Impersonation before and after Social Media: From Graham Greene’s “Other” to Jon Ronson’s “Infomorph”

In September 1954, writer Graham Greene received a curious letter from a man who had met him at the Cannes International Film Festival. There was one problem: Greene had never attended the Festival. Green responded, explaining that he must have met another Graham Greene. But this wasn’t the end of the matter. Over the next few decades, Greene would hear again and again of another Graham Greene traveling around the globe, passing himself off as his more famous namesake, and getting into various spots of trouble — including being arrested in Assam for selling weapons to outlaws and subsequently attempting to solicit bail money from Greene’s publisher. These events are documented in the Graham Greene papers, held by the John J. Burns Library.

In January of 2012, the writer Jon Ronson discovered that someone had created a Twitter account impersonating him and was tweeting what he considered to be nonsense. When he tracked down the account’s creators—who turned out to be researchers experimenting with virtual bodies of information that may possess emergent features such as personality—he discovered that shaking this double was harder than he’d expected. “The spambot left me feeling powerless and sullied,” he wrote. “My identity had been redefined all wrong by strangers and I had no recourse.”

These two incidents, separated by almost sixty years, seem startlingly similar in some ways and starkly different in others. It’s now easier to create a Twitter account with someone else’s name than it is to pull off the act in person, when a quick online search can pull up photographs of nearly anyone. It also seems like it’s easier to stop those digital impersonators, through features like account verification. While parody or fan Twitter accounts are permitted, an impersonation policy states that “You may not impersonate others through the Twitter service in a manner that is intended to or does mislead, confuse, or deceive others.” 

Photograph of telegrams Telegram concerning the arrest of Graham Greene’s imposter in Assam

Telegram concerning the arrest of Graham Greene’s imposter in Assam. Box 43, Folder 8, Graham Greene papers, MS.1995.003, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Both Ronson’s and Greene’s experiences with imposters led them to ponder weighty topics. For Ronson, his (ultimately successful) campaign to get his infomorph’s account deactivated drew a large amount of public interest and led to him writing about the consequences of virtual mob justice in his 2015 book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. As for Greene, he eventually wrote an essay about his strange relationship with his imposter, entitled “The Other … Whom Only Others Know.” It concludes with an anecdote about how, after a meeting between Greene and Chilean president Salvador Allende, a local newspaper accused him of being his own double. “I found myself momentarily shaken with a metaphysical doubt,” he wrote. “Had I been the imposter all along? Was I the Other?”

Visit the “Being Social Before Social Media” exhibit currently on display at the John J. Burns Library to see some of Greene’s correspondence and articles about his double trouble. The exhibit is open until October 5, 2017. 

  • Annalisa Moretti, Archives Assistant, John J. Burns Library

Works Consulted:

Graham Greene papers (MS.1995.003), Box 43, Folders 7-8, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

 

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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