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Posted at 01:44 PM ET, 01/22/2013

Why Holden Caulfield would probably think the Internet’s full of phonies, too


Lance Armstrong (left) and Notre Dame football player Manti Te'o. (images by Associated Press - IMAGES BY ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Not much has changed since J.D. Salinger wrote “Catcher in the Rye” in 1951.

If his fictional character Holden Caulfield were to spend 24 hours on the Internet, he’d be convinced that we’re all “phonies.” Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o would likely be one of the leading contributing factors to that conclusion. Te’o, the Heisman Trophy candidate at the center of an elaborate Internet hoax around his dying imaginary girlfriend, appears to be a modern version of the phonies that Holden sought to escape at his prep school by taking the train to New York.

The social media revolution once promised to make our digital selves more “real.” But is it possible that, instead, it’s just making it easier to become the type of “phony” that Holden hated?

It should be noted that, since the story broke, Te’o, in a Jan. 18 interview with ESPN, insisted he is not behind the hoax and The New York Post has since reported that he is dating another woman — a real one. Meanwhile, the woman whose photo was used without her permission to depict Te’o’s fake girlfriend gave her first television interview, which aired Tuesday morning, to the Today Show.

But the ability to weave a complex web of deceit across a variety of social media platforms actually makes it easier to engage in mini-deceptions that can quickly morph into a colossal hoax. If we are to believe Te’o, there was absolutely no intention to commit a colossal Internet hoax from the outset. But one thing led to another, and it became increasingly necessary to keep generating fake social media accounts to keep the whole charade moving forward. Fake tweets, social media updates that seemed to corroborate each other, and real photos attributed to imaginary people for fake social media accounts. They all added up to the ultimate "Catfish" scenario.

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From Holden Caulfield’s perspective, then, today's online social networks would be just like his era's offline social networks, enabling people to keep together in their little cliques and convince others about their own carefully curated personalities. Every new avatar photo, every clever new tweet and every new filtered Instagram photo — each becomes a new way to change your online personality and influence people’s perceptions. It is, as Holden points out, "Everybody talking their ears off and talking about the play so that everybody could hear and know how sharp they were." Today’s Internet phonies no longer use social media as a tool for self-exploration and discovery — they use it as a “crummy” public relations tool for broadcasting a carefully curated version of their lives to others.

In fact, as a March 2011 Discovery News report pointed out, it turns out we actually lie more on the Internet than in our offline lives. Consider just a few of the examples of how we lie on the Internet , constructing fake online dating profiles, fibbing about our qualifications and skills on LinkedIn, or checking-in from places we’ve never actually visited. And that’s just the obvious stuff. How about the ability to buy fake reviews and YouTube views online, the ability to buy fake followers for just about any social network, or even the ability to buy fake girlfriends?

Which brings us back to 17-year-old Holden Caulfield and his wonderfully jaded view of life. Even he admits that he was "the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life." He was the type of guy who'd check-in from the opera when he was really going to the store to buy a magazine. Instinctively, Holden realized that "people always think something's all true." Except, as we saw with Te’o and even Lance Armstrong, it’s usually not.

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