If you’ve ever set up an online dating profile only to be bombarded by creepers sending you inappropriate photos, or started exchanging text messages with someone you met on Tinder only to find they’re completely insane, then Ghostbot is a chatbot you’ll actually use.
Why this matters: Chatbots, which are smart assistants built into other apps that can handle tasks for you automatically, definitely sounded cool in theory. But then we saw their practical applications in Facebook Messenger this spring and were decidedly underwhelmed. Ghostbot is built on top of Burner, an app that lets you create anonymous, open phone numbers, and it’s restored my faith in the potential of chatbots. Not only is it hilarious, but it can also keep you safe.
How to date in the 21st century
Ghostbot, as you might guess from its name, is a bot that ghosts on your behalf. When you think about it, one of the more realistic uses cases for a chatbot is online dating. Who has time to respond to every message, especially the aggressive or creepy ones? And who wants to give their real phone number out to randoms on the internet? Ghostbot is taking advantage of Burner’s open phone number platform to turn your dating-specific burner number into an auto-responding text message line to scare off suitors who just don’t get the hint.
Once you turn on Ghostbot for a specific contact, the bot will respond to messages in a human-like amount of time. The bot recognizes specific categories of comments and has hundreds of prewritten responses to pull from. Ghostbot product designer Lauren Golembiewski told me the bot is designed to “de-escalate and not engage” in a situation. Most of the bot’s responses are noncommittal.
“As we were thinking about this broken culture of dating and texting, we noticed that women disproportionately recieve aggressive and inflammatory messages,” Golembiewski said. “If they respond or don’t respond, even if they try to be diplomatic or let it go, the guys on the other side escalate that situation. We wanted an option somewhere in the middle of not responding and actually trying to address the situation and let them offload that into a bot so they don’t have to think about it. So we created Ghostbot, which responds to a wide variety of messages. We primarily focused on a lot of the aggressive situations and created responses to those incoming texts.”
So how did Golembiewski and screenwriter Peter Miriani come up with hundreds of auto-responses to every potential dating conversation? They looked to the robust community of online daters, which includes popular social media commununities like @ByeFelipe (some content is NSFW). Bye Felipe is an Instagram account that posts screenshots people, usually women, submit of aggressive and unacceptable messages they receive. Account creator Alexandra Tweten beta-tested Ghostbot after running some sponsored posts from Burner on the account months back.
“I think it’s definitely more polite to tell the person why you don’t want to talk to them anymore, but people are afraid of confrontation,” Tweten told me. “Maybe [the bot] doesn’t tell them the specific reason why, but it vaguely lets them know you don’t want to continue talking to them. It’s another tool women or men can use.”
The bot stops responding if the other person’s language becomes too aggressive. If it becomes threatening, Ghostbot automatically blocks the person. Because they don’t have your real phone number, it feels like a barrier.
The bot doesn’t respond to photos, so if you receive a large number of unsolicited images—say, of genitalia—in your inbox, Ghostbot won’t make all that disappear.
The power of an open phone number
Ghostbot emerges from beta today. It doesn’t pass the Turing test, but that’s OK. It wasn’t meant to. The real mission behind Ghostbot is to show people what an open phone number is capable of. The platform launched Burner Connections last year to let developers build new functionality into a phone number, so you can do anything from forward texts to a Slack channel to automatically save photos and messages to a Dropbox account.
“There’s a lot of significant investment into the world of AI and machine learning,” Burner founder Greg Cohn told me. “Our idea is to plug that into our phone number simply. A lot of the bot discussions are people interacting with brands. In the model that we’ve developed around this, the bot is working on behalf of the consumer. It’s an agent-assisted human. The human is interacting with people they’re dating and they can hand off to the machine when they get tired. But it’s not just the dating context—there are lots of contexts in which this is interesting. I don’t anticipate us as Burner developing a library of bots ourselves, but enabling people to plug into Burner.”
You can keep a Burner number long-term if you want to, or you can delete the number and wipe its data at any time. Paying $5 a month for a premium subscription will give you a line with unlimited calls, texts, and photo messages. You can turn on Ghostbot for any contact on any line.