Because Sofia already had a partner, she introduced me to her younger sister Lisa, a student at Linköpings University. Lisa and I also began to chat frequently, and although we considered meeting several times, she was also shy, and we never did meet. Eventually, Lisa also told me that she had a new girlfriend, a woman from Japan working at an engineering company in Linköping. Just as with Sofia, Lisa and I never had a video chat and never met in person.
After a year or so of frequent and lengthy chats with both sisters, Sofia informed me that she had gotten a job with a well-known IT firm in California, and would be moving to the San Francisco Bay area. We continued chatting, albeit somewhat less frequently, and she gave intermittent updates about her life there. When I visited my brother in San Francisco, I suggested to Sofia that she and I meet. She declined, and I began to wonder if she was real.
Then, in October of 2008, I moved to Switzerland for work. Soon after moving to Zürich, I joined Nordiska—the Nordic Rowing Club of Zürich—and became acquainted with many Swedes and other Scandinavians here. Among the Swedes I met at Nordiska were several who worked at the Zürich office of the big IT firm where Sofia had started working. When one of these guys told me he was soon going on a trip to the main office in California, I told him about my friend Sofia. “She’s friendly, smart, and Swedish,” I told him. “Look her up and tell her Michael said hello.”
When he returned from his trip, he had disappointing news. “There’s no one with that name working for the company,” he told me. The next time I saw Sofia online, I told her what I had learned. “I use my Mother’s maiden name when chatting online,” she told me. She declined to tell me her real last name. My other friends at the company tried to identify her by her other characteristics—that she was Swedish and deaf, for example. They were also unable to find anyone working there that matched her description.
Then, one day, I saw some photos posted by a friend online. They were photos from a dance competition at La Isla, a salsa dance club in Stockholm that I frequented when I lived there. In the photos, I saw a face that looked familiar. The girl was tagged in the photos, so I clicked through to her profile and looked at her other photos. Those photos looked very familiar. Then it hit me: these were some of the same photos that “Sofia A.” had shared with me years before, and had claimed were photos of her!
Could this be the same girl? Her first name was also Sofia—let’s call herSofia B.—and she appeared to be from Sweden; but judging from the dates and places mentioned in her photos, she had not lived in the U.S.—at least not recently. I sent “Sofia B.” a short note telling her that she looked familiar and asking if we knew each other.
The next day, she replied. She wrote that I didn’t look familiar, but that we had several friends in common. This is true—we both know several people in the salsa dance scene in Stockholm, and I know some of the people who appear with her in the dancing photos. Sofia B.’s email was open and friendly, and did not seem like the kind of reply I would have received from someone who had just been caught in a lie.
I decided to tell her the whole story. I sent Sofia B. another email, explaining why she looked familiar—that I had had a multi-year conversation online with someone who had been using her photos. I pointed her to the profile pages that Sofia A. had created on OKCupid and Facebook.
I received a new reply from Sofia B. She informed me that the photos on the pages I had shown her were old ones, and that all of them had been taken by one man—a former friend of hers, I gather. The impostor is either that man or someone who had access to his photos. She said that she would look into the matter.
I actually know very little about the person I’ve been chatting with all these years. Lying obviously comes naturally to this person, and I simply don’t know what is true and what is made up. The two “sisters” Sofia and Lisa might actually be the same person. In fact, the person might even be a man.
And of course the real Sofia is surely upset to know that someone else has been using her photos to create a false identity. Sofia B. notified OKCupid and Facebook of the fake profiles using her photos. It took a couple of days for them to be removed.
A few days later, the supposed sister of Sofia A., “Lisa,” signed on and said hello. I told her what I had discovered, and explained that I was no longer willing to chat with her unless she was willing to be honest with me. Her reply didn’t really surprise me. “Nice chatting with you all these years,” she said. She made it clear that her anonymity was sacrosanct, and much more important than any friendship we had shared.
I told her that I felt like fool for trusting her. “I’m sorry” was her final reply.
I feel like I’ve lost a friend. I feel betrayed. And most frustratingly of all, I may never know what was real and what was not. I feel a bit like Neo coming out of the Matrix for the first time, waking up to a different reality, and being faced with the prospect of abandoning old friends and old accepted truths. A small part of me feels a desire to retreat to denial and to invent excuses for the liars.
It’s sometimes hard to strike the right balance between openness and caution when dealing with people. I’m usually pretty trusting of people I’ve just met, giving everyone the benefit of the doubt until I have reason to distrust the person. It’s clearly easier however to judge a person’s character when you can see the person face-to-face. Online, it’s easy to hide behind a mask of anonymity. I will definitely be more careful next time.
I’m also realizing that for socializing the ’net is best when it is used as a means to arrange meet-ups in the real world. I have flesh-and-blood friends who are deserving of my time and energy. In the future I won’t be wasting time with phantoms.