A tale of mistaken social media identity
As a journalist, my byline is everything. My name is my brand, but that brand is not quite as unique as some.
Hi there, my name is Claire Varley. I am a writer and journalism student, with about three chapters of my opus novel in a file on my hard drive that will possibly never be read by anyone other than myself, and maybe my best friend, if I’m feeling brave.
I am most certainly Claire Varley, a writer from Melbourne. But despite my best intentions, I have definitely not written a novel, let alone published one.
I was shocked to find that there are, in fact, two writers named Claire Varley floating around Melbourne, and the other one had written this book. A quick search revealed that although she had a website, she did not use Twitter.
I sent a screenshot of my predicament to my friend, amused by the mistake, and we had a chuckle. I threw a few sarcastic tweets into the Twittersphere, and thought nothing else of it.
Just how remarkable this coincidence was didn’t set in until my situation escalated.
Bloggers, book distributors, and avid readers began sending me tweets and tagging me in their posts. Every day my newsfeed lit up with new messages.
Apparently this novel was actually really good, and the fans couldn’t get enough of me.
Yet not one of these professionals or fans cared to take the simple, one-step research process of checking if this account belonged to the right woman.
You’d think that if I’d written a debut novel, I may want to publicise it. Throughout my entire Twitter timeline, not once had I mentioned that I’d written a book, but no one who had mentioned me had picked that up.
Interviews with this other Claire Varley were published, alongside photos of her, and still attributed to my Twitter handle. Now, we both may be caucasian women with brown, curly hair, but we definitely don’t look similar enough to be mistaken for the same person.
I was fascinated by the ethical conundrum presented to me. By sitting at my desk laughing at the case of lazy PR on my phone, sending screenshots to my friends, and not outing myself as the wrong Claire Varley, was I being dishonest?
Considering I hadn’t lied about writing the book, or received any benefit from the misunderstanding, I mentally cleared my conscious of any wrongdoing.
I made the situation all the more complex for myself writing back to a tweet, for no reason other than to amuse myself. I couldn’t resist making jokes when the opportunity arose.
Even my friend, a law student, expressed that the other Claire Varley may not be happy with me.
“But why?” I replied, “what have I done?”
“She may think you’ve stolen her identity, and you’re taking credit for her work. Be prepared for it to go horribly wrong,” he answered.
After much discussion with my peers, I was left with no other option: I had to contact this woman, this other Claire Varley whose book had created such amusement in my life, and as far as I knew, had no idea any of this was going on.
Despite that small fear that she may be upset with me, I took the plunge and contacted her. Within two days of emailing the other Claire Varley, we met in the flesh, and joined powers. It wasn’t hard, considering we were shocked to learn we live a mere 20 minute drive away from each other.
She was equally amused by my predicament.
“The only reason I would have been unhappy with you in this situation, is if you’d be rude to people, or tarnished my reputation. You’ve just made a few funny quips, you’ve done nothing wrong,” (the other) Varley said.
Yes, our situation is all good and funny, and no one has been hurt. But the case of Varley v Varley is just the tip of the social-medial ethics iceberg.
Mistaken online identity isn’t always as harmless as my experience.
In an extreme example, activist group The Yes Men purposefully impersonate entities that they dislike, or whose actions they disagree with. They do so by creating websites near identical to the ones they are attempting to impersonate, and the lack of research into the authenticity of these websites results in invites to interviews and conferences.
“The places we trust, TV, news outlets, we know we can trust because they should have fact checking processes in place. But everyone else is on Twitter, and we trust Twitter more than we probably should,” Varley said.
Unlike traditional media, which should have professional editors, in the realm of social media, fact checking is the readers responsibility.
“We have to do our own fact checking, and we’re not used to it,” Varley mused.
Back in July, Andrés Iniesta wrote that his Instagram account was shut down, and given to the Spanish professional football player of the same name.
Although it was later restored, the Communications Manager of Instagram Gabe Madway explained that Instagram purely made a mistake, did not research, and assumed that Iniesta’s account was a fake.
Even people in my own life didn’t bother to check facts, assuming again that there must only be one Claire Varley.
This experience has served as a great reminder of how important it is to check the facts, and how in the age of instant communication, how easy it is to get things wrong.
Before I became a professional writer, my name didn’t really matter, but now it has great significance.
Claire Varley and I are both building a career in a remarkably similar arena, using our name as a brand.
If we were a doctor and a social worker, no problem. But we’re both doing things that revolve around making a name for ourselves.
This raises so many questions.
Can we both exist as writers from Melbourne with the same name? Considering our brand is so similar, can only one of us keep it, and if so, who? Should it alternate on a basis of who is more successful at the time? Do we flip a coin? Does one of us take on an initial? Do we combine ourselves to become one super-being of industrial, writing proportions?
Rather than feel threatened by this other Claire Varley roaming my neighbourhood, and stringing sentences together, I have chosen to embrace her.
For I am a writer, and so is she, and this remarkable coincidence has given me something wonderfully unique to write about.
Instead of fighting for supremacy as the real Claire Varley, I think it best that we revel in the uniqueness of this situation.
Hopefully the world, and Internet, is ready and big enough, for two Claire Varleys.
I know I’m sure as hell proud to be one of them.