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Dot Dot Dot: What's real online isn't always true

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The information age was supposed to be an era of universal, perfect knowledge. But in a world of bits and bytes, can we actually know anything?

This week, a young man named “Steve” came forward identifying himself as a spammer. We were convinced that he was legit because, among other things, he sent us a screenshot of his Amazon accounts, which showed that he owned accounts used by a well-known Pinterest spammer.

The story took off and was passed around the virtual world. It was a rare insight into the underground world of spamming—a secret gray market in which we are all, whether we like it or not, involved.

Then, Steve said, “oh, yeah, just kidding.” (I’m paraphrasing here.)He claimed that the screenshot was faked using FireBug, a Firefox plugin that lets you edit Web pages on the fly.

He promised that he would be honest from here on out but admitted, “there’s no way I can prove anything to you at this point.”

Did “Steve” just want to start an Internet hoax and see what might happen? Or was he honest the first time around and get cold feet when it became clear that people were paying attention?

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There was a sense of truth to the story, however, even if some of the facts were wrong. Steve claimed to be making $1,000/day. Obviously, people are making money spamming; I don’t think anyone’s doing it for fun. You might scam for lulz, but spam? Even Anonymous wants to destroy it.

But I think what was more compelling about the story was the very human voice behind the spam. It’s easy to view spam almost like weeds in the sidewalk of the online world—a nuisance that just sort of happens and grows of its own accord.

Spam doesn’t happen on its own, of course. There’s always people behind it.

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As a journalist, you’re taught that documentary evidence is the holy grail. But now that it’s so easy to fake, I’m left wondering, what is the burden of proof now?

Yet, I can’t help still sort of believing that Steve really is the spammer he originally claimed to be. Judging by the email scams I get, faking this stuff isn’t as easy as anyone who’s played with Photoshop knows it should be. Or maybe spammers are just busy; Photoshop does seem to have a time vortex that makes hours feel like minutes.

Whether he made it up or not, he can’t possibly prove the negative now—unless we can find the real spammer...

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And sometimes fake is real—at least a real part of our world.

Fake, after all, is a beloved part of the Internet. New fake accounts are started practically every day. What would Twitter be without all the fakes? It’s almost a return of vaudeville or something on the cyber stage. Who does impressions anymore?

In our self-referential times, the fake identity is the new impression, and the attraction of the comedy of identity—whether it’s Fake Steve Jobs or Cheney’sOldHeart—is that in some sense we believe that the fake has the liberty to say the words that are truly in the heart of the real thing.

The new comedy is all about truth and identity. But can we please leave observational humor in the ’90s where it belongs?

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It’s been said that in the 20th century, people became far more self-aware than they’d ever been before in the constant presence of mirrors and marketing messages. But the evolution of the Internet has amped up the speed of our self-creation exponentially. That is a creation of many facets and faces—many truths.

As William James put it: “A man has as many social selves as there are distinct groups of persons about whose opinion he cares. He generally shows a different side of himself to each of these different groups.”

Facebook can want us all to be one, single person (and advertising target) all it wants. But the reality is, in a way, we are all Steves, and we may have even more personas online than we ever did off, because there is no continuity online and absolutely anything can be faked.

But as we’ve seen this week in so many ways, what is fake can often be true—and the truth sometimes becomes unbelievable.

Image source: http://twitpic.com/8zwccz

Editor’s Note: Editor in Chief Nicholas White is filling in for Owen Thomas, who is off this week.