By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 28, 2009
"I spoke to a lovely reporter today," wrote cwalken on his (or her) Twitter account this week. "I don't know if she was really who she said she was but that's fine. I secretly used an ironic tone."
Sounds about right. But does anybody know who anybody really is anymore?
The popular cwalken Twitter feed, stocked with oddball observations that seem as if they could've popped out of the mouth of actor Christopher Walken, is read by more than 90,000 users. It is not, reportedly, written by Walken -- though his picture is parked atop the page. (Late yesterday afternoon, the page appeared with a notice that the account has been "suspended due to strange activity.")
Things have gotten a little confusing for fans. Thanks to the democratizing powers of the Web and the rapid rise in popularity of Twitter, the very famous and the only slightly famous are finding themselves with virtual doppelgangers.
Already, a Web site has been launched to try and resolve such important questions of online celebrity identity. The U.K.-based Valebrity.com seeks to verify that the famous folks you're following online really are who they say they are.
"Nobody knows who's who on these social networking sites," said Valebrity's founder, Steven Livingstone. "Even the celebrities themselves are coming to us now and saying, 'Is this one real?' "
Livingstone's site identifies personalities like Ashton Kutcher and Ryan Seacrest on its list of real Twitter users, but for many Twitter users, authenticity may be beside the point. A few weeks ago, a Twitter feed supposedly belonging to "30 Rock" star Tina Fey was identified as fake. At the time, the faux Fey's feed had 50,000 readers. Today, it has more than 200,000.
Typically, social networking sites pull down fake accounts if there are complaints or if the site suspects fraud. But sometimes that can backfire: Facebook temporarily deleted actress Lindsay Lohan's page in December, under the impression that it was bogus. The move became news after the actress complained in a letter posted to her MySpace page.
Ronald R. Snider, an Alexandria lawyer who sometimes handles copyright issues, said that the matter is "uncharted territory" from a legal standpoint. "As far as whether it's legal or not, that's a big issue," he said.
But Snider said he would be disinclined to pursue a case against such Internet impostors. "People like this are assured to be judgment-proof," he said. "They don't have any money."
You don't even have to be all that famous to attract an impersonator, it seems. Livingstone said most people assume -- wrongly -- that people want to impersonate globally famous celebrities. But he spends just as much time trying to verify the online identities of tastemakers who are experts in their field but aren't household names.
A Twitter feed supposedly run by political consultant Frank Luntz scored 2,000 followers before the joke, or whatever it was, was revealed earlier this month. That feed, which was written by one of Luntz's former employees, has since been taken down.
Washington Post art critic Blake Gopnik recently attracted a Twitter impostor of his own. As with the fake Luntz feed, the impostor generally posted non-malicious comments that likely seemed plausible to the casual observer. But after the fake Gopnik posted a dismissive comment about a museum, the real Gopnik received some snarky remarks on an art blog at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The fake Twitter feed has been removed.
Not surprising, said Livingstone. "When it comes to the more niche markets, you'd think, 'Why would anybody bother?' But if you have 1,500 people following you and you're in a niche market, those people are all focused on what you're going to say. The people who are in it are much more likely to do something if you tell them to. They'll act on your every word."
What does Twitter make of this identity confusion?
"Doesn't happen too often," Twitter co-founder Biz Stone wrote in an e-mail that was short enough to be a Twitter post. "Impersonation is against our terms."
Christopher Walken, the real one, could not be reached for comment.