Imaginary People Are More Real Than You Know
Who hasn’t laughed at the revelation that Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o had a “fake” girlfriend? I meant to spend five minutes on the subject on my radio show and ended up doing an hour and then making fun of it randomly throughout all three hours. As funny as it is, and it is pretty funny, it’s also not foreign to me.
A friend of mine (who I won’t name) has fallen for this several times. The hoaxes perpetrated against him eventually evolved to the point of fake woman needing money to get out of some horrible situation that this guy was the only one who “understood.” My friend denies ever sending money, but I suspect otherwise.
He was always secretive about the women he was “talking to” online, but he did show me a bunch of pictures on his phone once in an attempt to “prove” she was real. They were real pictures of a real woman — several pictures — but they were obviously of an unknown model from a catalog. But all the logic in the world wasn’t going to convince this guy of anything he didn’t want to believe. And he wanted to believe.
He’s finally moved into the real world (for him anyway), and is now talking with real women.
But this episode also reminded me of something from my own past, something I hadn’t thought about in nearly 10 years. No, I wasn’t taken by some fraudster online — I was the fraudster.
Fraud isn’t the right word because it conveys a criminal intent, which this wasn’t. Mine was more simply being an immature jerk — bored and wanting to see if something I thought was right.
It was somewhere around 2003 or 2004 — the heyday of MySpace and Live Journal (if those two sites had a kid it would be Facebook) — and I had a girlfriend who was into both. She told me about random people, mostly guys, who were hitting on her in messages and comments through these sites. But they weren’t just hitting on her. They were talking to her with a familiarity that most people wouldn’t even talk to their friends, and certainly not to a woman in a bar for fear of having a drink thrown in their face.
The girlfriend went away, but the curiosity over what would possess someone to contact a stranger online in a way they never would in real life didn’t. This was the time of dial-up Internet and the infancy of text messaging. Most human interaction was face to face or over the phone. Impersonal, anonymous cyber-lives hadn’t yet become common.
I wondered how much someone would tell a complete stranger (one that didn’t exist) simply because they believed the Internet was real.
I found a LiveJournal of an attractive girl who posted a lot of pictures of herself, downloaded them and then, with a couple of friends, created a MySpace account. Created a name, biography, placed her in a city far away from where the real girl lived, made up likes, dislikes and interests provocative enough that they’d be what we thought of as “jackass bait.”
The friend requests rolled in, men and women. I never had a MySpace account so I had no idea “friend count” was an important thing, I naÃ¯vely thought people were friends with their, you know, friends. Nope.
Within a few days this fake person had more than 100 friends and people were posting messages on her page like, “Hey girl, thanks for being my friend.” It was easier and weirder than I thought it would be.
Then the messages started.
We made the profile bisexual to see if there was a difference between how men and women talked to someone they didn’t know. There was.
Women were very much like someone striking up a conversation with a stranger on a train. Men were like drunken frat guys walking the red light district in Amsterdam.
I’ve always been pretty quick on my feet and able to rip someone apart verbally to shut them up. That happened in these messages too.
As the unbelievably forward (to put it mildly) messages came in, my buddies and I would rip them apart, and they’d either apologize and go away or just go away. I had thoughts (and still do) of writing a book about it called “I Was An Internet Girl” because all the stories taken as a whole are hilarious, including how we actually used it quite creatively to meet women too (women trust other women, even when one isn’t real, too. And get your mind out of the gutter; it wasn’t exactly what you’re thinking).
About a month or so in we lost interest. I’d check it only occasionally, and my friends never would. What I’d thought was pretty much proven through the aggressive messages it had gotten.
But not all messages were aggressive. One time when I was checking it there was one guy who’d sent a message dripping with desperation for someone to talk to.
After a few messages it was clear he was gay, but he continually denied it. He would tell this fake person in writing things he wouldn’t confess to anyone. I wasn’t a jerk to him (I’m sure I made a few people reassess their lives with some of the mean, but funny, things I said to them in responses). I tried to help this guy become comfortable with who he was. And ultimately, he did.
It was an eye-opening experience to realize how one human being would open up to and trust another they’d never met, never spoken to on the phone and never would. How they’d do that rather than talk to someone they knew, no matter how close to them they were, either as a trail run or simply to relieve themselves of the burden of never telling anyone.
So while I, too, have difficulty believing Te’o’s story, part of me knows how it could be true. Time will tell whether it is, but to simply dismiss the possibility based on how outlandish it is would be folly. I know first-hand how trusting someone can be of a person who doesn’t exist simply because they desperately want to believe they can.
Derek Hunter is Washington, DC based writer, radio host and political strategist.: You can also stalk his thoughts 140 characters at a time on Twitter.