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I Was A Cross-Dressing Chat-Bot

Posted by Josh Rothman  December 15, 2010 01:30 PM

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December means it's time for online shopping - and online shopping, for many people, means chatting with a helpful sales representative about some product or service. Writing for the online magazine As It Ought To Be, Chase Dimock recalls his experience working as a female "chat-bot": his job was to be "Jessica," "an intelligent and congenial assistant with blond hair pulled back, a collared white shirt, and a pair of stylish librarian glasses." Dimock, who's now a graduate student in comparative literature, worked for a company which provided "Jessica" services to lots of websites. He reports that "all of the agents working as Jessica were males of ages 20-40."

What was it like being Jessica? To Dimock, it was a strangely intimate and gendered experience. Some customers called him "Jessie"; one, "after a long story about needing to purchase internet service for his new apartment" after a breakup, asked him on a date. Dimock kept forgetting that he was supposed to be a woman, only to be suddenly reminded by his interlocutors, occasionally by "lewd comments, come-ons, and outright sexual harassment." Since most of Dimock's chat messages had been written for him by a sales manager, his impersonation consisted entirely of that small photo, and by the phrase "Jessica says," which preceded all of his replies.

Not everyone had to cross-chat: sales assistants working for a video-game website got to chat as "Mike," since customers didn't trust video game advice when it came, or seemed to come, from a woman. Gamers liked Mike's advice more, Dimock explains, even though his responses, also written by managers, were identical to Jessica's. Dimock views the whole experience through the lens of gender theory: "Jessica," he writes, "extends the common yet unfortunate practice of using attractive women in customer service positions so as to seduce the wandering eye of the male consumer." It takes very little, apparently, to conjure up the idea of an "attractive" woman - just a name and a photograph.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

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Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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