June 20, 2004

blogger identity crisis

About a week ago, I saw a sudden surge of interest in one of my back entries, the one about fake/not fake bloggers. I had no idea where these people were coming from or why. No inbound links to explain it. Then someone wrote me, explaining and asking if I had anything to add to the ongoing investigation. I didnít, not really. I was never a central player in this drama. But it intrigued me then and it still does, maybe more so.

Jason Kottke has already written about this and itís even appeared on MeFi, so itís hardly breaking news, but it still fascinates me and I feel part of it, albeit in an extremely peripheral way. Hereís the deal: a blogger named Plain Layne, one of the tell-all personal diarist style bloggers, had been writing since late 2001. She wrote sexually explicit material and had some writing chops, too, so naturally she developed quite a following. Then one of her readers wrote an explanation in his own blog of why he had never linked to her even though he read her religiously. The reason? He believed she was fictional.

Within a day (I believe), her site was gone, replaced by a ďdown for renovationsĒ page. In Polish, no less. Bells went off, people gathered, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys got on the case. Before long theyíd ferreted out a possible link to another sudden disappearing act, one Acanit, who yanked her blog three years ago after someone questioned her reality. Thus the hits to my old entry, where I wrote about Acanit, among others. She was a strong writer, often extremely evocative. She wrote larger-than-life accounts of her past and present. She lived in the Twin Cities, spent time in Mexico, and was bisexual. Which could all describe Layne as well. There are many other similarities and links, but others have summed them up and so I wonít. You can read the original post and thread or go to David Grenierís two substantive entries on the subject (particularly the second) and see it all laid out, the entire ďis she real?Ē pro and con debate.

When I first looked at Layneís writing, searching for similarities with Acanitís remembered prose, I thought, ďNo, couldnít be.Ē The styles are similar but not the same. Acanitís writing is more mature, more world-weary, more politically aware. Layneís seems younger and more self-involved. But I kept thinking about it over the next day or so and realized: if both women are fictional constructs, of course theyíd be different in just these kinds of ways. Thatís the nature of good fiction. As a writer, you get inside someone elseís head, make them come alive with as much three dimensional character as you have the skill to shape. And those voices are not your own. They may be similar to each other and to you, just as Layneís voice is reminiscent of Acanitís, but theyíre not your normal tone and even though you create them, they are not you.

Right now Iím writing a novel with three main characters. I write in the third person intimate, which means I write close up and get inside their heads, eavesdrop on their internal monologues. I find my own thoughts switching as I write one character or another. I take on their attitudes. One has a slight swagger, another is deeply sad, a third insecure and less sophisticated. One is male, the others are female. And yes, my thoughts change accordingly. Itís something you canít explain, you just do. Itís like acting. You take on the role, you inhabit that person.

I can imagine the writer behind Layne/Acanit. If this was indeed fictional (and I believe it was), I think she imbued each persona with a large dollop of personal truth and invested in that persona completely as she (or, hell, he) wrote each journal. I think it was probably fun in the same way that writing fiction can be, only this time she (or he) got immediate positive feedback, lots of kudos, lots of reader involvement in these creations that took on lives of their own. She/he probably craved that the way I crave my fictional worlds. I miss the people I write when Iím not there. In one way I look forward to finishing the novel, but Iíll also be sad to say goodbye to those characters. I think an ongoing blog, writing an entire life as it unfolds, becoming that person each time you sit down to write and walking down the street conjuring up the next twist in the tale, that would be addictive. Like youíre living two lives, yours and that of your creation.

Itís ideal, really. You write, you get feedback, you watch your hit counters. Something we all do. But if youíre writing a made-up life, you can add and subtract events at will. People fall away when you tell too many cute baby stories? Nix the baby. Bloggers start linking to you like crazy when you go lesbian? Bring on the female sexcapades. Much like the ratings and reviews for a TV series can change the nature of what we see on the show, the linkage and commentary can change the events that unfold on a blog if the writer is no longer bound by what really happened. Which is why I donít necessarily buy the ďit has to be a guy writing this because it reads like a guyís fantasyĒ concept. That proves nothing except that this is what readers enjoy. Hell, I wish I could treat my life with such elasticity. My readership would soar. What fun!

Iíve never been able to understand why someone would do this, but I think Iím starting to. Iím sure there are any number of underlying psychological causes, but then we all have those hidden-to-us agendas, donít we? On the surface, I suspect it feels like a game. Not a ďHa ha, Iím fooling you!Ē type of game, but more of a creative exercise. Can I pull this off? Can I create an entire life? And then as you write and as people read, you become invested. And addicted. And you continue on as long as you can until one day someone questions the veracity of your fictional world and you pull the plug instantly because the very worst thing to face is the anger. People feel betrayed. People thought of the fictional construct as real, and in a way she was. But of course she really wasnít. And if you feel tender toward that person and maybe also a little (a lot?) guilty about the secret pleasure of it all, the last thing you want is to get caught out. To have to confess. To have to break these peopleís hearts. And so you yank the blog and run away fast.

Some people on these comment threads think ďLayneĒ is laughing right now. On the contrary, I think sheís in pain. Incidentally, David Grenier thinks she should have at least copped her double identity to him since he knew her as both. I think she could never have done that. To tell even one person is to reveal the secret, the little man behind the curtain, and then the Great and Powerful Oz is powerful no longer. The facade has to remain impenetrable or itís over.

I find myself hoping Layne/Acanit will find this entry some day by ego-googling and will write me. I would love to interview her, not to track down her/his identity but to ask what it was like to do this. This is an obviously intelligent, talented writer. Iíd love to know how it felt to create this kind of not-real reality.

Posted by Tamar at June 20, 2004 11:11 PM

I'm of two minds on this...as a blog, I'm not sure that it matters if the person is making things up. Where I think it becomes dangerous is when that person begins to connect with people who are being genuine in their attempt to have a friendship. I think this is a much more dangerous thing when people misrepresent themselves in an online community like a list or on a message board. If it's your own blog, why not make things up? But the key is that it needs to stay in the blog and maybe that's just not possible.

Posted by: Rachel at June 21, 2004 07:06 AM

Tamar, thank you for this post... you raised some important points that I think have been swept aside in people's anger over this issue.

A team of former Plain Layne commenters have established a re-created Plain Layne Archive,covering all "her" posts from 2001 to 2004, hosted at the original address:


Posted by: Ryan Schultz at June 21, 2004 10:57 AM

I read a blogger that I am quite certain is fake. I was taken in at first, but then things were just too over-the-top, and also became very coincidental. There was also the yank-and-run thing as an MO. I still read it, but with a kind of...hmm...not exactly disdain, but I just don't take it very seriously anymore.

Posted by: Bee at June 21, 2004 06:59 PM

Rachel, I'm with you. Of two minds. It does break an unspoken covenant with the reader, I think. I find it fascinating nevertheless.

Bee, who??? (Feel free to email me privately.)

Ryan, thanks.

Posted by: Tamar at June 21, 2004 11:02 PM

Tamar, thanks again for your opinion on the matter. Your approaching this from the writer's side sheds light on a few details that probably weren't clear to most of the people involved in this.

Rachel, the whole point is that with Plain Layne, it didn't stay in the blog. There were IM chats, email conversations, Layne's comments on other people's blogs. People *were* connecting with her in genuine attempts to have a friendship, hence all the anger and hurt, especially in the comment thread on noematic.org.

Posted by: Gudy at June 22, 2004 12:23 AM