By Russel D McLean
Apologies for the late post today - I was rather caught up in paid writing work!
About eight or nine years ago, I got a call from my friend John (whom I haven’t seen in ages – hey, buddy, promise I’ll be in touch soon). John was recently out as a gay man and rather enjoying things from what I could tell. Anyway, after all the usual preamble you get with a friendly phone call, John said, “Look, is there something you want to talk about?”
I didn’t have anything I wanted to talk about that I could think of. But he insisted. Like this was something serious. And we played that game people do, where neither of them really wants to say anything in case they’re wrong. It took John to finally say: “I saw the profile.”
The profile in question was on a gay dating website. He sent me the link. And I saw that there – under a pseudonym (oh how I wish I could remember it) was me. I knew it was me and not just someone who looked like me because the profile pic was taken in a bar I frequented at the time. And, in fact, I had a copy of the very same photo. It had been taken on a night out with the English Literature Society of Dundee University. I should add, it wasn’t an incriminating photo, although my eyes were a little glazed. This wasn’t a photo already on the net. This was one you’d have had to scan in.
“Is there something you want to talk about?”
I was confused at first. My sexuality is pretty comfortably heterosexual. And if I did come out, I probably wouldn’t use a gay dating site, just as I never used a straight dating site (which might explain why I spent eight years single). So what was my image doing there? And what were some of these activities I apparently enjoyed? And why did I describe myself as a bear?*
After the conversation got less awkward, when I realised what he was talking about, I explained to John that I hadn’t posted the profile. I had no access to it. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would post an image of me there. But it had to be someone we both knew because there were only a select number of people would have access to those particular photographs.
What nagged at me even more was the fact that whoever had posted it there hadn’t tipped me off to the fact that they had done so. They hadn’t linked to anything personal about me, they hadn’t posted my email address or forwarded messages of interest (maybe the profile got none) or used it in some way to spread rumours about me.
They had just posted the profile.
And let it sit there for over a year until John stumbled over it while looking for a date.**
I still don’t know who did it or why. Was there an end game? Was it a practical joke that never reached a punchline? Was it some weird kind of revenge? Was it someone so shy they thought that posting an image of me would give them more chance at getting a date than posting their own features?
I contacted the site and told them that my image was being used without my consent. Proving this got a little complex and I wound up posting a photograph of myself to my then blog holding a newspaper so that the site’s operators could determine I was who I said I was. The profile was deleted with no further incident. But the site knew very little about the details of who had set up the profile. I was intrigued, however, to learn that it had been dormant for six months, almost as though whoever had set it up had forgotten about it or got bored. Or maybe had been unable to achieve whatever end game they were looking to (I still don’t know what it could have been - - but I was rather proud to learn I’d got a lot of views, at least)
Or perhaps they had achieved their goal. Perhaps it had nothing to do with me, and all they had needed was an image that was not them. Because they didn’t want anyone who knew them to find them or because they somehow thought I might be a more attractive proposition (believe me, the likelihood is that I wasn’t). Maybe they met someone and forgot about the profile. Or maybe…
I was thinking about this again recently when a writer friend of mine discovered someone trying to set up a facebook account in their name. In this case, the fakester was befriending actual friends of the original but again there seemed no real gameplan, no attempt to spread real malice. It was just someone co-opting someone else’s identity and… well… sitting there, online. Doing nothing.
Why do it?
The internet is an odd place, where identity is fluid and where you can gain a fresh start merely by tapping in a few letters on a keyboard. You can become someone or something utterly unknown to those who would recognise you in day to day life. You can become someone else. Someone you create. Or, in odd cases like these, someone you co-opt.
For crime writers, it’s a creepy (and inspiring in fictional terms) thing to think that the people we’re talking to may not be the people we’re talking to. What if John had, rather than calling me, private messaged the profile? Would he have worked out that it wasn't me?
And what if the profile wasn't expecting someone who knew their image to get in touch?
I still think about the person who put my picture online.
I still wonder why they did it.
But this isn’t a novel. Its not a movie. Resolutions in life are never near, and the fact is I’ll probably never know who they were, or why they put my picture on their profile. And in some ways its more intriguing that I don't...
*For those not in the know, I discovered it meant a hirsute and usually large man. I don’t mind that at all. If I was on the scene I think I’d be comfortable with that description.
**Let’s quickly point out this was a fairly tame dating site, so it wasn’t like my image was being posted around the seedier corners of the internet – this was men looking for companionship with men and little else.