You guys, I think maybe the moon is in its seventh house or its double equinox or its age of Aquarius or something, because some wacky stuff has been happening to me over the last few weeks. Well, some wacky people have been happening to me. Maybe another time I'll tell you about the pantsless woman who was humping our car last week and how—due to the bougainvillea-ripping rampage we witnessed her go on in our neighbor's front yard—we are now 98% convinced that she was involved in the Mysterious Case Of The Dirt Piles And Snapped-Off Flowers, but for today I think we'll just take it easy and concentrate on the story of the woman who impersonated me on the Internet for four years.
Are you ready? It's going to be a long one. You're going to need to bring a strong drink, and at least one of your hands for covering your mouth in horror.
A couple of weeks ago, I got an email from a man who told me he had some important information that I needed to know. Assuming the information was that he was a long-lost prince who was going to deposit twelve million dollars into my bank account if only I'd give him my log-in details, I ignored it. A few days later, a similar, more pressing email came. Despite Sean's urging, I ignored it again. And then last week, the same man sent me a third email, and this one contained the phrase that got my attention: I really need to talk to you. There is someone pretending to be someone else and stealing your pictures.
Through a series of emails, the story unfolded: the man who'd contacted me had been having an online relationship with a woman who had assumed an identity made up entirely of pictures of me. She had created a fake name and a fake email account. She had used a photo of me as the profile picture on her fake Facebook page, and a different photo of me as the thumbnail on her fake IM account. She had sent this guy a huge number of pictures of me, saying they were her. While she had claimed to have, at various points, both social anxiety disorder and cancer—and thus, she said, been unable to meet him in person—she had talked with him extensively on email, IM, and the phone. This charade had gone on for four years.
Four years. FOUR YEARS. Let's just all stop and think about four years for a minute. Four years is a really, really, really long time to pretend to be someone else.
And she probably would have got away with it too. But one day, the guy started to get a little suspicious (as you would, I imagine, after four years.) He did some digging, and his friends did some digging, and eventually one of them unearthed my blog.
And everything he thought he knew changed: there was the face of the person he thought he was in love with—hey, those were his words—but the name wasn't the same. Nothing was the same. Shocked, he called her out on it. She admitted everything: that I was a stranger, that she'd just taken my pictures from Flickr, and that she'd created other "personalities" using other people's pictures too. He hired someone to find out who she really was, and that's when he wrote to me—and to the other people whose images she'd been stealing—to let me know what had been going on. He sent me all the evidence. From what I can tell, he seems to be a good guy, badly duped. I feel really sorry for him.
And I feel sorry for her too. I imagine that she has some stuff going on in her life, that's she unhappy and that it's fun to pretend to be someone else for a while. And a weird, small, compassionate part of me understands that. But the rest of me is fairly horrified. This is stealing. It's common theft! It's seeing something you want that belongs to somebody else and thinking hmm, I'll have that. Apart from all that, it's just really, really creepy.
Once I had consulted with every single lawyer I know, I emailed her—turns out she is a middle-aged married woman living in North Carolina—and asked her to take everything down, destroy all pictures of me, and cease any other online relationships in which she was using my image. I gave her 24 hours and she did it in, like, hour 22. She wrote me back—when pressed to confirm that she'd recieved my email—and said she apologized "for it happening," which I found a strangely passive turn of phrase considering she had been actively stealing my pictures from Flickr for four years, navigating past the download disabler on them, and passing my likeness off as her own.
The bottom line is that as good a dinner party story as this is—and it's a great dinner party story, trust me, a real icebreaker—it's also, and I think you will agree, kind of disturbing. Maybe this is ridiculous in the Internet age, but I guess I believed, inherently, that people are good. I guess I believed that if my pictures on Flickr were copyrighted to me and prohibited from being downloaded, there wouldn't be a person out there who'd go in the backdoor somehow and download them anyway. I know it sounds stupid and naive now—"well, that's what you get for putting pictures of yourself on the Internet!" a whole bunch of people are probably thinking—but what are we supposed to do, not share anything ever?
Maybe. I don't know. Probably that would work just fine; there's no reason you need to see a picture of my wedding or my new haircut or my beach bonfire when you're reading my site. But then what about the pictures of ourselves that we don't have control over? What about the pictures other people upload of us? Do we ask them not to do that either? Do we make it our duty never to let a picture of ourselves hit the Internet—ever, in any form? Do we use the blank little silhouette for our Facebook profiles and our Twitter accounts and our Linked In pages, so that we're unrecognizable and anonymous? So that we're safe?
I'm really curious to hear what you think about this topic: whether you have photos of yourself online, or whether—for exactly this reason—you don't. Do you think that by putting our pictures up on our blogs and Flickr, we're just asking for something like this to happen? If it happened to you, would you take them down and never post another? If you didn't post pictures when you blogged, would it change the way you told a story? Have you ever seen a pantless woman humping your car?
Yeah, don't answer that last one. Nobody wants to think about that.