this is not what it should be It’s about to happen. In 2020, at a house surrounded by fields in the Irish countryside, 19-year-old Liam sits in front of his laptop, an energy drink fizzing at his elbow. He took a closer look at the profile picture, and sure enough, he saw the face of an old football friend looking back at him.
Just a few weeks ago, Liam, who used a pseudonym to protect his privacy, had been living in Waterford, in southeast Ireland, about to start his second year of university. Then Covid-19 shut down the city and his university campus. Now every Saturday, there are more pigeons on the street than people. Bars and cafes are closed and jobs dry up. “In terms of money, it’s worrisome,” he said.
Growing concerned, Liam responded to a Facebook ad for a “freelance customer support representative” who would work remotely for Cyprus-based company vDesk. He was invited for an online interview. At the end of the call, the interviewer asked him what he thought of managing a dating site.
“I think I might be curating hate content on Tinder and things like that,” he said. “They don’t really know what kind of job it is.”
It didn’t take him long to find out. Instead of moderating content, Liam was asked to assume fake online personas (called “personas”) to chat with clients, mostly men seeking romance or casual sex. Using detailed client profiles and elaborate avatars, Liam is expected to entice people to pay for conversations with fictional characters. Just like that, he pretended to be Anna2001, only to find himself staring at an old acquaintance. But, he thought, hands slack on the keyboard, he needed money. So for the next two minutes, he played the part he was paid to play.
Liam is one of hundreds of freelancers hired around the world to animate fake profiles and chat with people who sign up for dating and hookup sites. Wired interviewed dozens of people in the industry who worked for several months at two companies involved in creating the virtual profiles. vDesk did not respond to a request for comment. Often recruited for “customer support” or content moderation roles, they find themselves in the middle of complex operations designed to swindle subscription fees from lonely people looking for connections online.
in the kitchen In Mexico, more than 8,000 kilometers from Liam’s home in Ireland, Alice faces a similar dilemma. Frustrated, she circled the profile of someone she knew back home in France. His chat logs contain all his personal details: his name, city, job, past marriages. The names and ages of his children. For nearly two years, he has been talking to a virtual human being. He said he was in love with her.
Alice — whose name has also been changed to protect her privacy — is next to enter the virtual world. “I could tell him,” she thought, “I really should.”
Like Liam, Alice responded to vDesk’s job ads during the pandemic. This post is for “Freelance Remote Translator”. Alice is stuck in Mexico with no way to earn rent or get back to France, so she goes. “I even sent them a long cover letter detailing my translation skills,” she says dryly. “It was embarrassing.”