January 06, 2024

Who Do You Think We Are?

As the debunking continues--fake websites archived, ip address tracked (from within the Star Tribune), fake photos identified--some of us have been feeling a bit betrayed. While not many of us have admitted to extended conversations via email with mesouthern's made-up persona, it's obvious that there was a kind of communication involved between whoever performed those identities and the true, genuine individuals who visited his blog. Now, those histories feel tainted to some people, perfumed with malice. For those who communicated forthrightly and honestly, they're left with a feeling of betrayal at mesouthern's 404 Not Found.

On the one hand, isn't that what you get for allowing yourself to form a connection with an entity that can be so easily faked? I'm amazed at some of the comments that appear from time to time on blogs such as my friend Aaron's. These are people who have never met Aaron in person (luckily, Iíve actually seen him frolic in an astronaut costume made out of Fedex paks, so yes, heís real), and yet they share in the carefully constructed narrative of his life that is his blog and trade with him their emotions via typed comments to his post, comments that in my opinion often resemble a vacuous form of witnessing. Aaron's writing moves people--at least, his visitors want us to believe that they are moved by his writing. At times, the emotions expressed require very little effort. It's the declaration that's important. Itís not a circuit that has formed but two looping tracks, pointing back toward the self. Bloggers arenít speaking to their readers, theyíre speaking to a conception of themselves. And readers arenít speaking to bloggers, theyíre reassuring themselves of their place within an imagined community.

I don't mean this as an indictment of those who claim to form connections with bloggers. I find it fascinating the way easily manipulated rows of pixels engender true emotion (if emotion feels true, isn't it true?). Deceitful misrepresentations bring about genuine feelings. Just like some of my past (real-life) relationships!

And these are true feelings. I've been thinking back to a very old article, now seminal, included on cultural studies reading lists and in cyberspace readers, on how virtual actions in cyberspace bring about real feelings in participants. Julian Dibbel's A Rape in Cyberspace tells the story of an online fantasy world in which one character raped another. This absurd virtual rape, represented not in images but in words, nonetheless caused trauma among certain participants.

Those of us who came of age online, who formed their first connections with other gay men via IRC or AOL's gay chat rooms, know that it is possible to form genuine connections with people who, for a time, exist only as words on your computer screen. I met my first boyfriend on a local BBS. Years later, he informed me he had instituted proceedings to emigrate to Australia to be with an online boyfriend he had never met, but had fallen in love with through words. Whether or not his decision was rational (he never actually went through with it), I canít deny that the online relationship had a strong affect on him. Often, these online relationships need to move quickly into the physical realm in order to have a chance at sustaining themselves, though sometimes they donít. I ďmetĒ Glen online, salaciously, I might add. We corresponded for a year before our first phone call. That long exchange of emails sustained one of the most fulfilling relationships Iíve been fortunate to have, at least until we had a chance to meet in person. But how many great conversations have I had with folks on gay.com (well, hardly enough to count on one hand, but there have been some!) that have gone no further than that initial conversation? How many fake monikers have I found attractive?

In his very first post (archived at and I am somebody..., mesouthern writes,

hi there. i'm from the south. i now live in the north. i'm with a boyfriend that i don't really like. we get a long fine, most of the time. he just annoys me. i don't really like to be around him, but i love him. i'm crazy confused about life. i'm not a fan of the snow or the cold, but i'm in minnesota. i'm gay and happy. i don't believe people who say being gay is a sin. i don't care what people say about my choices in life. believe me i've made tons of mistakes. i'm jewish and don't wish to be converted. i have slept with more men than i've dated. i've had my heart broken tons of times. i've been knocked down and survived. i'm not sure why i'm willing to air my life in a blog. i guess i'm just self centered. more to come...

Self-centered indeed, but arenít all bloggers? Isn't that what blogging celebrates, sometimes at the expense of your readers, who expect you to be a certain way (i.e.: genuine)? Whether what you publish is a daily collection of pertinent links or a intimate account of your sex life, youíre focused on how these represent your life, not on whether some anonymous reader out there will find it interesting. When IRC was popular, the #gayminnesota channel would hold real-life events at the 19 Bar so that people could meet each other for real. Gay.com is all about falicitating a real-life hookup. But bloggers donít seem to be that interested in meeting other bloggers, or their fans.

Mesouthernís most commented-on posts had to do with his HIV status. If anything touched a psychic nerve among the gay men who visited his blog, it was his discussions of HIV. People wrote in saying that they had just found out they were poz and that his words had been an inspiration. One person wrote in saying he had been thinking about mesouthern earlier that day, fascinating evidence of a fiction replicating itself offline, among the everyday lives of its readers.

Now that we know it was a fake, this aspect of his blog has caused some resentment. Why couldnít he have just made up stories about tweaking and fucking and made us all laugh (of course, he did that too). The resentment is understandable. Take for instance the comments on Aaronís blog from Johnny, who writes on johnsdreams:

i am sort of blown away by this. i dont see how someone could make all that up? ALL that? mesouthern's blog pulled on my heartstrings. he echoed a lot of what i pften feel (much more fluidly too) s someone struggling with this hiv shit. now his blog is just gone? and everyone is convinced its a big hoax? i just dont get it. at all.

i'm sort of tempted to shut down my blog. i feel totally betrayed if what you say is true. it's a piece of crap anyway. i don't have talent like aaron here, who expresses himself so beautifully.

i hope you are wrong. :(

As someone who was able to commiserate with mesouthern on that ďhiv shit,Ē he understandably feels dupedóitís pretty fucking cruel to pretend you have HIV when others donít have that luxury. What I wonder is does it really matter in this day and age whether or not what provided your momentary sense of community was real or not?

Mesouthernís images seduced. He did not poach photos of ugly guys to construct his persona. Though they didnít match up, that didnít really matter for those who noticed; they visited anyway. Is there a commonality to those fake photos? On what criteria do we choose our masks?

To salvage something from the moment, I ask, how fake can these websites really be? Donít you get the feeling that something real, however ungraspable, is lurking behind the fiction? Our online personas canít help but be somewhat schizophrenic extensions of our self. Even when we fake itópretend to be the opposite gender, assume someone elseís photos as our own, pretend we have HIV, weíre nonetheless providing shape and color to some internal impulse, revealing something of ourselves that could only be represented in symbolic form. Though he lies, truths can't help but come through. The sum of the banalities he posted (I'm dating someone I don't love / my T cells are down / I love smoothies / I'm dating a bi boy / I like running around Lake Calhoun) creates a metanarrative on gay life.

Including Michelle Bachmannís son in this and characterizing him as gay was a brilliant suicide for the triumvirate of blogs that the fakester orchestrated. That the gay boy was the son of an anti-gay legislator, that the whole thing ended on the first day the legislature convened, and that a real boyís identity was co-opted with such shameless veracity, is to be applauded. If only we all could be so bold. It was the most fascinating short story Iíve read in a year.

Posted by jason at January 6, 2024 08:02 AM
Comments

Nice thoughts, Jason. I've been thinking about the same thing. How can we become so attached and put so much trust in a person we know only through their writing -- who may not even be the person they say they are?

From the standpoint of a public relations "professional," I have to think of blogs as little brands, just as Nike is a brand or Apple is a brand. J built a brand as an HIV positive, young, gay, attractive man. People who connected with that brand came to trust him, just like I trust that Apple will provide cutting edge, cool technology that will interest me. But a brand is a fictitious, conjured identity crafted by writing, design and well-planned marketing messages. And so it is with a blog. The difference is that people know company brands are crafted to sell things. They don't realize that blogs are crafted to sell certain images, as well. Without that level of separation -- that critical filter -- it leaves people hurt when the brand collapses.

The helloaaron.com brand could be defined as easily as the Volkswagen brand could be defined, though I'm not sure I would want to see that memo. I try to make the blog reflect who I actually am, but it is just that -- only a dirty reflection, and only of part of me. There are many aspects of my personality and experiences that aren't included (in no small part because my mom reads it!). But people come to associate my blog with a living, breathing human being who happens to be named Aaron. And they come to connect and trust in that person. It's a strange thought. I think blogs will eventually become less like friends you call on the phone everyday and more like network TV reporters -- you may listen to them, but you never really trust them.

Posted by: Aaron at January 6, 2024 01:40 PM

First, I wouldn't conclude that these things are complete hoaxes just yet.

Second, you're right in pointing out that a lot of people become too wrapped up in these things. Just like some people get involved in soap operas, television series, the lives of celebrities...we all have a need to "belong" to something, to be a part of a community.

For a lot of people, sharing concern over being HIV positive gives them a sense of relief. The same, to some extent, is leading to the mass outpouring of support for the countries affected by the tsunami last week. Why are people donating? Well, because they feel for the victims, surely, but because they then become a part of a movement.

See also: the yellow "Livestrong" wristbands. I'm not so uncouth to think that these efforts to support are devoid of philanthropic intentions, but when these same people pass up more obvious and more helpful opportunities to help common man I can't help but wonder if this "become a part of a movement" or "look how much I care" phenomenon is not in play.

Bottom line: there's no standard of proof on the internet. Matt Drudge could pull something out of thin air and the rest of us could talk about it for days, possibly ruining lives. Therein lies the danger of the internet. Proceed with caution.

Posted by: Dunner at January 6, 2024 03:48 PM

We are all so very desperate.

I guess what shocks me is that people are shocked. Online (mis)representation is as old as the internet itself. If you're looking for something "genuine," I suggest you get up from behind the computer screen. The idea of a true identity on the internet is a silly as the idea of a "true self" in real life. Electronic interaction is fun and offers the potential for new forms of interpersonal connection, but we are foolish to think it will or should follow any specific cultural mores of face-to-face social interaction.

I didn't follow any of these characters until they popped up on Jason's blog (one of the very few I read on a regular basis) so I never had a chance to develop a "relationship" with them. Maybe I'd think differently if that were the case, but I don't think so.

If this teaches me anything it is that people want to believe. At first, I was disturbed by Aaron's PR speak (kneejerk reaction), but after thinking about it, it may be appropriate. Emotional gratification is a commodity, too, and what a lot of buyers there were. It only takes a little bit of imagination and you're in business, and the market is very hot right now. Sell, sell, sell!

And weren't there other forms of pleasure that you're not examining? Like a group of misfit fags getting together to play Nancy Drew. That was fun!

But yeah, authenticity is dead.

Posted by: Brian at January 6, 2024 04:08 PM

On the contrary, I believe authenticity is making a comeback; or is back.

I think that is why there was such an explosion in the number of bloggers this past year. I think people blog because everyone inherently wants to be understood and explain themselves. I look at blogging (amongst many other things releated to technology that I won't get into now) as the return of the original voice. That's why when blogger(s) that were thought to be authentic turn out to be so thoroughly fake as in J and STB's case, it catches people off guard. Fake is the exception, not the rule.

I also believe authenticity has the single biggest reason why Bush was re-elected. Agree with him or not, he comes off authentic and you really believe he believes what he's saying (for the most part). Whereas the biggest thing the alternatives lacked was any sense of authenticity.

In other aspects as well: the popularity of reality television, the popularity of hip hop, and on and on.

So I believe that authenticity is rightfully being brought back to the forefront of almost every aspect of our society. And the Internets have a lot to do with that.

Posted by: Mighty at January 6, 2024 05:21 PM

to paraphrase the old Hollywood advice: authenticity is the essential thing, and once you can fake that, you've got it made. . . .

Posted by: glen at January 6, 2024 08:26 PM

Gosh, you seem to know how to elicit the loquacious commenters. Well said, what you said. And but, I'm just sad that we lost so many Minneapolis bloggers all at once.

Posted by: Robt. at January 7, 2024 05:36 AM

we're less like nancy drew, more like the boxcar children

Posted by: jason at January 7, 2024 07:43 AM

Holy crap. The Boxcar Children.

Posted by: Mighty at January 7, 2024 09:01 AM

i should really re-read the comments i write before i send them. my quote is full of typos.

i just got back from mesouthern's site now: he claims he is who he has claimed to be all along. i'm not sure what to believe. i don't know what the real story is and like most things, probably never will.

Posted by: johnny at January 10, 2024 04:43 PM

I went to high school with the real Lucas Bachmann. After reading through "his" blog and the others concerning this topic, I can't really say for certain whether this was him or not. I haven't had much contact with Lucas since we graduated.

*Though I know he went to the U of M, he should have been done by now, having used the PSEO program his senior year in high school. (that U of M e-mail address no longer works, btw) he quite possibly could have moved on to Saint Thomas for some post-graduate work.

*As of last fall, Lucas would not have been 20 years old. I am 22, and was nearly the youngest in my high school class. Lucas WAS one of the youngest in our class, but not by two years. I'm pretty sure Lucas would have been 21 when all this drama went down.

*The details of STB's first post ("hi" on meshouthern's blog) are quite on-par with how i knew him. especially the liking pizza, wanting to become a youth pastor, being a jokester (the real Lucas DEFITNITELY was/is that!), and being athletic but totally unable to throw a basketball.

*Then there's the post where he berates himself, the one right before his last on the Saint Thomas Boy blog. To me, that's classic Lucas. The writing may seem contrived, but in high school, especially my uber-conservative private high school, few dared to be "real", and NO ONE was out.

*NONE, absolutely NONE, of the pictures are of Lucas. It may have been a few years, but I KNOW what he looks like. (I had a bit of a crush on him in high school) However, the descriptions of him certainly could have been accurate. In high school, though, he was a tall, darker brown-haired, skinnier guy. He certainly worked out (always wanted to bulk up, never seemed to while he was there.) Intense eyes, VERY opinionated (and also definitely Republican). Never really that involved with the ladies.

Just my two-cents on the whole thing. I'm starting to doubt the authenticity of the whole thing, being as I'm sure the press would have loved this and found out about it by now.

Posted by: Johan at March 11, 2024 09:24 AM