The Phony Facebook Status Experiment


Recently, I announced in a Facebook status update that I have a half-sister.

This is totally untrue, at least as far as I know. But my 213 Facebook friends have no reason to doubt the update, so they’ve responded with all of the shock and applause and advice you might expect when someone reveals that kind of thing on a social networking web site.

“WHAT?” was my first comment, from an old college buddy who happens to share my last name. Then, “OH my! Let me tell you from experience they are wonderful! Meet her and start your own relationship with her.” Then, “How old? I found out a few years ago that I had two, and they’re great! 16 and 22. And no, I won’t introduce you.”

Clearly, people were buying my story. I also got comments on the new profile picture I posted, showing me standing next to a transvestite I met at 3 a.m. in the Capitol Hill district in Seattle, someone who is very clearly a man, and very clearly a much bigger man than myself. I made it clear, however, that I wasn’t trying to pass this person off as my relative, by explaining “This is NOT my half-sister. I just wanted to give you an idea.”

The picture didn’t ruin the credibility of my status update, but it’s still curious that so many people believed it, mostly because it was my fourth bogus personal revelation in four straight days.

I got the idea after I noticed that people were starting to post huge news on Facebook. They’re getting a divorce, their mom died, they lost their job. For all the complaining people do about a loss of privacy in the Internet age — Google stockpiling reams of information about our cyberspace quests for Viagra and pornography, employers firing people for racy blogs — people sure don’t seem to have a problem flaying their personal lives for hundreds of albeit pre-approved friends to see.

Granted, there are still plenty of folks trying to strike a balance between having a Facebook site in the first place and keeping a tight grip on what information shows up there. When a buddy of mine joined a few months ago, his first status update was that he was “wondering if he’ll ever have time to figure out what all this Facebook stuff is all about.” And I responded by telling him if he spent half as much time on Facebook as he did playing video games, he’d be fine. My buddy deleted the post, and shushed me in a private email, explaining that he didn’t want people to know he was addicted to video games.

Others are shamelessly open. Looking at my status updates right now, I see an old colleague wondering how bad her garlic breath is, a childhood friend planning to drink two bottles of Robitussin and see how fast he can drive on I-5, and my girlfriend’s best friend, who is “ready for his ocular scan.”

Is nothing sacred?

Don’t get me wrong. I have no problem with the sharing of personal information on the web, even if it prompts the clever advertising gurus hidden deep in the bowels of Facebook’s giant corporate headquarters to design algorithms that post ads for Binaca to my old colleague, Alcoholics Anonymous to my childhood friend and optometrists to my girlfriend’s BFF.

But I do think it’s funny that, for all the hand-wringing about the Internet invading our lives, there are so many of us willing to drain the moat and throw open the gates. I also think it’s interesting that I’ve never really questioned the veracity of my friends’ status updates (though I am a little suspicious of the Robitussin claim). Even on the web, it seems, if you see it in print, it must be true.

So I decided to try a little experiment. Every day until it got boring, I’d post a different, fake status update, something highly unlikely but at least plausible, something believable but shocking, to see how people would respond. Would they call me out for lying? Would they deride me if I decided to do something stupid? There was only one way to find out.

My first update: “(Nym) swam naked across the Willamette River today.” Given that this update was written on a pretty cold day, and the river was swollen with flooding from a heavy snowpack, this surely would have killed me. Still, my high school buddy wrote, “Lucky river” (to which I replied “Dave, you are creepy, man”), and then my girlfriend’s mom wrote, “Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!” and another friend added, “any reason, or just cuz yur a crazy ma fa?” Others asked about the feat via text message or Instant Messenger, and I tried to be coy. I was not yet ready to burst the bubble.

I also Googled “naked man swimming” and found an image of a painting of six naked men and a hound dog taking turns diving off a rock. I tagged myself and a bunch of random people in the photo and captioned, “It was kind of like this.” The photo drew lots of amusing comments, but no one called me a liar.

The next day I posted a new update: “(Nym) got into a fistfight this morning with some jackass who cut him off.”

Fifteen comments poured in, nearly setting a personal record. “What? Serious? Were you naked?” And, “Ummm, what?” And, “This ain’t over. Hope u got his plate #. Let’s roll! Seriously, u ok? Details.” And, “As your lawyer, I would advise you to stay in the car next time.”

I felt a little guilty at that point. People were actually concerned about me, and the photo I posted of two obese men squaring off after a road rage incident (also courtesy of Google) didn’t seem to hurt my credibility, though a co-worker did offer up the theory that I was finding funny pictures and then writing status updates to match them. (He was almost right.) In the interest of science, I knew I had to continue the experiment.

“(Nym) is thinking about adopting a child,” was the next one, which if you know me, is about the most outrageous thing I would ever do. The first comment, from my former boss, pretty much sums it up. “For god’s sake NO… you’re too much of a kid yourself! You’d be a bad influence on he/she.” Most of the other comments were sarcastic and playful (“You should start with a chimp or a pot-bellied pig and see how that goes.”) Clearly, people weren’t buying this one. Perhaps my experiment would be short-lived.

But here’s the thing about Facebook: nobody reads every single one of everyone’s status updates. So I figured even if a few of my friends had put together my scam, I’d still find new victims. The next day, I wrote “(Nym) gave up all but three pairs of his shoes to St. Vinnie’s,” which may be the least believable of all the updates I’d posted thus far. This time I only lured one believer, who wrote “NO WAY Imelda. Are you responding to Obama’s call to service?” I replied, “Whatever I can do to help change the world.”

Then came today’s report, about the half-sister, and I had a whole new flock of people hanging on the news and wanting more information.

I’m not sure what to tell them, when to reveal my scam or how they’ll react. Will they feel burned, scorned, duped? Will they think it’s funny? Probably some combination of the above. But I’m willing to accept the consequences, even if that includes no one ever believing a single one of my status updates again, if it forces us to look deep within ourselves and ask some hard questions about this crazy world we live in.

Plus, my Facebook page sure did get a lot of attention. And I love attention.

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