As the Manti Te'o case has reminded us, people aren't what they appear to be online. For instance, how many 14-year-olds have learned about sex from dirty chatting with 28-year-old guys in Des Moines who were pretending to be 14-year-olds in AOL chat rooms? And how many 28-year-olds have gotten each other off while pretending to be horny bicurious girls in the same chat rooms?
Not all online fakery is as gross and illegal, of course. Think about phony Twitter accounts or the way you pretend not to be a debt-ridden alcoholic who has lost control of your life when you update Facebook. We asked some strangers if they had ever engaged in acts of deception.
David, bar manager: Well, we’re talking 18 years ago when the internet was in its infancy, so it was ICQ, maybe AOL Instant Messenger back then. And chat rooms were kind of the novel thing, and I definitely went online quite a few times and pretended to either be someone who had a greater physical endowment than I had or someone of the opposite sex. I did some homoerotic stuff, just to get a laugh, just to pass the time. I did all sorts of perverted stuff under pseudonyms, but it was 18 years ago.
What was the most perverted or outlandish thing you did?
Pretending that the character I’d created was reaching mutual orgasm with the character or actual person on the other end. But back then it was new, you know?
So this is what you did before you actually had sex?
No, I had sex occasionally. I didn't have as much as I would have liked to have had, or obviously I wouldn’t have turned to the machine. But it wasn’t a fascination. I did it maybe five times.
Thanks for divulging so intimately.
Malcolm X, canvasser for Children International: There was a particular point where I was extremely bored and had nothing better to do, so I decided, “Hey, why not pretend to be Taylor Swift on Facebook?” I ended up making a Taylor Swift Facebook account and got thousands of friends and subscribers. It was really awkward when guys tried to talk to me.
What kind of messages did you tend to get?
“Hey mami, you lookin’ so good. Let me talk to you. Let’s go on a date. Let me rub you,” etc. etc.
How many followers does the account have?
If I remember correctly, 4,000 subscribers-ish, give or take. And I can’t add any more friends on that account.
Travis, acting student at NYU: I had a MySpace for a while, which was a little more fetish-oriented, and I met men who thought I was at least 18 and who would be into dominating me in different ways, and I was actually 15. I met up with a few of them.
Did you look 15?
I had long hair at the time. I guess I had braces, too, so it was pretty rough. But I didn't edit the pictures that I put on that MySpace or anything like that.
So they would come to meet you in person and not be like, “What the hell is this?”
They would be like, “So are you really 18?” And I’d be like, “Yeah,” and they’d be like, “OK.”
Yikes. Did any bad experiences ever come out of that?
No, not really. I was really lucky, I guess. I could have actually died – but I didn’t. I mean, I knew in the back of my mind that it probably wasn’t a good idea, but I just did it.
Was this part of your process for becoming an actor?
Ron, unemployed, and Caitlin, architecture student.
Ron: I’ve had a friend whose Facebook was up on his computer and I pretended to be him. I guess that would count.
Caitlin: No, I've never done that. I feel like guys might log on and do it as a joke and log off. Girls might go on and find a girl who they hated and pretend to be dudes and, like, trick these girls into liking this person who’s totally fake. Girls do fucked up stuff like that.
So you guys never did the whole cyber thing when you were younger?
Caitlin: I think I was too young for that. I missed the wave of it.
Ron: I don’t even know who I’d pretend to be.
Sean, actor/bike messenger: When I was in sixth grade and we had AOL Instant Messenger and stuff, we used to make fake screen names of people we didn’t like and mess with other people in our grade and pretend to be them and say weird, messed-up shit to them. It was always a person we didn’t like, so we didn’t feel too bad, because either they were weird or mean or they did something fucked-up to one of our friends, but we would say violent, graphic or sexual things. And we were young. We were like 12.
And one time I had an all-night sleepover with a couple of my friends and made up a fake screen name for this girl who was a gymnast, and we just made it her screen name but a few characters off. We were just messing with people and saying sexual things. Her mum ended up calling our parents and we got in a lot of trouble.
What kind of trouble did you get in?
My friend’s mum just yelled at us for two hours, and it was like four in the morning. The other mum called her up and was like, “How could you do this to my daughter?” And we were like, “I don’t know, because your daughter sucks, lady!” It was intense. I don’t do it any more. I don’t cyberbully. You’re looking at me like I’m a cyberbully, but that’s in my past. People are allowed to turn over a new leaf.
Do you know where the gymnast is now?
She was, like, on this MTV show. What’s the one where you have a secret crush on someone and you go on a date with them and you have to tell them they’re your crush? So she is not doing well for herself, I don’t think.
So you feel like you won that battle?
We messed her up, definitely.