Web of Misleading Things

“The problem with Internet quotations is that many are not genuine.”
— Abraham Lincoln

“Kill all my demons and my angels might die too”
— Tennessee Williams

Actually that isn’t a Tennesse Williams quote. What he said was “If I got rid of my demons, I’d lose my angels.”

The line you see comes from writer/director Brad Anderson in his filmTranssiberian. Emily Mortimer’s character says it, dismissing her husband’s nagging over her smoking habit and other rebellious qualities. Anderson is clever for deliberately misquoting Williams. Why should this character recite the words accurately, as if reading from one of those famous quotation refrigerator magnets sold in the front of big box bookstores? Although the film was not a major release, enough people saw it that in the meantime some would add that quote to their Facebook profiles or blogs, attributing it not to Transibberian but the playwright who never said it that way. Now Google has 23,000 results for “Kill all my demons and my angels might die too.” Most of these pages attribute it to Williams, some spammy sites of “Inspiring quotations.” Only 735 of those pages mention the film that the words come from.

The guiding principle of life online is don’t believe everything you read. Set aside for now the important questions related to majority rule for news verification. What I’m interested in are renderings of the Apple “tablet” in the months leading up to Steve Jobs’ January 2010 keynote or the reports of Rep Gabrielle Gifford’s death on January 8, 2011 and other premature obituaries. This is fiction out in the ether that poor “curation” can easily pass along as fact. There’s too much reported — not to mention the splog scraped content — to even begin to append updates and corrections.

It only takes a google search to learn there’s no Neiman Marcus cookie or thatJeff Goldblum is still alive. But on the micro-level you can’t tell very easily. This distrust is especially interesting on social networks.

Remember the real reason for Friendster’s decline? It was the ban on “fakesters.” Friendster cracked down on user-created profiles for celebrities, places, and things, instead of embracing it as another slice of the bizarre in the spectacle of social networking. So people moved to Myspace, where non-person identities were encouraged. The site even provided space for bands and filmmakers to upload multimedia.

Now, everybody knew that’s not really Andy Warhol leaving testimonials on your page. But what about that person you know as tiny Twitter avatar? Robin Sageis a particularly interesting example (Quite a number of fictional online identities are in the image of attractive female hackers. I imagine this creates even more tension/skepticism toward women in these communities.)

And we’ve all heard stories about the lonely people inventing friends for themselves on Facebook. Seems like such a waste of time — first the fake email, then the fake account information, then a storytelling exercise interweaving “likes” and wall postings —but you can understand the impulse of the insecure and antisocially inclined.

The Economist reports that online dating sites sometime create fake profiles in house:

[U]nscrupulous site operators sometimes stuff their databases with fake profiles maintained either by their own staff or by people they have paid. These “ghosts”, in the industry’s jargon, are used to draw in new punters and to help keep existing ones hooked. Last year Jetplace, an Australian company, admitted that it had been running more than 1,300 false profiles on a matchmaking service that it owned. Dating-site bosses maintain that such instances are rare, but detecting them can be tricky.

More overtly, there’s John Appleseed and Caitlin Roran.

So long as social media participation requires no public records or birth certificates, we are free to use these services to reinvent ourselves, regardless of what Mark Zuckerberg says.

I am also reminded of a presentation at Rhizome’s Seven on Seven, an event pairing artists with technologists to invent something new “be it an application, social media, artwork, product, or whatever they imagined.” Kristin Lucas and Andrew Kortina created “Identity Swap” (also check out Lucas’ “Versionhood.”) The idea is framework for consensual lending of online personas. You can offer to take over someone’s identity for a set period of time. One incentive being, perhaps some of us suffer from personality overload and sometimes want to take a break. Lucas and Kortina proposed awarding high scores for great accuracy at pretending to be someone else. A major benefit is that of self-discovery: seeing how you are perceived by others. Do I really talk like that? Are those my known fascinations?

I love this idea and wish there were more opportunities to challenge fixed online identities, seeing as we are unlikely to revert to the world of screennames and aliases except in special cases.

The Tomorrow Museum
Jan. 16, 2011