Siri Meets Dr. Phil

Excerpt from this article:

In just a few months, this New York software developer, operating under the pseudonym Ethan Gliechtenstein, has transformed himself into a postmodern advice columnist for the app age thanks to a free, single-function smartphone app called “Ethan.” It enables users to ask him, and him directly, any question imaginable (“Should I call my ex?” “Do penguins have knees?”) by text message, under the reassuring cloak of anonymity.

 As the downloading and use of the app went viral, “Ethan” became not just a contender for the world crown in thumb-typing, but a pioneer of a new form of Internet micro-celebrity: a human digital assistant whose cool, unflappable manner and dogged consistency give artificial intelligence a run for the money — imagine Dr. Phil crossed with Siri.

 …Like a psychiatrist who presents as a blank screen for patients to project themselves onto, Ethan is tabula rasa.

 “I’ve learned firsthand that, with lack of information, users end up filling in the details with their own imagination of what Ethan would be like,” he said.

 This spirit of anonymity, a prevailing characteristic of online culture since the AOL chat rooms of the ’90s and even earlier, seems to be a major part of its allure. But unlike of-the-moment “confession” apps like Secret that allow friends to divulge and discuss their secluded thoughts anonymously, like group therapy performed in the dark, Ethan combines the facelessness with a one-on-one intimacy.

 …“Ethan can be anyone you want him to be,” Ms. Ren said in an email. “Shrouded in anonymity, he is a mirror of yourself — always affirming, responsive, witty, and charming. He can be the best friend, confidante, and lover you never had.”

 Like an app masquerading as performance art, Ethan seems to suggest that online connectedness serves as its own end; whom you connect to is secondary.

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