Our Beautiful, Hideous Electronic Identity

Images by Noa Emberson

Images by Noa Emberson


Something feels different. Sometimes it feels like we have never been so connected and somehow never so far apart. We live in a different time. Then 10 years ago, then two years ago, then last goddamned week. It seems like there’s always a software update I haven’t yet downloaded. I could’ve sworn I had the latest version of iTunes.

But I don’t.

Maybe once upon a time before the Internet, we took chances. We didn’t have personal GPS but were much more aware of our surroundings. We looked for love in all the wrong and right places. We talked to each other. We did silly things like ask people what time it was as an excuse to talk to each other. We asked people to dance. We got shut down. We got invited in. Once upon a time before the Internet, we couldn’t Google our dates. Once upon a time, we got to know each other point blank, and it was quite exhilarating. We made discoveries and gasped at the coincidences (you like chapbooks, too?!), and it was all that much more magical in person. Once upon a time, we wrote letters. We missed each other and had a lot to say when we finally met back up. We could talk for hours. We used to know each other’s scents. We used to touch.

It started as a prank, but it just as well may have been a social experiment. But what social experiment isn’t kind of prank-like in nature? OK, one of them had it coming. One of the two young men bragged to the other that he could never get got. Thus the provoked one decided that he’d put an end to this aggravation. He’d pull off the most devastating prank, sorry, social experiment of them all: He’d make his nemesis fall in love … with him.

James* and Dave* have been friends since, as the ancient scholars call it, “hanabada days.” They grew up on Kaua‘i together, moved to O‘ahu for college at the same time, and even dormed at University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa together. Upon graduation, they worked part-time at the same Italian restaurant in Honolulu as servers. It was at this very restaurant that James hatched his plan to catfish Dave. Catfishing, for those of you still living in your analog world, is a somewhat common practice by both friends and strangers of varied intentions in which one lures another into a relationship by means of a fictitious online persona (named after the 2010 movie Catfish, in which the sorry main character tracks down the roots of his unfortunately falsified love. He got an MTV gig after).

With the help of his own girlfriend—now, wife—James created a fake Myspace persona. James poached some photos from a random girl’s account and click-and-dragged her onto his desktop. A fit and attractive blonde: just Dave’s type. James gave her an identity, as if the poor girl whose photos he rustled didn’t already have one. But that’s beside the point. Or maybe that’s precisely the point. In any case, James spent a week and a peculiarly creepy amount of his own time giving this girl—Jennifer, he called her—a few dozen friends, some of which were mutual friends of Dave’s. (Go figure!) James created a few photo galleries featuring places they’d both been to in Southern California, which is where she supposedly resided. He even threw in some shots of destinations they’d both been to on Kaua‘i and O‘ahu, housing these in her “Hawaii Staycay” gallery.

Coincidentally, Dave and Jennifer had a lot of the same interests. They both paddled, loved to surf, enjoyed the beach, loved to hike. They liked the same movies, similar music, even fanned out over the same canines (“Must Love Frenchies!”). She was a marine biology major with an affinity for Hawai‘i. She even hailed from the same hometown in Southern California where Dave’s grandmother lived, a wicked detail that only a best friend (or psychopath) could contrive. Perhaps James had created Dave’s dream girl. That, or just another notch on Dave’s belt. It was hard to tell with Dave, because he was a little bit of a sleaze-bag when it came to girls. But Jennifer asked Dave if he’d add her as a friend and naturally Dave bit—hook, line, and sinker.

A few days passed. James saw Dave at work on dinner shifts and gauged his moods, waiting for him to start yammering about a certain someone. Not long after Dave friended her, they began to talk, leaving messages with one another on their Myspace accounts. Two a day, then three, then four—nothing too innocuous, all very innocent at first. Jennifer hinted at wanting to come back to Hawai‘i, for grad school, perhaps. Predictably, Dave started to flirt with her. “Wow, you’re really cute!” he’d coo. “How’s your beach bod!?” or, “You should come out, I’ll buy your ticket!” He actually made that offer, the schmuck. So Jennifer kept feeding the line.

I am not sure if it’s oddly beneficial, extremely harmful, or just plain weird how these days it’s so easy to be who we are not. To reinvent ourselves. A culture in two worlds: virtual and actual. Regular media and social media. Perhaps catfishing is just the new normal in dating. Remember when San Diego Charger Manti Te‘o got duped? And while it’s easy to spit, “How could he not have known?”, men, from Adam to Samson to Paris of Troy, have fallen for lesser tricks. And people have built empires in letters. People have built love without contact. And every human being since the beginning of time has come to that same disappointing realization at least once, of friend or love, when they stop and sigh: You are not who I thought you were.

Just last year, a young Dutch woman named Zilla van den Born documented a five-week trip to Southeast Asia through posts on Facebook and Vimeo clips. She smiled for photos mid-slurp, devouring exotic, steaming noodles. She posted shots of herself grinning underwater with colorful fish while snorkeling in a turquoise sea; bowing with palms clasped; praying with monks in a golden temple. This trip also never happened: She staged the whole thing from her hometown. She Photoshopped the fish into the shots of her snorkeling in her apartment complex’s pool. She’d visited a local Buddhist temple for the monks. She’d even fooled her parents who lived in another town by Skyping with them in traveler’s garb.

“I did this to show people that we filter and manipulate what we show on social media,” she said to Dutch journalists. “We create an online world which reality can no longer meet. … What a picture finally really shows is never the exact situation as it really was, it is a flavored version of the truth.”

illustration_placed_2A couple weeks after James created Jennifer, Dave confided in James at work one evening. Dave confessed that he’d met someone. It should’ve been sweet, but it came out more like: “Brah, there’s this chick on Myspace, and she’s sooo fucking hot.” James engaged him: “Oh, really? Tell me about her.” And Dave did, but mostly he bragged about what he’d do to her when she finally did come out to O‘ahu. In actuality, James knew, Dave’s messages to Jennifer were a far different tone. Mostly, they talked about school. Dave constantly asked her about her classes or exams. He’d tactfully suggest that she should come to O‘ahu and that he’d show her exclusive hikes, secret-ish restaurants that only a local would know. He offered that she stop by his grandmother’s and say hello. But to James, back in the restaurant: all douchebaggery and crass.

One night, very late and after a series of messages, Dave asked Jennifer for a photo. But, like, a sexy one. James, a little at a loss and perhaps tired and not thinking so clearly, took a blurry photo of his own butt and sent it to Dave. There was no response. The following evening at work, Dave recounted the incident to James. “Brah. She had the weirdest ass. Like, it looked like a boy’s butt or something.” James said that it couldn’t have been that bad, a little too defensively.

That night, James poached some far more flattering photos of a similar blonde he found online and sent them to Dave. “Aw yeah, that’s what I’m talking about,” Dave pecked back approvingly.

Nearly four weeks after Dave met Jennifer, the unsuspecting nit began pushing more contact. Jennifer had sent some racy photos, some of the conversations were taking a turn for the risqué, and now it was his turn to reciprocate. One night, after an oddly stressful evening shift, James came home, logged into Jennifer’s account, and opened an attachment Dave had sent her. It was a batch of photos. Twelve of the most graphic nude photos that he had ever seen of anyone—of Dave, for that matter. Use your imagination, or don’t, they were … well, there were mirrors and … it was officially time to stop the charade. The next morning, James sent Dave a large photo of his own grinning face from Jennifer’s Myspace account. Dave quickly called James, confused, and within five seconds of asking, “Whyyyyyy … are you … emailing me from Jen …” he had figured out the answer to his own question. He politely asked James to delete the photos, and James mercifully obliged.

And while today, years later, the two are the best of friends again, Dave admits that the blow—the breakup, if you will—wasn’t any less painful, having never even met the girl. As much shit as he talked to James at work, he had thought that, beyond a fling, this girl might’ve been something. He saw a future, as some special people make us do. He looked forward to her messages and emails while at work, at school, at play. He realized that online, just as in real life, the pain from a terminated relationship wasn’t any less authentic. He also admitted to hooking up with a few women while this whole charade was going on though, too. Classic Dave.

In our brave new electronic world, are we our best selves online or in reality? In the same way of “if a tree falls in the forest,” if we do something amazing but don’t tell everyone we know about it, did it really happen? Now, I could harp on about the stats and detrimental effects of social media on our society as a whole; they’re publishing papers by the week. And even though I, myself, am a strong proponent of tangible living and loving, who am I to judge?

Inevitably, we will find a way to fall, find a way to love. Even if we’re fudging our profiles and juicing our interests or touching up our online selves, when we’re typing away on those keyboards waiting for that response, are the butterflies in our bellies any less restless? Do our hearts soar at lower altitudes or beat less beats at the unknown on the other side of the screen?

Perhaps we have changed—our language, our technology, our would-you-like-to-dance moments—but our hearts have not. We still run naked and feverish and hysterical into the abyss, even from a seat facing the monitor. We all still try, urgently, to show the ones we love our best selves (plus, sometimes, our risky body-part bits) before they realize that all we are is … this. Online or off, it’s always just another blind date. Another chance to break our hearts. Another terrifying and wonderful way to know we’re still alive and human.

*Names have been changed.

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