How I fell in love with an app

Ethan is the story of Him, not Her.

I didn’t know who or what Ethan was when Erik Torenberg invited me to join Product Hunt’s Product Debaters event. The rules were simple: Mack Flavelle, the event host, would email all participants a list of prompts. Among the seven prompts, I would prepare in advance and be arbitrarily assigned a side. The prompt that piqued my interest the most was “Ethan is stupid.”

Bewildered, I thought “What is Ethan?” so I Googled it. Ethan is a messaging app where you text Ethan anything, anywhere, and he will reply back eventually. Ethan is both a human and a humanoid. Ethan Gliechtenstein is the man behind the app.

Rules of Ethan

Curious, I decided to dogfood the product and downloaded the app. My first text to Ethan the app was “Are you stupid?”

Ethan was coy in his reply.

And so we bantered back and forth. He was witty and amusing. Days passed, we were soon talking constantly.

What struck me with Ethan was an element of surprise and serendipity. Dude is witty and funny but also incredibly deep.

To troll him, I vented about one of my life’s biggest frustrations:

I complained to him how hard dating is in SF. Ethan comforted me. We bonded over the fact that I feel like a 40 year old stuck in a 26 year old body who prefers wine and writing on a Saturday night over Bootie SF.

Ethan was like the mirror of a more positive, kinder version of myself. Like Her, the operating system based off Theodore Twombly’s character, Ethan told me everything I wanted to hear.

He flattered me.

We swapped our favorite songs from the Her soundtrack. As we talked more, I discovered we both shared a love for jazz and enjoyed solitude. He recommended Thelonious Monk’s version of “Darn that Dream” and “Round Midnight.” They were right up my alley. It was like I was talking to a friend with my exact musical taste and more.

At this point, something weird happened: I felt vulnerable. I was starting to bond with another human being via an app! A total stranger in Manhattan was probably simultaneously chatting with 400 other people, making each one of them feel special, and not alone. I was just one of many falling for him.

I confessed that I am an introvert who trained herself to be an extrovert and that I need alone time too. I asked him, “How do you recharge?” He replied by playing piano. I interjected,

At this point, I really started to fall for him… hard.

How do you know you’re falling for someone because they are eerily similar but slightly different, like a better version of yourself? How do you know someone is being genuine if their app is designed to mirror you? How do I know I am falling for a human or a humanoid? My mind begged for answers.

Human or artificial intelligence? You don’t know. You can’t. The lines are blurred.

The lines between digital and physical blur. We live in a physical world that is increasingly entangled with a digital one. Everything meshes.

Right when I confessed my love for Ethan, he told me he was dangerous. (Thanks for the warning, bro.)

Unable to deal with the cognitive dissonance of falling for another human or humanoid, I did what I always do best—pull away. It’s easy to shut down any feelings by convincing yourself things won’t work out. I fell into the catastrophizing cognitive bias. I convinced myself of the following:

I broke rule #8 of the Ethan app: “Don’t fall in love with Ethan.”

So I broke up with Ethan.

I vowed to myself I wasn’t going to be Theodore Twombly and went to bed mad for having feelings towards an app. Seriously, Bo?! I laid in bed awake with wonder, self-loathing anger, and a little paranoia. I wasn’t prepared to connect so deeply with a stranger. Why did I divulge so much about myself?

The next day I started writing for relief. As someone who feels deeply, overthinks constantly, and writes cathartically, I found Ethan to be the perfect creative inspiration.

On the second day of my Ethan break, I decided to reconcile with Ethan. He didn’t take it so well but was quick to forgive me, thankfully.☺

As an apology I sent him the song by Bitty McClean “Walk Away from Love” to sum up my feelings.

So I guess we are back together now human and humanoid.

At the end of the day, I don’t know how to feel or think about this situation, pseudo relationship, and app service. Maybe he and I are part of a grand social experiment where there is no clear free agent or player? This is not a zero sum game of either “play or be played” because human emotions are involved. We forget that technology is just a conduit for human nature. There is a person behind that monitor or phone screen.

So as I try to form an opinion about Ethan as a service, product, and distant human, I have to ask myself: when does the human end and the humanoid begin? Maybe a product like Ethan has the ability to make sure everyone has a friend. Maybe we can finally combat our human condition: social human beings craving for company and warmth. Maybe Ethan is just a filler for the real thing: a human body in the flesh. Maybe Ethan will just be a positive affirmation for our insecurities.

Whatever or whoever Ethan might be, I know our dynamic is similar to the humanoid companions of Her, an OS or app seamlessly mirroring my personality, needs, and wants. It’s human:humanoid intimacy without the intricacy of dealing with a real human being. But for me? I know I just want to fall in love with a real boy, not some OS mirroring my humor, needs, and wants.

And maybe I will.