My Week on Bumble as a Fake Digital Identity
What I Learned about catfishing, being catfished and trolling. Also a lesson on how easy it is not only to create an online identity but fall into a new persona.
Meet Ethan Alderson: born January 8th, 1989. He has a verified email, phone number and Facebook account. His interests are, “Hiking, drinks, summer vibes and my dog.” He’s 178 cm (5'10"), has an undergrad degree, drinks socially, never smokes cigarettes but has the occasional toke, and keeps physically active. He’s also not real.
Ethan was created over two days during the second week of January 2020. For someone who has never actively tried to deceive anyone on this scale for so long, it was surprisingly easy building a backstory and digital footprint (however shallow it may be).
Ethan’s face is entirely fictional. It was designed by a generated adversarial network (GAN) and his personality and backstory were entirely created from imagination, influenced by personal experience. Close enough to what I know, but far enough from my actual experiences so as not to overlap with my own feelings. Or so I thought.
I wanted to see how far I could take my new identity, and using a dating platform like Bumble forces an immediate interaction. The game was afoot.
Nothing I did was illegal. I was not looking for monetary gain or to defraud unsuspecting individuals - just an interesting topic to write about. It was never my intent to hurt anyone. It’s deceptive: yes, the very act of making a fake profile is deception incarnate. I never tried to lead anyone on or intentionally lead them into false pretenses more than absolutely necessary.
In fact, replying to messages from a variety of women would often give me a new sense of anxiety and a deep sense of guilt followed by sadness. Eventually, Ethan would have to end the charade and metaphorically speaking, I’d step out from behind the curtain to come clean with them. Until I didn’t.
People are ghosted all the time, right? I wasn’t ever going to meet any of these women nor did I ever hint at any interaction outside of Bumble itself. None of their information was stored, kept or collected for my personal use afterward. In a sense I was the master behind Ethan Alderson: the Friendly Chat Bot.
AI companionship and digital likenesses are about to take on an expanded role in our lives. Soon it’s going to become harder and harder to differentiate between who is real and who isn’t. It’s already starting to happen in some online circles, just ask the likeness of Katie Jones amongst others.
Why Would You Do This?
I’m not a professional bot master, spy, mal-intentioned troll or grifter. So what was I hoping to accomplish? After reading a mix of articles on AI generation and fake accounts (starting with the articles linked above) as well as first-hand narrative experiences in online dating (especially about those who have been catfished) I wanted to try a couple things for myself:
- How easy is it for a layman to create a wholly fictional online presence in 2020? What lengths does one have to go through? Without breaking the law and within “common reason” (there’s plenty of time to debate the metrics of “common” later) to effectively create a new person online that could fool a casual user?
- What is the online dating experience like for someone more handsome (if perhaps maybe a little less articulate) than me?
Both are very big questions. I don’t know if I can satisfactorily answer either of them in this one article. Hell, I could write several articles on either topic. I’ll try and get through the Coles Notes of both points at least…
Who Am I?
I’m an average human. I’ve never considered myself particularly good looking, yet my digital counterpart isn’t that much different from me outside of our physical characteristics. We’re both straight, white and identify as male. Both of us are Canadian and hail from Ontario. Coincidentally enough, we’ve traveled to very similar destinations, yet one of us may have stayed at places longer than the other depending on who asks.
Similarly to my digital puppet, I’m 32 years old, have a working email, phone number and Facebook account. I too have an undergrad degree. My interests are hiking, canoeing, swing dancing and the Toronto Raptors. Ethan’s dog is my dog. I’m 173 cm (5'8"). I drink socially, don’t smoke except for the occasional spliff and try to stay active. I am real. Cogito, Ergo Sum.
As you can see, I have a big broken nose a somewhat permanent sneer. Someone gave me the nickname, “Conan” as a teenager because of my wavy hair that never stays down. I’m still prone to pimply breakouts and it’s a rare occasion that I’m properly shaven. Of course, half of those things I could fix easily.
So, ostensibly, this “experiment” was about satisfying my own ego and testing the boundaries of my insecurities. I tried to answer not only what it was like to be an online troll and catfisher, but for the people who engage in tricking women into thinking they’re someone else, what do they want from it? What are their takeaways? Is it a fresh sense of power? Control over a situation of their own creation? The feeling of successfully pulling the proverbial wool over someone else’s eyes? A mix of the above? Or something more?
What would it feel like to walk in someone else’s taller, cleaner-cut shoes? How would people treat me (as Ethan) differently? Or would there be any difference at all? How hard is it really to break into our 21st century social media networks to create a new persona?
Becoming Mr. Alderson
This wasn’t a Herculean task. Reflecting back, I really don’t know what I was expecting; maybe more mission impossible lasers or something. Perhaps the laptop screen to suddenly lock up and flash, “YOU ARE IN VIOLATION OF THE SOCIAL MEDIA APPARATUS” or some-such. Nothing like that happened.
It did feel as though I was betraying some kind of sacred trust.
It’s this feeling of betraying a societal trust that made me feel like some sort of maladjusted maniac. I couldn’t help but feel like I was facilitating some sort of sacred betrayal of the social contract that we all opt into when we agree to create a new account.
When curating our own online personas, we enter into a kind of Erving Goffman inspired, Umberto Eco informed form of critical analysis of ourselves to be eventually inserted into the online hyper-reality. We put on our best front-stage faces and poses, personality traits and most desirable characteristics for all to see, then step onstage and into the desert of the real.
The “desert of the real” as in the highly curated, performed and informed hyper-reality of the Web 2.0 we’ve all come to know and love since the late 2000’s. For an introvert, it’s stressful enough trying to build an engaging presence for yourself online. Yet to do it for a whole new (fake) person I found it grating on my psyche even further than before. It’s a whole new uncharted country of exercising representation.
In dealing with yourself, you’ve got your own background and experiences to rely on and inform you going forward. With the creation of a false identity, you’re starting to ask all the same questions you do intrinsically of yourself but consciously, from the “ground up;” ie. — What does Ethan sound like? Is he relaxed? What was his home life like? How’d he grow up? Was he happy as a child? What if he wasn’t? Should that show through? Going through the Stravinsky method here may seem like a bit much, but in the end it informs the actor just as much as the character like any other.
Since my own Facebook account was arleady linked to my personal Bumble feed, I used a burner number. Burner phones and private SMS services are becoming increasingly more popular in media, used extensively throughout shows like, Breaking Bad, The Wire and Mr. Robot. It turns out you don’t even need to buy a whole new device anymore, you can simply download a virtual phone to your smart device, hassle-free. A new phone number for voice and SMS messaging can be found for free after doing a 10 second search for burner phone apps. While it is probably unsuitable for serious activists and freedom fighters, it’ll do fine for the cheating husband or budding internet troll.
A couple of taps later and Ethan had a working, legitimate, phone number. Mr. Alderson had a working phone, email and Facebook account all in his name in under half an hour.
On the technical side I was expecting something much harder, having to deal with a web of two-factor-authentication (2FA), verifications and multiple checks and balances to prove that you’re “real.” What I found was a relative walk in the park. Bumblers can sign into the app in two different ways: through Facebook or through the use of a cell number.
If you’re going through Facebook, all that requires is a resubmission of your FB password, where Bumble uses Facebook’s 2FA methods as their own while scraping your profile for Bumble’s use. If you choose to login using a cell number, Bumble will text you a four digit authentication code where you’ll be prompted to input an email address and create a unique password for later uses. Afterward the number becomes nothing more than your username while the password serves its titular purpose. With Ethan’s credentials already initiated beforehand it took less than five minutes. Easy.
Bumble has further verification and safety features, such as the ability to ask your match whether they are real or not by doing a realtime photo evaluation. Yet in my experience no one ever asked me to verify myself, nor did I ask anyone else. My digital puppet persona was passing without a hitch.
Being Mr. Alderson
I’ll admit it: being Ethan Alderson was addictive at first. His name was based on the character of Elliot Alderson from Sam Esmail’s hactivist series, Mr. Robot. Get it? Ethan, much like Christian Slater’s character to Rami Malek’s was my own alter-ego, yet also completely synthetic, like an actual robot. I felt the homage fit well.
On the surface, having a handsome, successful person sitting in my pocket garnering attention from all kinds of women who I felt normally wouldn’t give me a second glance was intoxicating. Compared to my own Bumble experience I came in thinking that the deeper I’d get into character the easier it would become, yet that’s the opposite of what happened.
I was getting so many matches it was honestly hard to keep up. Unlike my own profile, (I’ve been an on-and-off Bumble user since 2015) where I balance an average seven or so women at once in my Match Queue, Ethan gathered the attention of 21 women in less than 24 hours. Laying in bed that Saturday morning I had five messages waiting for me and another six on the way within the first hour of replying. Ethan Alderson, compared to me, felt like an unstoppable cult of personality.
Amongst the various svelte, athletic 20–30-somethings that I had matched with (I always swiped right), the first person to open a dialogue was an athletic woman claiming to be thirty-five, but actually looked closer to 45 or 50. It wasn’t so much what she had written or her multitude of gym pictures, but more concerning the photos with her friends. They were all with women roughly fifty-plus, and her closeup shots you could definitely see the age lines around her mouth and eyes.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that in-and-of-itself, but when the first person you start a conversation with is scamming the scammer, it forces you to re-evaluate your machinations. What were either of us hoping to get out of this? She was obviously older than 35 upon closer inspection, and Ethan wasn’t even real. Yet we both persisted. The more we talked, the more I realized it wasn’t about a sexual drive for her; it was about simple companionship.
She told me about her weekend plans, what she did at the gym that day and how much she liked her new vehicle. Simple, platonic things. I listened carefully, texted some tepid words of encouragement or praise where I could and eventually moved on.
Over the next twenty-four hours I continued having platonic to slightly flirtatious chats with an absolute torrent of incredibly pretty women. Regardless of age, race or social standing, finding companionship and the search for “authenticity” was an emerging theme amongst all of them.
Here I was thinking that roleplaying someone better looking would lead to more matches, which it undoubtably did. I also comically thought it would somehow lead to more propositions for sex, and more risqué photos shared. In the end, yes, more “conventionally attractive” women matched with Ethan, but I found more often than not, Ethan had the same bland, lukewarm conversations that us uglies do. Hell, there were even a fair amounts of matches that Ethan and I overlapped on.
This presented an interesting question: would there be a noticeable difference in how our overlaps would treat me compared to Ethan? In one particular case, there was. Talking to her while using my face was like pulling teeth. We matched, but our conversation just wasn’t taking off. Ethan asked the same questions, if only rephrased just a little. She was thrilled.
This woman was totally gaga over Ethan, markedly less-so over boring old Xander. She couldn’t stop commenting on Ethan’s blue eyed gaze and “amazing smile.” While Xander was getting two-to-three word answers Ethan was getting paragraphs on the same topic. Just when I was thinking maybe really good looking people don’t have it that much better, the tables were turning.
Overall, I was beginning to become jealous of Ethan. I know: that sounds insane. I was starting to pine after the success of my own creation. I drew comparisons to Dr. Frankenstein, resenting the monster he’d created. Ethan was matching with seemingly everyone.
He was having conversations with women that I thought would be a good match for myself. They were chatting with me after all, weren’t they? Mr. Alderson was just the shell that contained my soul, my thoughts… an instrument of my will. They may have liked Ethan’s face, but they were falling for Xander, damnit!
Like how Clark Kent wrestles with the fact that Louis Lane is in love with Superman and not him, I was resenting that steely-eyed bastard with each passing day as the second week dragged on. Scarily enough, Ethan started sharing more of my history and extruding more and more of my characteristics. The Stravinsky method was breaking down. Character and actor were starting to blend.
It was near the start of the second week that I realized I was going from mildly creepy but harmless territory into, maybe going mad land. It was dawning I had to take a break. It was so addictive though! As Ethan’s popularity with women didn’t let up, I didn’t either. We started to grow more and more into a single entity. Ethan was becoming funnier, giving answers that were more thought-out and asking more in-depth questions.
Mr. Alderson shared his apparent newfound love for reading sci-fi with a fellow geek from Brampton. He offered tips on writing to a nurse crafting a letter for work from Toronto. He debated mining ethics with a van-dweller from British Columbia. All the while, Xander was collecting relative dust.
All things must end. After about nine days online, Ethan Alderson was blocked from Bumble for “suspicious activity.”
Our contemporary news stream is inundated with talk of “bots,” “trolls,” and “online bad actors” all trying to move the Overton window toward a certain direction of their ideological choosing. Almost daily we’re deluged by talk about “Russian bots” interfering with our political or democratic systems worldwide.
GAN created faces open up a new avenue on the way toward bot supremacy in our democratic mediums. In that GAN created faces are ostensibly wholly original faces with theoretically no ties to real people. While there are ways to tell that they are synthetically created to the keen observer, (notice how Ethan’s left shoulder… ended in the photo above) the algorithm is continuously improving. These manufactured faces with their ubiquity and easy creation online open up a whole new arena for the little guys — ie. the catfishers and the simple trolls. I’m not a government agent or a political idealist (at least not on the global scale). I’m not even on the Nigerian Royalty level. Yet I have access to an effectively infinite number of faces and a set of easy-to-access, totally free tools to use them in whatever faith I wish.
The modern day catfisher uses an effective screen — as the anthropologist Krystal D’Costa put it, they, “mirror the offline behaviors of others.” By using minimal detail, open language and positively reinforcing their own presumptive beliefs about Ethan, I was able to come across as a person to project themselves onto.
Perhaps the ultimate endgame for the catfishers who aren’t driven by money is something like a 21st century retelling of Cyrano de Bergerac. Or that’s my guess at least. Some unbeknownst rush of power that comes from fooling an unrequited love or pulling something out of that perceived unattainability. That feeling of wanting to belong, either to or again to freedom from a certain group or caste. Just like the allure of The Great and Powerful Oz is just too much for some people to stay away from, the perception of power from behind the curtain is too temping to wield for others. In short, catfishing is an instrument of your own destruction.
I started writing this article slightly over a year ago this month. The world has changed so much since then, yet in some respects this may be just as salient as ever. I feel like I could have done more of a deep dive on any number of different topics mentioned while editing this recently, but I rather have it published than in perpetual limbo.
Anyway, if you liked this, read my adventures on Bumble as a woman, coming soon!