For a price, you can exchange text messages with somebody you’ve never met, and never will. Is it a rip-off, or a cure for loneliness?

When people talk about technology’s impact on social interaction, they usually focus on one of two extremes: technology is either allowing us to communicate more effectively, or fooling us with the illusion of intimacy (i.e. it’s all fake). But what if there’s a space where virtual communication surpasses the real and transcends the fake? What if, for some, it’s better?

I was recently trolling Twitter, because that’s where I get all my information, and I noticed that Alex Chance—a bouncy bit of sunshine in her mid-20s, who also happens to be a porn performer—had swapped out her regular avatar for an image with a heart around her face and “Dream Lover” written underneath. I decided to investigate.

Dream Lover is a for-pay texting and MMS service. Users browse Dream Lover for a lady they find alluring, exchange some tokens, and then start messaging up a storm. According to the company’s director Lauren Scherr, Dream Lover is a place for people to make friends and cybernetic companions. She emphasized that Dream Lover is not about hooking up IRL (“in real life”)—instead, it’s about providing people with a range of authentic human connections, virtually.

“In many ways, [Dream Lover] is also about personal wellness,” Lauren said. “There’s lots of loneliness in the world, sometimes people just need a friend.”

But a friend they’re willing to buy, or at least rent. Dream Lover is free to sign up, but there’s a monthly charge for the phone number, ranging from $4 to $77. And then you pay extra charges both to send and receive texts, up to $7 each, and up to $50 for MMSs. That’s a lot of money for the privilege of chatting about mundane daily life with a total stranger. Who in the world would actually do this?

I put the call out to my guy friends, asking if any of them would be willing to give Dream Lover a try. Ted, a small business owner in a small town, volunteered. Almost 24 hours after sending his first text (to a bona fide porn star), he had still gotten no reply. When he followed up, expressing his displeasure (which cost him more money), he received a message that said something akin to: “I’m sorry you feel that way, maybe I’ll see you at a convention sometime.” (An exchange which cost him even more money.)

“It’s a lot of money to pay just to get someone to text you,” Ted explained. “I get that there are guys out there who are willing to pay for even the slightest personal interaction, but for that to even work [the Dream Lovers] would have to message you back.”

I was now more than a little incredulous—and feeling extremely guilty that Ted had spent $100 for a totally bunk exchange—but it couldn’t all be like this, could it? I asked Alex about the guys who contact her—who are they, and what do they want?

“Honestly, most of them just want to chat,” she said. “Guys text me to ask how my day is going. One guy just asked me what’s my favorite Christmas present.”

Not a single guy has ever sent Alex a dick pic via Dream Lover, but she has texted about the weather with several.

“One guy who I’ve been talking to for about a month is this military county boy from Nowhereville, America,” Alex said. “He’s just a nice guy who likes to chat about random things, like how he and his friends do karaoke at [a local bar].”

Teyler (who I interviewed via text) is one of Alex’s Dream Lovers. He’s drawn to the service in part for the obvious reasons—”A pornstar,” he wrote, “is a fantasy for the regular population (non-pornstars)”—but also because he’s been underwhelmed by the other options. “The dating sites, where you can find someone local, get old.”

Real life, or even the possibility of real life, can get old?

“In my opinion, the girls on the dating sites seem to get a big head and get all high and mighty when they get so many messages from guys,” Teyler explained. “At least with my experience, Alex didn’t seem like that at all.”

“But you’re paying her to talk to you,” I responded. “Don’t you think she’d ‘seem’ like however you wanted her to?”

“I think paying for communication with these ladies is just the same as paying for dinner. I’m fine with paying to communicate with Alex. It’s kind of pricy, but I wanted to talk to her, so I did it.”

It seems that what Dream Lover provides—for some—is an intricate and contemporary piece of the girlfriend experience. Because your girlfriend could text you about the hideous traffic she’s stuck in, or she could text you about the new panties she just bought. Each of these exchanges provides an important dimension of companionship, all of which fall into some third dimension of communication—not actually real, but definitely not fake.

Guys are paying to have innocuous, harmless conversations with women via text, all under the auspices of getting a taste of those small, intimate girlfriend experience interactions. The question then remains: Is this bad?

Maybe, for some.

Ted definitely didn’t have a great time. But for many people out there, rather than furthering the dividing line between “real” face-to-face interactions and “fake” virtual ones, perhaps services like Dream Lover serve a positive purpose.

For some, this sort of social interaction might be a training ground, a place to practice when the rules are clearly defined and the stakes are not as high. For guys who aren’t the best at wooing the ladies linguistically, text services may provide an opportunity to refine their skills. It’s like a form of social trainer, akin to that guy you pay to supervise your workouts three times a week.

Technology can make us more alone, and it can make us more contrived. But it can also help us work towards being more connected, and those connections can come in ways that have nothing to do with meeting face-to-face.

Woman tucking cell phone into panties

pictured: how all ladies text, image via Men’s Health

Reprinted from (1/16/15)

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