The other day when I logged into Twitter I noticed an odd thing. The number of people I follow had gone down by one. I’m used to my follower count bobbing up and down from day to day (at just over the 200 mark, since you ask), but someone disappearing out of my feed is less common. I didn’t give it too much more thought, until a few days later, when I spotted a tweet carrying the #Kellbo0 hashtag. It turned out I had been an unwitting bystander to a rolling Twitter drama.
Twitter is a strange phenomenon in many ways. It is a place where you actively invite total strangers to share intimate thoughts. It is a public forum where people get involved in heated personal discussions. It’s a cross between a very big pub and a hall of mirrors, where people expect honesty and sincerity from others even though hardly anybody is quite themselves. There is a huge, perhaps unreasonable, degree of trust involved in broadcasting the business of your day-to-day life to an unrestricted audience. And, of course, there is inevitably a game element to Twitter. The atmosphere of one-upmanship, the race to crack the most popular topical gag on a subject or shout loudest in a chorus of disapproval, can be toxic. Many people become obsessed with boosting their follower count; personally, I get more hung up about how often my bons mots are retweeted. And there are games within the game, like those notorious hashtagging pun frenzies #disingenuous.
In this kind of atmosphere, the boundaries between the real and the fake inevitably become blurred. There will be people who exploit the opportunities Twitter offer to manipulate your identity, and those who will be taken in. We have seen the courts struggle with this issue, treating a manifestly fake bomb threat as if it were a real one, with real consequences for the unfortunate Paul Chambers, who has lost two jobs and been fined several hundred pounds. Elsewhere, fake celebrity accounts vie with real ones for fans’ attention. Twitter would seem to be the perfect laboratory for the Turing test, and it is surely only a matter of time before someone develops a ‘bot’ that is indistinguishable from a real person’s account.
@Kellbo0 was one of the first people outside my circle of real-world acquaintances or people I knew from web forums to follow me on Twitter. Her avatar showed an attractive woman in her mid-twenties called Kellie who was a nurse, an active twitterer and the owner of a keen wit, particularly when she directed it at the Tea Party movement. It was a pretty quick decision to follow her back. She was sparky, sexy and a lot of fun. There was just one problem: she wasn’t who she said she was.
Her account vanished when she was unmasked by a man who had formed a close relationship with her on Twitter that had developed into a long-distance liaison by telephone. He grew suspicious when she refused to communicate by video and set out to investigate. It turned out that Kellie was actually in her early forties and, far from working as a nurse, had a conviction for obtaining drugs by fraud. The man posted a blog message revealing her ‘real’ identity (I’m not linking to it because I’m uncomfortable with the idea of outing people as a form of revenge). By this time @Kellbo0 had disappeared from Twitter, leaving a trail of outraged former followers in her wake.
While I can’t confess to feeling much outrage, it intrigues me that she put so much effort into constructing a very credible persona, apparently for no gain beyond some fleeting affection. I was never drawn into any kind of dialogue with her, though she did once include me on an #ff list (I still follow most of the other people who were on it). I find it revealing, too, that she used her real first name in her fake identity – she must have known she would be exposed one day. Plenty of people have said after the event that they suspected she was a fake, but I have to say I never saw any reason to doubt her. She seemed like a complete person: a sincere, intelligent, witty, politically engaged nurse in her twenties. And only part of that identity, it seems to me, was fake. It has been claimed on Twitter that the photographs she posted were of her own daughter, but this seems doubtful, since she couldn’t have been sure of sustaining the pretence without the daughter’s complicity. Why she felt the need to graft the attractive parts of her personality onto a false identity is something we will probably never wholly understand.
It seems Twitter represents a new level in terms of the fragmentary identities that we have developed in the virtual world. @Kellbo0 may have believed she was doing nothing worse than many other people who project a slightly idealised version of themselves. Clearly somewhere she crossed a line into the realm of outright deception, and in doing so betrayed the trust of many people who took her at face value, but it is far from clear where that line is drawn. And yet the problem is, as someone said to me yesterday, we have no option but to take people at face value, even though in doing so we inevitably take a huge risk. We may believe that we can tell a real account from a fake, but we are deluding ourselves if we do, because Twitter by its nature obscures the distinction. We talk to people as if they are our friends when we only know them as a collection of pixels on a screen. It should not surprise us, therefore, when they turn out to be less substantial than they seem.