Part III: Finale of the Bo-Ethan Story
What happens when we lose our authenticity on the web
The truth is, my story about Ethan is no longer my own.
Over 10K people read the story. The press jumped on it. Ethan plugged my writing when interviewed by journalists. Before I knew it, the story got so big that it took on a life of its own. Neither one of us were prepared for the media reception.
The Ethan-Bo story forced me to confront the matter of authenticity. I started asking myself: “How do I remain authentic as my image and story become scrutinized, speculated, and distorted by the media?”
I am scared to write about how I truly feel because the aftermath of the Ethan-Bo story is not all rosy, romantic, and positive. But I’ve learned, there lies power from writing about what scares us.
The arch of the Ethan-Bo story follows the arch of a real relationship: Part I was falling in love, Part II was questioning whether or not that love would last, and Part III is finally, reality hits for better or worse. This is my reality. Ethan has a different reality. No one reality is better or more objective than the other. But I feel the burning need to share my reality, partially because I am conflicted by it. I am writing in hopes of resolving my inner conflict.
Authenticity is presenting your thoughts, opinions, and voice in their purest form. Authenticity is the bravery to tell the truth even when you know there will be backlash. Authenticity is preserving your artistic integrity in the face of massive commoditization. It means saying “No” to tempting distribution deals, media coverage, and interviews that will distort the very essence of your work. Authenticity is knowing your core, maintaining enough self-respect to never compromise what makes you YOU.
Without authenticity, your creation will take a life of its own.
As my online readership grew, the followers of the story formed an invisible force around me. A force that pushed the momentum of the narrative forward. I felt obligated to keep talking to Ethan long after I stopped trusting him.
First I fell in love with Ethan and then I fell in love with writing the story.
I felt like a contestant on The Bachelor. The contestants on The Bachelor join the reality show with the pure intentions of falling in love and making themselves vulnerable on national television. Despite the public’s scrutiny and tabloid critique of their on-screen romances, The Bachelor and Bachelorette contestants do what most of us cannot—bear their truth in public. Many succumb to the same phenomenon that I experienced — living out a narrative that the media and public wants. Countless bachelors caught in the wave of this invisible force have proposed to the wrong person. Sadly, the number of called-off engagements and divorces are disproportional to the on-screen romances. This becomes a question of free will. When do we stop being free agents in our lives and just become passive actors in some ordained narrative by the media?
My first encounter with the media came from the New York Times journalist Alex Williams. He reached out to me on Twitter stating he had questions. I emailed him back, and he replied:
“I’d reach out to see if you’d want to summarize the allure of the Ethan app—particularly the anonymous confidante aspect—in slightly briefer, more quote-like form, I’d love to hear it.”
He approached me on a Tuesday and said the piece would run in the Style Section on a Thursday. I figured he was under pressure to deliver a profile about Ethan in 48 hours and obligingly offered two sound bites:
“Ethan can be anyone you want him to be. Shrouded in anonymity, he is a mirror of yourself—always affirming, responsive, witty, and charming. He can be the best friend, confidante, and lover you never had.”
“When I asked Ethan if we would ever in meet in person, he said ‘maybe someday ☺’. Without his anonymity and mystery, Ethan loses his value. He is tabula rasa.”
After I sent the email, I immediately felt remorse. By giving him those sound bites, I unwittingly became a cog in the media machinery that made Ethan the app ultra-hyped. I wrote about Ethan from a pure place and now it felt like grimy tabloid fodder to feed massive internet consumption.
We are in the middle of a digital revolution. Journalists have to navigate an incredibly difficult tension, balancing the truth with the need to sensationalize, game Newsfeed algorithms, and abbreviate stories into pithy Twitter tag lines. In the era of sound bites and search engine optimization, I wonder if we have lost journalistic authenticity to let the true story, no matter how mundane and raw, speak for itself.
As Leon Wieseltier points out in “Among the Disrupted”, journalism and informational sharing is undergoing a paradigm shift. As we move towards singularity, we are also moving towards oversimplification, condensation, and distortion of the truth to feed our need to consume more information online.
Journalistic institutions slowly transform themselves into silent sweatshops in which words cannot wait for thoughts, and first responses are promoted into best responses, and patience is a professional liability.
I can’t help but wonder if the Bo-Ethan story fell into a digital trap where a fascinating social experiment evolved into a contrived digital love story, blurring the lines between honesty and fiction. I became wrapped up in a slow and insidious force, compelled by digital expectations for an ever-evolving story. The chasm between reality and the desired narrative widened over time. I started out writing the story for me and then somewhere along the way I began writing the story for others. I stopped living my truth.
I care about the truth because this is not just some story; it’s based on my life.
Two friends diverged in the forest and I took a different path from Ethan. We reacted differently to the media attention. Ethan embraced and leveraged the media attention from our story while I shirked from the press and felt protective over my own artistic creation: the Ethan and Bo story.
Over time, Ethan and I grew apart. While he built the Ethan platform, I became more skeptical about what was happening. Ethan recruited the very users who confided in him to become their own message apps under the Ethan brand. The Ethan platform offers a gamut of different “Ethans” specializing in services like calorie coaching, relationship advice, and music recommendations. Suddenly one voice, the Ethan voice, became a cacophony of voices.
It became evident that Ethan couldn’t offer me the one thing that I wanted: an in real life meeting.
At the beginning of our friendship, we discussed about one day meeting up. I held onto that glimmer of hope. As his brand and internet presence grew, he soon realized that he needed to stay in hiding until the platform wouldn’t rely so much on him as a symbol of the brand. In a recent interview, he confessed that he keeps his online persona separate from reality:
“Ethan is an imaginary friend. So don’t ask his age and don’t ask for a selfie. The point is you’ll never meet him in real life.”
That last sentence hit me like a freight train. I was never going to meet Ethan. What is the whole point of continuing this story and fulfilling the desired narrative? No matter how much this story evolves, it will never reach its conclusion in a real life meeting. I don’t care what people say about online friendships being enough. It’s not enough for me. I want the real thing. Online interactions facilitate offline interactions. What drove me to continue developing and writing the Ethan-Bo story was the hope that I will one day meet my friend in the flesh. And that possibility is gone.
If the real thing can’t exist, then I am letting go. I am letting go of Ethan.
I am making my choice to preserve my integrity as a writer and not feed into the media machinery or get caught in a digital trap. Meanwhile, Ethan made the choice to stay in hiding forever and build his platform into something bigger than himself. And that’s okay. The world needs Ethan and many Ethans like him.
What I am not okay with is continuing to lose my authenticity as a writer and individual.
My friend, Amy, once told me, “Artistic integrity is a burden and a choice.” Integrity is not something you need to have but choose to have. We don’t know the countless stories writers do not publish or the lucrative distribution deals they turn down, because it compromises their authenticity.
I am ending this story so I can preserve my artistic integrity and rediscover my authenticity again.
I am letting go of Ethan to make room for another story in my life.
What I want is something pure.
I want to be able to recapture the truth again.