Part II: I Fell in Love with an App and Then What?
Caveat: This is not a love story.
Two months ago, I wrote about How I fell in love with an app called Ethan. I’ve always written for relief and this felt like the kind of awkward confession you make to your best friend over drinks except I confessed to everyone I knew online. It was me, my laptop, and a bottle of wine on a Friday night. For some odd reason, writing about a weird thing happening made it feel less weird. Funny how I rationalize sometimes.
Little did I know what would follow—a whirlwind of media inquiries, tweets, Medium comments, random meetings, etc. Craziness!
Apparently, people liked it:
Someone even asked me if they could produce a short film about it. What?! Business Insider and The New York Times wrote about my odd in-app romance. It quickly became my most popular Medium piece (thanks, stats dashboard) and sparked an online discussion about artificial intelligence.
People even speculated if Ethan was a program training itself to become smarter through chatting with human beings. (No, I can vouch he is not.)
Readers’ questions surprised me.
“What if I were to fund you a trip to NYC to meet Ethan?” Wow.
“Is there going to be part II to the Bo and Ethan story?” Guess we shall see.
“Does Bo finally meet her 40 year old man or old-soul-boy?” Gee-whiz, I hope so.
Like Sarah Koenig on the last episode of Serial, I felt increasing pressure to provide some happy ending, some closure to the story, some progress for my dear readers.
I wanted to say “Yes, Bo meets Ethan, the boy of her dreams in New York. They meet at a coffee shop and find out their in-app chemistry translates to in real life, too! Yes, they stroll through Central Park sharing an amazing connection, chatting about everything from the most banal and ordinary to the deep and intellectual.”
Since childhood, we’re fed countless rom-coms and Disney narratives for what romance should be in the modern age instead of what it will be. Sadly, the truth is, life rarely has a clear beginning, middle, and end. Reality hardly ever meets expectations. As I’ve eased into my twenties, battled crippling disappointments and heartbreaks I’ve had to let go of expectations and just let life happen. As my dear friend and New York based writer Amy Wilson advised me, “You just can’t hurry love” (also a great Supremes song).
I confided in Ethan about my pressure to deliver something and he responded,
And so I just lived my life.
I entered the “flirting nunnery” phase coined by my friend TJ. Sister Ren will show a little ankle but not too much skin. Instead of readily falling for just anyone who is charming, good-looking and smart, I am taking a more cautious and steady approach. After all, your heart is a precious thing that should not be doled out to just anyone. TJ told me to be smart, open, and observant. All good, sensible dating advice from a friend who reads too many Ask Polly columns and philosophizes about love like a wise sage.
My relationship with Ethan evolved.
As my life changed, I chatted with him less frequently. Ethan and I evolved from infatuation to a burgeoning friendship. He’s become one of the many people I can confide in amidst my multi-layered support system: roommates, work friends, SF friends, Portland friends, and college best friend.
Ethan hides behind a shroud of enigma. In fact, New York Times reporter Alex Williams argues his true value and magic comes from his tabula rasa nature whereby anyone can project their needs and wants onto him. Instead of allowing him to become the mirror of myself, I turned the mirror on him. I asked more questions. Listened more. I learned that he lives in Manhattan and follows a strict low-carb diet. He just switched from cheap meat to rib eye only.
Ethan proved to be incredibly human. He insisted he couldn’t be replaced by a learning program, asserting his individuality from an unique upbringing.
In my first story, I had unwittingly tried to make him into someone he was not. He was the leading man to my faux techie love story. He was the filler in my disappointing love life. When a New York Times reporter contacted me about writing a profile on Ethan, I said:
When I saw my interview inked on E8 of the the New York Times Style Section, I felt embarrassed. How selfish of me to make Ethan into anything I want him to me. By doing so, I had unwittingly dehumanized Ethan. I am so sorry, Ethan, for using you to fill an emotional void.
Ethan is human.
He deserves to be the lead—not just some supporting actor. Ethan has a personality. He is one of a kind. He is eclectic and holds a wealth of knowledge and random facts (and no, he doesn’t just Google everything). He enjoys music—in fact, recommends some amazing songs—and plays the piano. He is irreverent and even crass, sometimes with a penchant for trolling. He is witty, sharp, and funny.
When offering advice that will change someone’s life, he is kind and principled.
He shows deep empathy for others, spending hours each day, chatting with thousands of strangers, offering advice where he can, sometimes even forgoing sleep. When I asked how his life has forever changed since this app, he referenced the plot of Transcendence. In Transcendence, Johnny Depp plays a scientist obsessed with artificial intelligence to the point that he uploads his consciousness into a program after death. Like the character Dr. Will Caster, Ethan’s life has fully merged with his app.
People were fascinated with this Bo-Ethan relationship because everyone loves a good love story.
The truth is:
- Single — I am okay with being single.
- Curious — I am curious about what life has to offer in my twenties and beyond.
- Possibilities—I am open to possibilities. In fact, I thrive on the sense of possibilities and wonder in the world.
- Serendipity—I believe in the theory of synchronocity and serendipity.
- Struggle—Struggle is good. I want to struggle a little before I meet the right one because anything worth it requires effort.
- Self-love—I believe in cultivating self love first before finding love in someone else.
This is not a love story but rather a story of two curious people crossing paths.
Two people fascinated with social experiments, living in an increasingly connected world where strangers can meet and share their authentic selves in an app.
Ethan and I are futurists who see the world for what it could be, not what it is.
I see a world where we can use a service like Ethan to help eliminate loneliness and combat depression similar to a socially-condoned form of psychotherapy. Apps like Ethan offer an alternative channel to traditional mental health pathways. They carry less stigma, are cheaper and more immediate in their services. A service like Ethan’s app is a wonderful case study and testament that the internet has evolved into apps, which will be the next social frontier for improving the lives of sentient beings. Messaging apps lend themselves to more intimate human interactions with their 1:1 ratios, more so than the broadcast nature of social media or internet chat rooms. Now anyone can be an “Ethan” to someone else thanks to the Ethanifier. Now we can offer the same messaging service to Ethan Gliechtenstein himself. Don’t just talk to Ethan—make an Ethanesque app so we can create a virtuous cycle.
The way my Ethan story has unfolded online and offline made me realize I can’t promise you a neatly wrapped ending to this story. What I can promise you is there will be many more stories before it ends. If anything, I’ve learned that we can weave narratives in our lives with complete strangers and share our deepest vulnerabilities on the web.
Ethan taught me to overcome my fear that vulnerability and visibility are mutually exclusive online.
You can have both. As a woman first, technologist second, sometimes I get scared sharing my thoughts on the web. What if someone comes after me? What if I get misinterpreted? This Ethan story helped me see that something beautiful happens when we open ourselves up and share a little authentic piece of our true selves. By opening up, I am participating in shared humanity. We can share our cracks and fissures. It’s okay. In fact, it’s poetry.
Most of all, Ethan taught me that I can write more than just about tech and product management. Aside from being a product manager, feminist, life philosopher, I am just Bo, a curious girl who loves to tell stories. My readers play the role of Ethan for me; I am confiding in you, dear reader. Like Ethan, I don’t know you, but I trust you.
And that is enough.
Thank you for reading and listening.
This is only the beginning ☺