Or something! ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Consider the conversation I had with my editor when #AlexfromTwitter first emerged early this week. This editor, long jaded by the Internet’s propensity for hoaxes, predicted it was all a stunt: Target could have been planning this for years, he argued! The account that originally tweeted Alex’s picture was a plant! A fake 16-year-old puppeteered by some Web marketer in Cincinnati!
That level of caution, I thought at the time, bordered on tinhat-level conspiracy theory. You might as well declare Alex a false flag attack on the American psyche before descending into your bomb shelter. But my editor, unlike ufologists and 9/11 truthers, comes by his paranoia honestly — because there is nothing on the Internet that cannot be manipulated or contrived, no defense against a particularly savvy hoaxer. Sock puppet accounts can be made, and fake followers bought. Screenshots can be Photoshopped. Algorithms can be gamed.
What actually happened with #AlexfromTarget, in offline, immutable reality? No one knows. It’s impossible to say.
That’s because events that play out on the Internet are not necessarily like things that play out in real life. In real life, there are specific witnesses and linear timelines and objective evidence that can be logged and analyzed. Online phenomena, on the other hand, are witnessed by thousands, maybe millions of people, who interpret what they’re seeing in different, occasionally contradictory ways.
Information moves sideways and backward, dispersed across a disparate network, multiple plotlines unfolding in tandem. And when the whole thing is said and done — when we wake up Monday morning and are confronted by #AlexfromTarget, this monstrosity of a thing — the only way to retrace what happened, to connect the proverbial dots, are imperfect social media analytics tools that can never really (despite their claims!) deliver a complete, unflinching autopsy. And even when we know who sent the first tweets or snapped the first picture, it’s not always possible to determine which physical person was behind the accounts.
This was, incidentally, one of the enormous triumphs and frustrations of Gamergate: the difficulty of pinning down just who was sending tweets or letters of complaint, and whether or not those people amounted to a faction of any size … particularly when they were yelling, screaming, that they did.
Now enter Alex LeBeouf, our young Bieber-lookalike and newly famous friend. All the digital evidence, incomplete as it is, would suggest that Alex was a pretty organic phenomenon: Regardless of who took his photo, and where she posted it first, he hit the sweet, explosive center of fangirl Twitter on Sunday, after the popular London-based tweeter @Auscalum shared his picture with the hilarious caption “YOOOOOOOOOO.”
In the aftermath of Alex’s virality — in between his appearances on the Target corporate feed and the Ellen DeGeneres show, naturally — a guy named Dil-Domine Jacobe Leonares (past credentials: Playboy casting agent; Harvard Business School graduate; septilingual polyglot) claimed that his company, Breakr, actually set up the whole thing. Initially, Leonares said that Alex gave permission for a Breakr-user to take his photo, and then implied that the company had somehow gotten @Auscalum to tweet it. But later, when both Alex and Abby, the woman behind @Auscalum, said they’d never heard of Breakr — and that, in fact, Alex never even knew his photo had been taken — Leonares walked all his big talk back.
Now Breakr just “rallied a lot of [its] followers,” per an interview Leonares gave to Buzzfeed. (He did not return The Washington Post’s requests for comment.) Leonares is essentially claiming that many of the Twitter “influencers” who shared Alex’s photo early on were actually, secretly organized by Breakr, and belonged to a hidden network the start-up runs behind the scenes.
Leonares has no proof of this, of course. And a few of the “influencers” he namedropped to Buzzfeed disavow any involvement with his company. (“I do know the CEO of Breakr and have spoken to him before,” the Youtuber Stephen Edward said, “but in no way has he ever reached out to me and asked me to be a part of his network.”) Even CNET, the site that first trumpeted Leonares’ claims, has quietly changed the headline and URL on its original post: now it reads “the messy claims behind Alex from Target.”
Claims on claims on claims on claims. Nobody has a conclusive truth, and why do we care anyway.
The Web is ambiguous. That’s in its nature. In fact, that’s what makes it such an empowering, liberating platform for both individuals and broader social movements: The fact that you do not always know the exact real-life identity of who is speaking, and whether there’s any truth to their claims, is the existential mystery at the heart of this whole enterprise.
It’s what lets anonymous people form powerful, even life-changing, connections on platforms, such as Facebook, Reddit and Whisper. It’s what allows social activists in dangerous places to mobilize on Twitter. And it’s also, of course, what lets short online-daters pretend to be 6’3″, or what lets 4chan convince half the Internet that feminists hate Father’s Day. We catch these hoaxes, sometimes. But for every Web phenomenon that we can conclusively debunk, there’s an entire universe of vaguely shady claims and allegations and ambiguous online “movements” that can’t quite be pinned down.
At some level, there is an insurmountable unknowability.
Does it matter if Alex from Target was born or made? A lot of sneering armchair critics would probably say no — that this is all vapid, fleeting and painfully teenage, and none of it matters in any capacity. Others would say no because Alex, at this point, is a bona fide, Ellen-endorsed cultural phenomenon, independent of his shadowy origins.
Here’s another idea: It doesn’t really matter where Alex came from, or how he got there, because the Web only presents us with degrees of fiction. In that way, Alex isn’t unusual — and Breakr isn’t, either.