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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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.