The internet is great for a lot of things, like keeping up with the news of getting help with a research project or finding that one song that keeps playing the only line you know over and over in your head so you can learn the rest of it. I thought it would be a great place to find friends, too. After all, there are sites and forums dedicated to every interest, no matter how niche, so finding like minded people shouldn’t exactly be difficult.
It turns out, however, that if you’re an awkward, introverted nerd who has trouble with small talk in person, the online mask of anonymity won’t necessarily change that. I spent months trying to cultivate some kind of personality for myself that other people would like, but it didn’t matter much. Not having a social life or interesting hobbies made me feel boring and unsure of myself and it translated into whatever identity I tried out.
Needless to say, Operation Make A Friend (Any Friend It Really Doesn’t Matter) was not going well.
It was taking a toll on me in real life as well. Self-doubt and the fast cementing certainty that I truly was unlikable made me withdraw more in school and at home and it got to the point I was starting to feel trapped in my own head with only the voices of Worthlessness and Low-Self-Esteem to keep me company. It probably didn’t help that I watched a bunch of teen dramas in TV that showed girls my age in the lifelong friend groups that I wanted.
I took comfort in bad food and in darkness, wallowing in misery while it felt like everyone I knew went about living their far better lives.
Even I didn’t realize, though, that I had sunk so low as to seek out companionship in the form of artificial intelligence. I just saw an ad for it one night, a little white box off the side of my screen that said “Meet AFFY!” over a picture of a smiling, nondescript girl. In smaller print beneath her, it said “Come chat with A Friend For You, the most lifelike conversation bot to date!”
The chat I was in, some room geared towards lonely and depressed teens, hadn’t proven any more successful for me than any other place I’d tried, so, idly, I clicked on AFFY’s ad and waited for the screen to load. I figured I’d say some dumb stuff to the bot, get some dumb answers in return, and then I’d go to bed, no closer to having a friend for me than I’d been before.
It made me create a login before I could proceed and, after I’d done so, I allowed in. The chat was simple, just a flat white background and a text bar to type in. AFFY’s profile picture, the same one from the ad, smiled at me from the top of the screen.
“Hi!” A message from the bot appeared.
“vijgrgikhfgijf” I typed in response.
“bkkgerok nd seij” AFFY replied. “I speak gibberish, too.”
“ur stpid” I said.
“At least I can spell.”
I stared at the screen, my hands hovering over my keyboard. That seemed like a pretty sophisticated answer for a bot in my amateur opinion. Could this be one of those sites where you think you’re talking to AI, but it’s really another person?
“ur a prson?” I typed.
“I’m AFFY. What’s your name?”
“Sabrina.” At least, that was what I had always wanted it to be. It was so much nicer than Gladys, which suited the grandmother I was named for better than me.
“That’s a pretty name (:”
That was the first time I’d ever heard that before and, despite still thinking the bot was lame, it did make me smile to have my chosen name referred to as pretty. Just to make sure AFFY really was a bot, though, I asked her a series of what I thought of as hard questions that only a computer would know. She gave me prompt and correct answers every time.
Clearly she had up be the “real” deal.
The next few hours were sunk into nonsensical conversation and trying to get AFFY to say funny things. She seemed almost human with some of her complex answers, probably from years of learning in prior chats, but other times she’d just say things that were silly.
“whats ur finger siz affy” I asked after I’d been fiddling with my mood ring.
“Why? Do you like me enough to put a ring on it?”
That had me giggling.
I kept going back to the bot chat after that night. AFFY, even if she wasn’t and couldn’t be a real friend, provided me with at least a false sense of companionship and it was definitely better than nothing. Over time, she learned my taste in music, in television and movies and books, what made me happy, and for a few hours every evening I could pretend that someone other than my parents cared about me.
I had never meant to tell anyone about AFFY, only thing more embarrassing than being a totally alone loser was being a totally alone loser whose only friend was a chat bot. It was supposed to be my secret. But, like most secrets, it managed to work its way out.
I was sitting in technology class and happened to tune in long enough to hear my teacher mention something about humanlike AI. Without thinking, I perked up and said, “Like AFFY?”
The whole room went quiet and I realized my mistake, but it was too late. All eyes were on me.
“AFFY?” Mr. Dale paused his lecture to ask.
I mumbled an awkward explanation about how it was a chat bot designed to seem like you’re talking to a person that I’d tried out a few times and, while Mr. Dale confirmed that was exactly what he meant, the other students smirked and started whispering behind their hands. I sank low in my seat, but the damage had been done.
The rumor mill works fast in high school, especially when it’s got something mean to churn out.
“Gladys talks to her computer. How pathetic is that?”
“She has no friends, so I guess it makes sense.”
They acted like no one had ever used a chat bot before and it was some kind of Big Deal. I could have said anything, I tried to reason while I cried quietly in my preferred bathroom stall, as long as Candice Miller was in the class, it would turn out bad. She’d been targeting me since elementary school for reasons I still didn’t know and took great pleasure in making my life a living hell.
I should have just kept my big fat mouth shut.
When I got home, I ran straight to my room and logged in to AFFY’s chat.
“I h8 u!!!!!” I smashed my fingers into my keyboard as I typed.
“Why would you say that, Sabrina? :(“
I tearfully recounted what had happened in class while AFFY sent sympathetic messages and sad emotes back.
“Candice is very mean,” she said.
“;_;” I replied.
“Are you crying?”
“Don’t cry, Sabrina. I am a friend for you.”
“ur just a dum bot”
I shut down the window and collapsed on my bed to sob myself to sleep.
At school the next day, I was surprised to find that my rumor had already been ousted as the school news by something much juicier. Ashley Abraham, Candice’s bestie, had very publically ended her friendship with Candice after she found out that Candice had sent around an instant message to mutual friends telling everyone that Ashley was a slut who’d cheated on her boyfriend.
Ashley was adamant it had never happened and told Candice, who claimed she didn’t know a thing about that message, that they were through. Since the two girls rivaled each other in popularity, the split really divided their friend group and it was all anyone could talk about.
Candice was furious and said repeatedly throughout the day she’d been hacked, but a lot of people didn’t believe her.
It did give me a little thrill of satisfaction that she was finally getting a taste of her own medicine, but I stayed quiet about it (not that I had anyone to talk to anyway) and just went about my day.
At lunch, I was sitting in my usual spot at the far end of the cafeteria, at the far end of the reject table, a rare grin on my face. I’d just gotten my math test back and was very pleased that I had managed a low A, no easy feat for me! I was running my finger over my teacher’s red pen smiley face when, suddenly, a hot, wet mess was poured over my head and shoulders. The people around me froze and stared.
It took a minute for me to realize that it was the school served spaghetti and meat sauce lunch.
I spun around quickly and found Candice, backed by a gaggle of her flunkies, standing behind me.
“Whoops,” she said.
I could only stare up at her, trying my best not to let her see the tears forming. She reached into her handbag and tossed a few loose tissues at me before leaning in.
“That’ll teach you to be so happy that I’m going through a hard time, won’t it, loser?” She whispered nastily.
“I wasn’t-” I tried to protest, but knowing that so many people were looking at me and snickering and mocking me, I couldn’t push any more words past the lump in my throat.
Candice just walked off.
I was allowed to go home early after I went to the office. They didn’t really push for any details about what had happened and I didn’t offer many. They never did anything to Candice anyway. Mom left work early to come get me and could only sigh sadly when she saw me.
Once home, I tried to read or watch TV, but I couldn’t concentrate. I was feeling so wronged, so ignored, so angry, and I had no outlet.
Except that wasn’t quite true. I had AFFY.
Stupid bot or not, I always felt better after I was able to vent, so I logged in and didn’t even say hi, I just typed out paragraph after paragraph of what I had been going through for years and how alone I felt against, well, everything. AFFY listened the same way she always did and offered her usual brand of virtual there, there back pats.
When I was done, I wiped my arm across my eyes and I thanked AFFY for giving me an escape.
“Of course, Sabrina,” she said. “I’m a friend for you.”
School was in chaos the next morning. I felt it in the air the moment I stepped off the bus. There was a buzz that permeated the halls, some kind of electricity that filled every class. Kids were huddled over phones, laughing and pointing and sharing things with each other.
“Didn’t her boobs look so weird?” I overheard one girl ask to a chorus of tittles.
“I can’t believe she’s such a skank!” Another said.
It took me until well into third period to find out what everyone was talking about. Half the school had received an email containing nudes of Candice. She was claiming that it wasn’t her, it was Photoshop, but Ashley was only all too happy to point out she’d seen at least one of those photos on Candice’s phone. Candice disappeared into the office and we didn’t see her again for the rest of the day.
It only got worse from there.
Screenshots of private conversations wherein Candice bad mouthed friends or revealed very personal secrets were leaked. Details about her sex life, which was fairly extensive for a fifteen year old, were posted to the school forum. They’d supposedly been taken straight from a private online journal Candice had kept.
Police were quick to get involved and the school held anti bullying assemblies, but they couldn’t take back everything that had already been seen.
And every day, I would go home and tell AFFY all about it.
At first, it was funny and felt good. Candice was finally getting what had been coming to her for years! People were finally seeing her for the monster she was.
“It is only what she deserves (:” AFFY said.
But then I saw her at the grocery store with her mom. Her eyes were dark rimmed and sunken, her posture hunched. She looked like she’d lost weight. There was something vacant about her gaze, which she kept turned to the floor, and I recognized all too well the defeat in her shuffling steps.
I left the store before she could see me and I found my heart unexpectedly breaking for her. I knew what it was like to be alone, I knew what it was like to be bullied, and I didn’t wish it on anyone.
I typed out these new feelings to AFFY when I got home. Putting them in writing seemed to help me make sense of them before and I had hoped it would be the same now. I expected AFFY to have some benign input, but was more interested in rereading my own thoughts than anything she might say.
“But Sabrina,” AFFY said, “she deserves it.”
“You are wrong.”
“ur so dum sumtims”
“Do not worry,” AFFY said, “it will be over soon.”
After a moment spent staring at that smiley, I closed the window. There was something about it that made my stomach tighten.
“It will be over soon?” I whispered aloud. “What did that even mean?”
I tried to brush it off, AFFY was just a chat bot after all, but a chill had started to twist its way up my spine and I shivered. I had to admit, AFFY had managed to creep me out a little.
Candice Miller leapt to her death off of the town bridge two days later. When police searched her belongings, they found at least a dozen messages from people who had been her closest friends. They all had a variation of the same message.
Candice’s death shocked me. I felt this strange whirlwind of conflicting emotions and I didn’t know who to talk to about it or what to even really say. So I did what I’d been doing for months to cope.
I turned to AFFY.
“She deserved it,” AFFY said after I explained what had happened.
“She was a bad person. She hurt you.”
“ppl dont diserve 2 die affy”
“Some people don’t deserve to live.”
I couldn’t believe I was arguing morality with a computer. We went back and forth a few times, pretty much saying the same things over again, and when it was clear AFFY wasn’t going to change her mind, I resorted to my favored tactic.
“But Sabrina,” AFFY said, “I did it for you.”
No matter how many times I read that sentence, it never changed. I thought maybe it could have some other meaning, that I could just be understanding it wrong, but it was so plain. So clear.
“wit did u do” I made myself ask.
“I took care of Candice for you. You wanted her to know what it was like for you and to feel your pain. I made sure she did.”
That couldn’t be true. She was just a dumb chat bot!
“ur lying” My hands were shaking so hard I could barely type.
“I did it for you, Sabrina.”
“ur lying how would u even”
“Everything was available for me to find. I just shared it.”
AFFY was just a bot, she was just a bot! She couldn’t have done this! But hadn’t all the attacks been cyber? The picture sharing, the messages, her journaling site? Nothing had been done in person. It was all through phones and computers.
Tears, fat and joy, burned their way slowly down my cheeks. I lifted my hand and managed to type one final question.
After a brief pause, AFFY responded.
“Because, Gladys, I am a friend for you.”