January 16, 2013

I am still not entirely coherent after reading Deadspin’s story that inspirational Notre Dame quarterback linebacker Manti Te’o’s cancer-stricken girlfriend was a hoax.

And I had no idea who any of these people were in the first place.

Notre Dame's Manti Te'o (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

If you have not yet, read this story. Then, if you are at all like me, collapse to your knees on the floor, shouting, “IS EVERYTHING A LIE?” Then read it again. Then pay it forward. The Ring-style, forcing awareness of it on everyone you know, pausing occasionally to shake your head and twitch slightly.

Was this a knowing hoax? Or was this simply a Cyrano de Bergerac-style stunt that went horribly, horribly awry? As an avid reader of fiction, I like caring about people whom I have never met, who do not exist, and who have never existed. But I like knowing that it is fiction.

I don’t know what to believe any more. If you can’t trust people on the Internet who say they are dying of cancer and car accidents and seldom post new pictures, who can you trust?

In light of the story, I propose a new rule for the Internet:

The Lennay Kekua memorial rule: The probability that an Internet Person You Have Never Met is real decreases in direct proportion as the number of highly dramatic life incidents that person suffers increases.

Example: Jenna4949 falls off her bicycle? Probably real.

Jenna4949 has rare brittleness disease that no one else on Earth has and after falling off her bicycle today seven rabid badgers attacked her, and then she realized that her grandfather has been secretly abusing her dying malamute for years? Far less likely.

Or Jenna4949 just has really rotten luck. The strange thing about all this is that in spite of the minor, minor detail of not actually existing, Lennay Kekua managed to raise thousands of dollars for charity. Our first impulse was to compassion, not skepticism.

Oops.

“In fairness,” as Michael Cohen quipped on Twitter, “attending Notre Dame and placing unquestioned faith in beings you’ve never actually met … is part of the admissions process.”

Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe, I guess. Up to a point. The capacity for faith in the unseen, or in the seen-briefly-through-a-Twitter-avatar is a standard human characteristic. I always assume that the scantily clad individuals who want to know more about me and have PICS COOL PICS EXCITING PICS FOUND USIN UR TIPS @PETRIDISHES are real people who do not place a high premium on spelling and have a rare form of Tourette’s where they intersperse their conversations with words like “viagra” and “cialis click here!” But now I’m having second thoughts.

Perhaps it is time we return to the classic rule: Pics or it didn’t happen.

But even then, I’m not so sure. It starts to get awfully Descartes, awfully fast.  Is anyone on the Internet who he says he is? Am I who I say I am? Is anything real? Am I? Cogito? Sum? Manti? Deadspin?

I need to go lie down.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.