This wasn’t Supposed to happen. In 2020, in a house surrounded by fields in the Irish countryside, Liam, 19, sat at his laptop, an energy drink fizzing at his elbow. He leaned in for a better look at the profile photo and, sure enough, saw the face of an old rugby friend looking back at him.
Just weeks earlier, Liam, whose name has been changed to protect his privacy, had been living in Waterford, in Southeast Ireland, about to start his second year at university. Then Covid-19 shut down the city and his university’s campus. On any Saturday on the main street, there were now more pigeons than people. Pubs and cafés shut their doors, and job opportunities dried up. “Money-wise it was worrying,” he says.
Increasingly concerned, Liam responded to a Facebook ad for a “freelance customer support representative,” working remotely for vDesk, a company based in Cyprus. He was invited to an online interview. At the end of the call, the interviewer asked how he would feel about moderating dating websites.
“I thought I might be moderating hateful content on Tinder, something like that,” he says, “they weren’t clear about the kind of work it would really be.”
It wasn’t long before he found out. Rather than moderating content, Liam was asked to adopt fake online personas—known as “virtuals”—in order to chat to customers, most of them men looking for relationships or casual sex. Using detailed profiles of customers and well-crafted virtuals, Liam was expected to lure people into paying, message by message, for conversations with fictional characters. This is how, while pretending to be Anna2001, he found himself staring at an old acquaintance. But, he thought, hands slack on the keyboard, he needed the money. So for the next two minutes, he played the role he was paid to.
Liam is one of hundreds of freelancers employed all over the world to animate fake profiles and chat with people who have signed up for dating and hookup sites. WIRED spoke to dozens of people working in the industry, people who had worked for months at a time at two of the companies involved in the creation of virtual profiles. vDesk didn’t respond to requests for comment. Often recruited into “customer support” or content moderation roles, they found themselves playing roles in sophisticated operations set up to tease subscription money from lonely hearts looking for connections online.
In a kitchen in Mexico, more than 8,000 kilometers away from Liam’s house in Ireland, Alice faced a similar dilemma. She circled her cursor in frustration over a profile of someone she knew from her hometown in France. His chat history had all of his personal details: his name, city, job, past marriages. His kids’ names and ages. For nearly two years, he had been talking to a virtual. He says he’s in love with her.
Alice—whose name has also been changed to protect her privacy—was next in line to inhabit that virtual. “I could tell him,” she thought, “and I really should.”
Like Liam, Alice had responded to a job ad for vDesk during the pandemic. The position was for a “freelance remote translator.” Alice, stuck in Mexico with no way to make rent and no way back to France, went for it.” I even sent them a long cover letter, detailing my skills in translating,” she says dryly, “how embarrassing.”