support worker, there’s always a temptation to dehumanize because of the screens between us. The next stage of online life is going to thrive though when we build interfaces that incorporate a sense of community, a sense of belonging to each other. No matter where we come from or who we are, it’s the work of our generation.

IRL is an original podcast from Mozilla, a not-for-profit that answers to internet users not shareholders. Mozilla, is the organization behind the Firefox browser. Break free from corporate control with a browser that’s now twice as fast and still more private. Download at mozilla.org. Firefox - fast for good.

Next time, an episode that digs into call out culture, public shaming, virtue signaling, social credit and all the ways we manage each other’s behavior online. And we’ll get some perspective on it from best selling author and radio host and podcast guru Jon Ronson.

I’m Veronica Belmont, I’ll see you online until we catch up again, IRL.

Andy: Veronica, Don’t you mean Jif?

Veronica Belmont: Yeah Jif is a Peanut Butter, Andy, it’s not Peanut butter. Animated GIF.