Cover Stories

A luminary of her own epistolary novel finds herself out of her genre

One of my first loves didn’t exist. His name was Luigi Alessandro Massimo-Lancelotti, but he usually went by Alex. He was an Italian aristocrat. He had gone to Exeter, my alma mater, a few years before I did, followed by music school in Duino, Italy, in the shadow of the castle where Rainer Marie Rilke used to stay. He’d studied at Santa Cecilia, the Juilliard of Rome. He was doing his Ph.D. in music at Cambridge. He was also a male model. He liked Kierkegaard. We wrote each other long emails from the time I was 14 until I started college. We knew everything about each other’s lives — or at least he knew everything about mine.

We’d met on LiveJournal: the early-2000s blogging platform that preceded and, in some ways, foretold the emergence of social media culture. Whereas social media since MySpace and Facebook has largely trended toward increasing publicity, self-broadcasting, and illusions of open access — Instagram selfies, tweeting at celebrities, monetized YouTube channels — LiveJournal often felt intensely private. Some posts on LiveJournal were public, but the platform’s “friends feed” meant that we were always consciously writing to a ramshackle community that emerged and we solidified on the platform. In intense diary-style posts, comments, semi-public replies, and replies to replies, we’d carry on lengthy correspondences worthy of 18th century epistolary novels. The intensity of our back and forth, blending public and private with our narrow audience in mind, continued the narrative through an array of dialogues. We wrote ourselves not just in our own journals but also in our engagement with one another.

I played a role, but I also genuinely wanted poetry, I wanted to live life as a novel. Each entry allowed us to continue, like Scheherazade, the story of our own lives

I made many LiveJournal friends — many of whom eventually became close friends off the platform — but Alex was my one real LiveJournal crush. Of course, Alex was improbable, but when I was a teenager, the sheer fact of adulthood felt improbable. Nothing about it ever felt truly impossible. Besides, I was the kind of electrically hungry teenager that wanted everything, or at least the sort of everything that involved Italian counts and studious hours in Gothic English university libraries and beautiful stories about heirloom pianos and the pain of art and long emails about Kierkegaard and self-creation. I had not yet fully grasped that life didn’t automatically manifest itself in the shape of my untested desires. Alex was, in effect, the “perfect man” and his perfection (or so I realized later) was in his dynamism: Every time I indicated, in diary form, my own desires, Alex would seem to not just understand them but fulfill them. The platform allowed him to appear as a deeply attentive reader of me and then perform his interpretations. He’d comfort me when I needed comforting, decry other boys who had broken my heart as blackguards, edit my manuscripts, tell me what a singular writer I was, remind me that — as a Ph.D. student at Cambridge — he knew his fair share of writers.

The pure wish fulfillment of his responses didn’t seem suspicious; they simply corresponded to my LiveJournal self, which stemmed from both my own adolescent emotional gawkiness and the relative adolescence of the internet as a performance space. Breathlessly aspirational self-expression met a staggeringly naive lack of self-awareness. I was and was not myself: I played a role to be sure, but I also genuinely wanted beauty and poetry, I wanted to live life as a novel in a way that didn’t feel safe to express outside the confines of Alex and my created LiveJournal world. Because I was writing for an audience of people who seemed to have pre-approved my brand of insistent, pink-haired sehnsucht by adding me, I felt far safer to project what I believed was an authentic version of myself than I did, say, at my New England boarding school. My authentic self existed in the future; it didn’t merely consist of where I was or was from. The person I was when I wrote was my truest self: an expression of who, exactly, I’d like to be. The platform offered a means to perform this self into existence.

LiveJournal offered a chance to create not just a static persona but a continuing narrative. And this narrative was not merely the bits of our lives that we chose to render into story but also an evolving account of our relations with one another on (and outside) the platform. Because we read one another’s journals so regularly and because our list of followers was relatively small, each entry allowed us to continue, like Scheherazade, the story of our own lives. We worried if one of us stopped writing: Silence was coded as a sign of despair, if not literal death. It was impossible not to be conscious of the plot threads we dangled before one another — the birth, explosion, and aftermath of one relationship, the subtle negotiation of another, my hunger for what I constantly called the “poetic life.” Our engagement with one another intensified our nascent identities. As novelist-readers, engaging with other novelist-readers, we shaped each other, weaving our own micro-narratives in the larger experience of who we were to each other and ourselves.

“Alex” recognized and played to this. He flirted with me, even as he presented me with a fantastical image of what romantic life could be like. He was clever enough to blend lies with truth, which was in some ways just an extreme version of what we all were doing. He described an on-again, off-again relationship with another academic, a Harvard classics major/underwear model called Adriana, who, the day before Alex and I were to meet in person, was suddenly revealed to be pregnant. Her Harvard teaching schedule and some of the photographs he shared of her were stolen from a classicist who, I eventually discovered, actually did work there. To represent himself, Alex used images of a model called Louis Prades, as I found out through a later Google reverse-image search. When I finally confronted Alex about his deception, asking who he “really” was, I got a loquaciously vague, in-character apology for misleading me. Ultimately he deleted the accounts by which I knew him: his entire narrative, several years of history, his advice to me about my life, my boyfriends, about novels I had written or would write, our constantly unfulfilled flirtations — all of it gone.

My experience was not altogether unusual, judging from an informal poll of my LiveJournal-derived friends, but it seems almost unthinkable now. Public-facing social media tends to be geared toward IRL friends, as with Facebook, or toward strangers we would like to be connected to for professional reasons — Twitter, for journalists; Instagram, for would-be bloggers and influencers; LinkedIn, for people who don’t blanch at using network as verb. On these platforms, strategic personal branding in images and slogan-like bursts of text took over from baroquely constructed bildungsromans. Alex’s lack of a plausible Facebook profile would now require a lot more suspension of disbelief that I’d probably be able to muster.

Social media platforms rarely take a confessional tone or consist of the long, rambling posts of LiveJournal. The varying expectations of self-revelation are already built in

Today’s hoaxes usually don’t look like Alex. The creation of self-as-novel — the length of the posts, their frequency, their intensity, the intimacy of a story written for the eyes of a select few — is no longer the governing narrative framework of internet culture. Catfishing and debunking catfishers (as in this LJ community) are no longer epistolary genres. The drama of becoming who you wanted to be — seeing if you could write it into more than pretending for actual audiences who become increasingly invested in your shared narrative — has dispersed into multiple mediums. If there is an inheritor to LiveJournal, it is probably Tumblr, but Tumblr is an image-heavy, hashtag-searchable platform whose emphasis on reblogging breaks apart narrative and encourages the construction of a persona from series of memes. You could do a Tumblr hoax. But it would be hard to make a Tumblr catfish.

The more I sought to know Alex — as a person; then later, as a potential hoaxer — the more I became myself, or at least the version of myself Alex capitalized on. The longer Alex catfished me, the closer my vision of myself, as the sort of girl Alex would be interested in, became grounded. I read the books he recommended. I edited my novel to fit his notes. If we are not our words, I thought, what are we? The epistolary genre — in which dialogue engenders self-creation, in which we become more ourselves “in performance” (and in dialogue with) each other — makes even would-be fishermen into catfish.

The zeitgeist of LiveJournal-style online intimacy, and the intensity with which our intimacy represented an aspirational rather than factual foundational understanding of the self, has passed. The great internet falsehoods of our current era are more likely to be faked viral videos or (what else) fake news with a specific, often capitalistic, agenda that transcends the personal satisfaction of more intimate catfishing. Instead of years-long correspondences with strangers, we get Balloon Boy or Belle Gibson, the Australian health blogger who insisted her natural remedies (she sold an app and a cookbook through Penguin) helped her cure the cancer she never had.

The social media landscape today is one where the habitual use of multiple platforms is normalized, and not just for self-dramatizing teens. Our constructed identities are both more nebulous and more fragmented. The personas we adopt are more diffuse: a photograph of us on vacation here, a re-tweeted article there, a pithy joke or two about misandry on Twitter, an ironic meta-layer of hashtagging. We use social media platforms far more continuously than LiveJournal users could, even if they had wanted to, and constantly add to our public online profiles and feeds. These touch a far broader spectrum of people who are aware of us in many different contexts; they no longer consist of long, rambling posts, and they rarely take a confessional tone. The varying expectations of self-revelation are already built in.

A different sense of obligation now structures the compulsion to update. My LiveJournal posts stemmed from my sense that I needed to write to my community to continue the thread of our constructed “plots” in specifically targeted updates — it’s telling that I remember the relationship sagas among my LiveJournal friends, including their ex-boyfriends’ joke nicknames (everybody discussed on LJ, it seemed, got a joke nickname), with far more clarity than I do most of the contemporaneous relationships of my high school friends. But the intrusion of wider market forces — the capitalist appropriation of personal self-expression as a vehicle to sell oneself as product — has also rendered the story we tell about ourselves online less unfiltered, less governed by our wants and more by how we want (and perhaps even financially need) others to see (and hire, and like) us. The part of our online performances that serve as a résumé can seem inseparable from the parts that are expressive or aspirational.

If our social media presences don’t resemble novels anymore, they resemble instead strange mixed-media collages, a jumble from which no single meaning can be ascertained

Much of the social media landscape now tends to reflect a static sense of the self: justifying and verifying an offline presence even as it intensifies it. Today, if we met a potential dating partner, say, at a bar, and they didn’t have a Facebook profile or an internet presence, it would be a red flag, sparking the kind of concern once reserved for strangers we met on the internet: How do we know they are not an ax murderer? How do we even know that’s their name?

The diffusion of personas and responsibilities makes us less like characters in epistolary novels, online and off. Some of that is age, of course — maturity tempers the worst of our narrative fixations. But some of that too is a matter of genre. The narrative updates we gave on LiveJournal had arcs we chose (my search for the “poetic life”; Alex’s quest to establish himself as a great composer) and that our audience helped refine. These easily identifiable, governing wants were easy to track for one another over years. It’s much harder to posit an ideal reader over the variety of platforms.

Even if someone follows me on all the platforms across which I’ve made my juxtapositions, there is no guarantee they will see all I post. I may contain multitudes in my contradictory, Whitmanesque account of myself across these platforms, but few of my friends may even see the dissonance.

To an extent, this is a good thing. Less governed by the constraints of storytelling inherent in a purely verbal (long)form, we’re free to use the staccato burst of content that these new multiple social media landscapes provide to embrace a far less prescriptive — and constricting — vision of ourselves: Whitman’s celebration of self-contradiction mediated through a Heideggerian reimagining of being as an active rather than static state. If our social media presences don’t resemble novels anymore, they resemble instead strange mixed-media collages, a jumble from which no single meaning can be ascertained.

But there’s another, less obvious parallel here. As much as Finnegan’s Wake, we also resemble the Bible, or indeed any number of sacred or religious texts. After all, what is the Judeo-Christian Bible but a compendium of literary and poetic fragments — written at different points in history by different authors — that time and circumstance (and self-reflection) have fashioned into a single but nonlinear account of being: a polyphony of constant variation that intimates sacred truths of the self.

The people I first met on LiveJournal knew me when I was far less diffuse, far less arch or knowing — when the story I told of myself was entirely aligned with my vision of who I wanted to be, and every entry was a continuation of that governing, limiting narrative. Some of that was adolescence, but the relationships I formed there retain some of that intimacy and intensity. The irony that is so necessary to my “personal brand,” the half-intentional dissonance that comes when contrasting my Facebook photos of drunken outings with the articles I post on LinkedIn, is at once freeing and disarming: The more I am able to be myself through the refractions and juxtapositions that online presence across platforms affords us, the less I feel I can safely mean what I say.

Even now, sometimes, I look back at my old entries — so frequent until 2012, then tapering off sporadically into nothing — and miss the person I was then. How intently I distilled my life into a story that seemed to be always unfolding before me. It was easy to think I was most myself then. I wonder whether Alex was too, whoever he was.

Tara Isabella Burton has written on religion and culture for National Geographic, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the American Interest, and more. She is finishing a doctorate in theology and literature as a Clarendon Scholar at Trinity College, Oxford.