The mean nasty Internet killed Manti Te'o's fake dead girlfriend

Absurdity alert: The Times says our "commitment-free" digital life is responsible for the Notre Dame hoax

By Andrew Leonard
Published January 18, 2013 6:04PM (EST)
           (AP/Joe Raymond)
(AP/Joe Raymond)

Before the Internet, nobody ever fell victim to a hoax.

Before the Internet, superficiality did not exist. We all lived lives of profound and deep connection.

Before the Internet, Manti Te'o's girlfriend would have been constructed out of flesh and blood. And when she died, she'd really be dead.

All these important truths can be gleaned from "The Hoax of Digital Life," an opinion column by Timothy Egan published in the New York Times on Friday.

Egan's not down with the virtual life: The whole bizarre fake dead girlfriend saga that engulfed star Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o? It's the Internet's fault!

The Internet is the cause of much of today’s commitment-free, surface-only living; it’s also the explanation for why someone could tumble head-over-heels for a pixelated cipher. Online dating was only the start of what led us down this road."

Te’o called himself a victim of an elaborate hoax. If he’s telling the truth, he’s right in one sense, but wrong in his conclusion. He’s a victim of his age, people who are more willing to embrace fake life through a screen than the real world beyond their smartphone.

The mean, nasty Internet killed Manti Te'o's fake dead girlfriend! Somebody, please, TURN IT OFF.

Wait, that can't be right. I guess I'm confused. I don't understand how smartphones aren't part of the real world. They feel pretty real to me. When my iPhone buzzes with my daughter's customized ringtone, announcing the arrival of a text declaring some triumph or trial of her life at college, I feel what seems to me a pretty real parental thrill. And I wonder, if the screen-mediated life is fake, doesn't that mean that all this superficiality started much earlier, with movies and TV? (Remember "Gilligan's Island?" -- man, that was some fake shit! TV rotted our minds way before Gawker ever got the chance.)

But then I can't stop. What about phone conversations -- those spooky electronically mediated communications? There's always been something weird and suspicious about them too, no? I mean, you can't touch someone when you're talking to them on the phone, right?

But why does technology even have to be involved in the first place? I'm also confused about the ethereal visions that fill my head when I read books (real books, not those damn fake e-books). Fiction -- very not real.

Where do we stop? What's really real? Eating? Shitting? Sex? (But real sex, you know, the kind that happens with another person. Masturbation? Definitely not real.)

Timothy Egan has qualms about the digital life. I'm not sure exactly why -- maybe he got mugged by an Internet troll when he was a child. But it's OK, the Internet's tough. It can take it. People have been making pretty much the same criticism about the Net since we were reading Usenet via our 300 baud modems way back in the last century. And probably even further back -- I have a vague recollection that Plato didn't like Twitter. Or maybe that was just poetry.

And yet we still write poems and still log on. And everyone has, or will have, a smartphone. For a hoax, the digital life is remarkably resilient.

The mystery of Manti Te'o has many baffling aspects. Not least of which is the fact that the fake dead girlfriend was exposed by reporters working for a snarky website who employed the Internet to great effect to do real investigative work, while a vast phalanx of mainstream sports journalists never bothered to pick up the goddamn phone. We will be pondering for years to come how psychology and fame and technology and bad faith all intersected in the adventures of Manti Te'o. But to use Te'o's naiveté or chicanery (we're still not sure which) to bash the Internet for supposedly fueling "commitment free, surface-only living" is sheer reporting malpractice.

Where's the data? As the Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal cogently reported just a few weeks ago, in response to an absurd article that also happened to be published in the Atlantic on how online dating was destroying monogamy, there's simply no evidence that any such thing is happening. No evidence that divorce is up or marriage is down as a result of online dating and surface-only living. Quite the contrary, in fact. One study found that "One result of the increasing importance of the Internet in meeting partners is that adults with Internet access at home are substantially more likely to have partners, even after controlling for other factors."

More likely to have partners! Yikes! The Internet makes it easier to find people to have relationships with. Some of those relationships are one-night stands, some lead to marriage, and some (but probably not very many) lead to dead fake girlfriends that inspire Notre Dame linebackers to great feats of gridiron glory. It's messy.

But it's always been messy. Before the Internet, people went to bars and hooked up in meaningless one-night stands. Before the Internet, people got scammed. Before the Internet, we were obsessed with gossip and silly love songs and comic books and sports stars who almost assuredly did not deserve the adulation that was showered down upon them. Before the Internet, we fulminated over how modern life was distracting and corrupting our young people. Before the Internet, people blamed outside circumstances for their own personal failings.

If you don't like how your smartphone is distracting you, shut it off. But don't blame the Manti Te'o Fake Dead Girlfriend Experience on the Internet. Real people do stupid things. And so it goes.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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