A website is letting fans around the world have one-on-one conversations with their favorite celebrities, icons and personalities. The only catch? The conversations are with a machine, not a person.
Character.ai, an artificial intelligence website created by two former Google engineers, Noam Shazeer and Daniel De Freitas, was made public last September. Since then, it has grown in popularity but experienced a boom this year, according to Google Trends. In recent days, the website has also generated buzz on Twitter, with an influx of users admitting to sinking hours into character.ai, almost forgetting that the personality they’re texting with isn’t real thanks to the AI’s seamlessness.
The website, which is free, offers a huge selection of characters, both real and fictional, for users to chat with — ranging from former President Donald Trump to the fictional Joel Miller character from the hit HBO series and video game “The Last of Us.” It offers tools like practicing how to interview or write a story. It also has an option called “help me make a decision.”
Among fan fiction lovers, the tool has been met with excitement. When the website, which is in beta mode, briefly went down for maintenance reasons this week, many vented on Twitter that they missed the platform. Some joked they were in the middle of important conversations.
Such enthusiasm is not surprising, according to some experts in "stan" culture, as the innovation allows for a new way for fans to engage with fandom.
"I think fans in general are looking for more and more ways to connect with their favorite personalities, especially online," said Denisha Kuhlor, founder of Stan, a platform on which fans can engage with one another. "Folks who, in the past, would have just been kind of viewers and played on the sidelines as more spectators, are now encouraged [to participate] whether it’s, you know, just dueting a video on TikTok or even commenting — I think [character.ai] it’s like that next iteration of folks contributing to creating content as well."
Its popularity also comes as artificial intelligence chatbots grow in popularity, with many attempting to replicate the success of AI software such as ChatGPT, an advanced chatbot prototype that became both popular, and problematic, last year. In January, an app called Historical Figures — which uses GPT-3 technology in an attempt to simulate the perspective of notable people — also went viral.
Character.ai uses its own, from-the-ground-up “deep learning models, including large language models,” according to its frequently-asked-questions page. It’s unclear if celebrities consent to their images being used, but there appear to be various user-created chatbots for many of the celebrities and characters on the site.
This type of platform allows people “to have more experience" in the fan fiction realm, said Kuhlor. She described character.ai as making the barrier to entry "a lot lower” for those who want to start writing fan fiction.
The parasocial relationships fans have with stars, to some degree, is crucial in the success of a platform like character.ai.
“Every technology that I can think of has been a vehicle for parasocial relationships, because humans were made to connect with others,” said Wendi Gardner, an associate professor of psychology at Northwestern University. “And so we do.”
On Character.ai, most of the bots are built by users from scratch. But Character.ai emphasizes that the interactions are not real. “The product is based on neural language models,” the site states in its FAQ. “A supercomputer reads huge amounts of text and learns to hallucinate what words might come next in any given situation.”
Every technology that I can think of has been a vehicle for parasocial relationships, because humans were made to connect with others
-Wendi Gardner, an associate professor of psychology at Northwestern University
That means that “characters make things up!” the website states. “So while they can be entertaining and useful in a lot of ways, they can also recommend a song that doesn’t exist or provide links to fake evidence to support their claims.”
Gardner said parasocial relationships are typically healthy — unless they start to affect real-world relationships. She encourages people with "big social appetites" to "have at it" on platforms like character.ai.
However, she noted, this type of platform "could become a problem" if people spend more time on it than "we could be spending with the real people that we’re connected to and care for us.”
Beyond using the platform as a stand-in for real relationships, Kuhlor pointed to another concern: that AI could be used by stans who want to go after a perceived enemy of their favorite star.
In a conflict where the internet feels forced to take sides, some passionate stans might use the machine learning behind a celebrity AI to make that AI say harmful things or behave poorly toward other users as a way to prove that person is “bad” or “wrong.”
“What makes fan and stan culture so great, in terms of how sophisticated they are, and how powerful they can be, is also, for me, what makes it a little scary,” Kuhlor said.
She suggested that some celebrities might become wary of these platforms in the future. While the AI “can probably do its best, it might not always reflect the real deal, especially when they have nuanced takes,” she said, referring to famous people.
A spokesperson for Character.ai did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Ultimately, the innovation will not substitute an actual interaction between a fan and their favorite celebrity or public figure, no matter how realistic the interactions on character.ai may seem.
"Characters are good at pretending to be real — that means imitating how humans talk," Character.ai even states on its website. "You are still talking to the character."