Dostoevsky’s The Double tells the story of Yakov Golyadkin, whose life is destroyed by the arrival of someone who looks identical to him but is far more charming and likeable. Gradually Yakov finds that his double has stolen his friends and replaced him at work, and that he is generally doing a much better job of being Yakov than Yakov ever could. When Yakov attempts to reclaim his life he can never get past the problem that people prefer the replicant to the real thing. The novel ends when Yakov’s friends have him sectioned, leaving his impersonator to become the real Yakov and be brilliant at it.
A few months ago a poet contacted me to ask if my Instagram account had been hacked. This was surprising because I didn’t think that I had an Instagram account. But when I looked online I discovered that I did and I was really quite popular. Someone had taken all the underwhelming posts from my Twitter profile – about how sea cucumbers eject their internal organs when under threat, about how Gary Oldman and George Saunders share the same face – and reposted them to enormous success. My replicant had more than six thousand followers after only four months. If fake me continued at this rate then he would quickly become more popular than real me, and – since popularity is now the only true measure of legitimacy – I would, at that moment, become my own impersonator. So I joined Instagram and sent fake me a message asking him (I thought of him as a him) to stop – after which he quickly blocked me. Then I asked my friends to make contact on my behalf. The confrontational comments they left on fake me’s profile were immediately flagged as abusive and removed. When I reported the problem directly to Instagram – filling in their online form, sending a photo of me holding my passport – I had to admire the brazenness of the disclaimer that came up as I clicked ‘send’: ‘We’re trying hard to prioritise reviews for the most urgent cases. This means we may be unable to review your ID or it may take a long time.’ In other words: you’re almost certainly not important enough.
Having not heard back from Instagram, I eventually decided to set up a new account, a fake one under the name Joanna, and sent myself a private message.
‘Hello,’ I said. ‘I’ve read everything you’ve written, even the unpublished stuff.’
‘Wow I really appreciate you,’ he replied. ‘I wanna use this medium to get up close and personal with a Lucky Fan. Where are you located?’
‘I live half the time in London, half the time in New York,’ I wrote, remaining vague yet glamorous.
‘You seem to be a very nice person,’ he said. ‘Are you single? If yes, here is my private cell [it was an American number], drop me a message and I will get back to you asap. Baby please don’t share my number with anyone. Kisses and Hugs for you … Am having a studio session right now kindly text me, I will get back to you asap. Once again thanks for being a fan.’
Real me and fake me seemed to have an instant sexual chemistry. I thought about texting but then I got worried because that would mean sharing my actual phone number. So I ordered a new sim card – ‘my burner’, as I made a point of calling it – then bought a little black box from a man called Igor on the internet that would allow me secretly to record both sides of a phone conversation. Only then did I send my impersonator a message on WhatsApp: ‘I’m sorry I didn’t text you straight away. I was nervous!’ and then ‘Shall we chat? Are you in the studio?’ (I loved the idea that I had a studio.) I got no reply. I noticed that his WhatsApp profile picture was different from his Instagram. There it was one of my author photos but here it was a spooky hooded figure sitting in front of a laptop, face obscured by a question mark, looking halfway between a hacker and the Grim Reaper.
I waited all day for a reply and then, during my son’s bathtime, my phone rang. It was a video call from fake me. I watched the hooded figure glowing on my screen. With sudsy fingers, I answered and quickly angled the phone towards the ceiling in order to hide myself. Peering at the screen, I saw that he had switched off his camera. There was a long moment when neither of us said anything on account of not looking or sounding like the people we were pretending to be. The impersonator had a view of my bathroom’s recessed downlight and swirls of condensation, could hear a toddler bashing a toy duck against the tiles. I watched the blank screen and listened to the faint sound of someone exhaling. We were strangers in the dark, breathing on each other. Then, once fake me had established that I was probably not who I said I was, he hung up and blocked me.
I took reassurance from the fact that this sort of thing happens all the time. Jonathan Franzen is impersonated so often he has saved on his desktop a picture of himself holding a sign that says ‘I’m not on Twitter.’ He periodically emails this to the relevant authorities who, presumably, take prompt action. Which is all very well if you’re Jonathan Franzen. But the genius of impersonating someone like me is that I’m the only one who cares.
I still hadn’t heard back from Instagram so I sent them another complaint, angrier this time, typing with a great noisy clacking of the keyboard, warning that the longer they took to act, the more they put their users at risk. This wasn’t about me, I wrote, except, implicitly, in all the ways that it was about me. I slapped the send button and a warning box immediately popped up that said: ‘Facebook’s systems determined that you were going too fast when taking an action. You must significantly slow down. You are engaging in behaviour that may be considered annoying or abusive by other users.’ So now I was the troll? Me, with my burner, my bugging device, my fake account and my self-righteous mission? It was an outrage.
The advice from my publishers was just to move on. It was not worth the effort required to get these kinds of account taken down. But I was already in too deep. I started up another, different, fake Instagram account and, again, began the humiliating rigmarole of trying to seduce myself. We started messaging and eventually fake me said that he wanted to get ‘up close and personal’ though this time I wasn’t given a phone number. I said that I would pay him to help me with my poems, hoping that he might then send me his bank details and give something away. I should have guessed that he’d want to be paid in bitcoin. He also said that, before he would look at my poems, I would have to ‘sign a contract, a police affidavit and a non-disclosure agreement form so that we will know that all this is legal’. His sudden commitment to legality was, in the circumstances, quite endearing. I created some poems using an online haiku generator and sent them to his email address, firstname.lastname@example.org. Then, while I waited for all the documentation to come through, we began chatting.
Fake me was in Florida on holiday, sunbathing and going to Universal Studios. His favourite film was Fast and Furious 9 and he hoped that it wouldn’t be the last in the franchise. He liked listening to country music, old-school hip hop and R’n’B. These answers came quickly and I had a strong feeling that this person was not overthinking their replies. He wasn’t in character. In which case it seemed highly likely that I was speaking to an actual person who was probably in Florida, probably a young man, perhaps on holiday, perhaps at dinner with his parents who, at this moment, were watching the frightening fluency of his thumbs on the screen, his face blue-lit by the glare, wondering what could be so interesting that it could steal their little boy away from them.
I never heard back about my poems because fake me had bigger plans. On Instagram he posted a message encouraging his (our?) fans to buy my new book. This seemed like a great bit of free publicity until he also, and more emphatically, encouraged them to invest in cryptocurrency. Here was the endgame. He updated his profile so that it said: ‘Writer of novels and poems. Crypto lover.’ He recommended a particular investment expert, Tyler, a friend of his who, it turned out, was himself an impersonation of a well-known crypto analyst.
Using one of my fake accounts, I started talking to fake Tyler, who promised to help me ‘make millions’ if I would only ‘jump into this unlimited opportunity’. We chatted on and off for a week, with me trying to uncover his deeper psychology and him trying to convince me to put money into a company called Metaco – and neither of us getting anywhere. I learned that Metaco was also fake, an imitation of a legitimate investment company. While the real Metaco was based in Switzerland, the fake one had an address in northern Romania – the picturesque medieval city of Suceava – though their website was registered in the Cocos Islands, a largely uninhabited tropical archipelago in the Indian Ocean. In other words, there seemed to be an international network of fakery built on the expectation that people were going to take financial advice from a poet-novelist.
We are living through a golden age of online scams. In 2021, people in the US lost more than $3.5 billion to various internet hoaxes, many of which are highly complex and, at the same time, flamboyantly stupid. There was the one where people invested $3.3 million in SQUID, a cryptocurrency that promised its buyers it would be tradable in a video game inspired by the Netflix show Squid Game. The value of the coin rose 86,000 per cent in less than a week – which would have made a lot of people incredibly rich, if the whole thing had not been a fiction. Then there was the one where scammers tricked people into investing $2.7 million in cartoons of apes. In fact, this was a double scam, convincing buyers first that the images were timeless works of digital art and then that they should pay huge amounts of money to an organisation that didn’t exist. If these schemes worked, then it raised the question of whether my impersonator was in fact an evil genius, creaming millions from my devoted fanbase – which, in a sad sort of way, would have been quite gratifying.
I can only assume that fake me wasn’t making a lot of money because one day he discarded me. He changed his name and profile picture so that he was now a dashing young crypto analyst called Koroush whose videos showed him doing one-handed pull-ups in the garden of his enormous, glassy house while balancing a MacBook in the palm of his other hand. I admit to feeling a little hurt. The strange thing was that my poems were still there, layered beneath the new posts about learning Brazilian jiujitsu and smoking shisha in Dubai, creating the odd sense that I had been upgraded: a poet with a portfolio and core strength.
A few weeks later I saw that fake me had changed his face and name again and was now Diego, a 21-year-old Spanish crypto-millionaire, and then he changed again, becoming a ferociously upbeat market analyst and YouTuber called Donovan, and then it happened again. On and on he went, shifting shape every month or so, but always with my poems buried inside him. By the time I tried to make contact again – now using the crypto-friendly name of Yakov Golyadkin – he had switched his account to private and wouldn’t grant me access. I was locked out of myself.
That left me alone to pick over the meaning of our earlier conversations. If it had always been about cryptocurrency, then why had he wanted to get up close and personal with a Lucky Fan? I began to speak to all the people who had been in contact with fake me. It slowly became clear that I was the only one to whom my impersonator had actually given his phone number. It took me a few days to accept the unavoidable conclusion: fake me was only interested because real me was so keen.
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