01 Dec 2008

The End of Fake Avatars?

Last week I eavesdropped on a tweet that Lee Odden sent to Marty Weintraub. The tweet was about the recent ruling in the Myspace suicide case where a judge basically made it a felony to lie about your identity on the Internet. Given all the debate that has taken place over the issue of fake avatars in social media (I love that Bruce Clay ranks first for that, heh), I know people must have opinions on what took place. I’d be very interested in hearing them.

In case you’re not familiar with what happened, 49-year-old Lori Drew created a fake MySpace account under the name Josh Evans and then used it to flirt with and then torment a 16-year-old girl who had a falling out with her daughter. The young girl, who already suffered from depression, eventually hanged herself in her bedroom shortly after reading Lori’s final message which included the classless words that the world would be much better without Megan.  (Aren’t people awesome to one another?)

With all the press this case got, the courts needed to make some kind of statement with this ruling. A 16-year-old girl is dead because of a sick adult who should have known better. And with their ruling, they made that statement.  But does the ruling go too far?

As much as I want there to be a ruling that makes it wrong for marketers and others to create fake avatars to deceive others, this ruling reaches way too far, in my opinion. I mean, should QualityGal really be thrown in jail because she “hides” and “lies” about who she is online for privacy reasons? I’d think not.

Should Barack Obama be arrested because he allows people to Twitter in his name? No.

Do I think marketers selling a product should be locked up for toeing the line between evangelism and outright deception? No, I don’t.

But I also don’t want fake avatars and other forms of deception in my social networks. Call me a naive bunny, but I don’t want “Ana” the soy candle enthusiast friending me when I know she isn’t a real person. I don’t want people using social media to hurt one another.  I think there needs to be laws to protect children from cyberbullying. But where’s the line?

Honestly, I don’t know. I’m hoping that you’ll share your opinions in the comments on where you think the line is and your thoughts on the MySpace suicide ruling. How do we make people accountable on the Internet without making lying on the Web a prosecutable crime? We need to do something to protect that space that employs us all. I really am interested in hearing your thoughts on this so I hope that you’ll chime in. This ruling could affect all of us.

Marty, I’m looking at you.


  1. Jill December 1, 2008 at 9:37 AM

    You can’t and shouldn’t try to legislate stuff like that. Making it illegal to create a fake MySpace page? That’s just nuts.

    Nobody wants/likes to be tricked or deceived online, but the Internet should remain a free for all as long as nothing illegal is being done.

    I would think that there are other laws in place that can prevent or punish for these sorts of senseless tragedies. Harrassment type laws perhaps?

  2. Carrie Hill December 1, 2008 at 9:38 AM

    Hey Lisa,

    I think you rasie some very valid points – and I’m not a big fan of anything “fake” – but does Ana the soy candle gal really “hurt” anyone?

    I hate the idea of regulating everything – but it seems that more free rein = more abuse.

    Maybe the line could/should be drawn at malicious intent? Maybe it should be drawn at fake….

    Definitely thought provoking – thanks for tackling the topic.

  3. QualityGal December 1, 2008 at 9:40 AM

    Now there’s a scary thought. I think it should be an issue about what you do with an alias, not the fact that you use one. I mean, I’m fairly transparent about the fact that, er, I’m not. I’m not pretending to be someone I’m not, I’m just not letting my “real name” get out there.

    Authors use pen names all the time. It’s essentially the same thing. I wouldn’t have a problem registering my pen name somewhere to let The Powers That Be know that I am a real person who takes responsibility for my online presence… as long as that information would be kept private and secure.

    Although the tricky part with that would be what happens when someone steals your password and starts posting under your identity.

    Let me get back to you on that…

  4. CJ December 1, 2008 at 9:41 AM

    I think that there needs to law protecting children that covers both online and offline – I guess at the end of the end of the day the social networks need to be monitored for this kind of activity, but what do you do about privacy?

    I don’t think lying as such is punishable, but no I don’t like being lied to, and I want to interact with genuine people I respect. You can usually pick out the liars sooner or later.

    Maybe the beginning of this is to educate the kids, inform them about this stuff and give them guidelines on who you befriend on social networks etc…don’t talk to strangers sort of thing maybe.

    This is a toughie – good post.

  5. Mani Karthik December 1, 2008 at 9:43 AM

    Lisa, I think there shouldn’t be any regulation whatsoever that will not permit ppl to use a fake avatar. I mean, it’s a free world. What’s the fun in having a world where everything go by rules.
    On a serious note, it is important that people aren’t offended, hurt or humiliated in the cyber world as well. But social media should be what it is – social media, the crowd, the groups and all the “in betweens”.
    Let Peeps who are alright showing their pretty face, do it. That doesn’t mean that they won’t write/post anything stupid as an anonymous guy. If someone is evil, no matter he has an avatar or not, he’ll prefer to remain evil. So essentially, avatars has got nothing to do with one’s conduct or so I believe. Avatars are just that, avatars in the crowd.

    (Marty, where are you?)


  6. John December 1, 2008 at 9:43 AM

    Soo. how is a fave avatar any different from what the link ninja’s used to do? http://www.internetmarketingninjas.com/blog/link-techniques/farewell-to-selling-links/

  7. Jon Kelly December 1, 2008 at 9:46 AM

    I agree with Jill. Horrible tragedy, but we need laws that punish harassment without overreaching. Where does it stop? I don’t want to live in fear that my Yahoo or Wii avatar doesn’t accurately represent my physical appearance.

  8. Lisa Barone December 1, 2008 at 9:47 AM

    Jill: Just to play devil’s advocate, it was a false MySpace page that contributed to a 16-year-old killing herself. What kind of accountablilty falls on Lori Drew? What’s her crime? Old school harassment? There’s no accountability for the tools used? I don’t have an answer, I’m just asking questions.

    Carrie: To me, fake avatars do “hurt” people but I know that I’m in a very small minority who feels that way.

  9. Lisa Barone December 1, 2008 at 9:49 AM

    John: Very well played and a very good point. I wasn’t here when the ninja fake avatar thing was going on and there’s a reason for that. It’s never something I’ve believed in.

    A great point, though!

  10. Jon Henshaw December 1, 2008 at 9:52 AM

    My guess is that if there is legislation, it will be towards intent or consequence, and not necessarily the existence of a fake account. In other words, it was the person behind the fake account, not the account itself, that harmed the other person. (this is starting to sound like a gun/bullet/person argument)

    Anonymity and privacy, which includes the ability to choose a username and demographics that don’t reveal who you are, have been a core facet to the Internet for some time. And if they were a real threat, something would have been done about it a long time ago. But it’s not, and any rational and logical person who defends that position will (hopefully) keep any irrational and illogical laws from being passed.

    And more importantly, if something like that was passed, that would really suck for certain search marketing strategies! 😛

  11. Monica Wright December 1, 2008 at 9:57 AM

    Great post, definitely making us all think how we socialize online. My primary thought is that it wasn’t necessarily MySpace that caused the death, it was the sick adult who used it as a vehicle. She could have written letters, got a cell phone with a unique phone number, emailed … any of which could have been used to hurt this poor girl. It’s wrong, we know that. And there are so many stories of predators that certainly make my hair stand on end. But I can’t say that it’s the result of accessing and using a social network. I agree with Quality Gal about providing limited access to kids, make sure that they are educated on this stuff, and even monitored. Maybe that is the first step, making sure kids are safe. But I would hate to see all of the benefits of many of very valid, very useful networks be held back.

  12. Diane Aull (Torka) December 1, 2008 at 9:59 AM

    AFAIK, it’s not illegal in Real Life to go by a name different from the one on your birth certificate, whether it be a simple nickname or a totally different name altogether (although it may create some problems with the Department of Motor Vehicles, the SSA or the TSA). It only becomes illegal if you use that “fake identity” to commit a crime — and then it’s the commission of the crime, not the “fake identity” per se that’s the problem.

    I mean, law enforcement almost *expect* criminals to have an alias, don’t they? But just because someone goes by another name, that doesn’t automatically make them a criminal (or at least, it shouldn’t, IMO).

    I believe creating a “fake identity” online falls into the same camp. IMO, the rules shouldn’t be any different for online than they are for offline in this sort of situation. Create all the online fake identities — or real life nicknames and aliases — you want, and use them however you want within the bounds of the law. But if/when you use your avatar to cheat your customers, harass your neighbors, libel or slander people, etc. then you should be subject to whatever civil or criminal codes apply.

    My two cents, less taxes, adjusted for inflation…

  13. Twitter: Use a Picture, Look Less Like a Bot | OnlineMarketer.com December 1, 2008 at 9:59 AM

    […] 12/1/2008: We Build Pages points out another reason you may not want to be a […]

  14. QualityGal December 1, 2008 at 10:03 AM


    The comment section is tricky here, because names appear below the comments. I agree with limiting access to kids, but it was CJ who made the initial remark you agreed with.

  15. g1smd December 1, 2008 at 10:30 AM

    It is about to become illegal in the UK to hide behind a fake name when marketing or commenting on a product:



    I guess that the law will be extended over time to cover a lot more things than pure ‘marketing’.

    I would also guess that existing laws regarding harassment and stalking may very well already apply to the case above.

  16. Marty December 1, 2008 at 10:35 AM

    Great dialog Lisa. We’ve been following this case since the beginning, as has our law firm. This is not the end of anything, nor the beginning. To the We BuildPages readers, we invite you to read up on what Lee Odden was tweeting.
    What aimClear practices is quite a far throw from encouraging a precious young person to take her own life. We’re closer to Anne Landers, Ask Beth, Betty Crocker and the Maytag Man. We’re not comparing apples to apples here.
    I’ll also say that I’m the father of 2 incredible teenage daughters who are quite active in social media. @ aimClear and in our home, we follow the law, morals and our well documented track record of advocating for social media marketing responsibilities. 🙂 Here are additional jumping off points for this dialog: Thanks in advance to Lisa for hosting this discussion.

    Don’t Pee in the Pool. Responsible Social Media Marketing
    Does Gaming Social Sites Ruin Lives?
    Manipulate to Serve: Marketing by Holistic (Front Door) Social Media Pitch
    New Series: Avatar Theory, Common Social Media Participation Models
    Avatar Theory #3: The DoFollow Link Builder
    Eyes & Ears: Walled Garden Forum Rat Avatars

  17. SEO Newbie December 1, 2008 at 10:37 AM

    Well, we shouldn’t mess with the constitution, you know? Pen names are what allowed this country to create itself, in a time of tyranny. Pseudonyms are not illegal, unless used to defraud.

    Then again, we’ve indefinitely suspended the right to due process for all Americans. I suppose we can make pseudonyms illegal. Who cares, right? Just pretend it’s all good, stay focused on the few really ugly examples of abuse of privilege, and then steer the happy citizenry to vote in favor of “good laws that only hurt bad people”. Rock on…

  18. Annie Cushing December 1, 2008 at 10:56 AM

    At first blush, this ruling reminds me of how we (imho) dismissed critical civil liberties afforded to us in Constitution in the immediate wake of 911. What Lori Drew did to this young girl was unconscionable, and she should be held accountable for her senseless disregard for Megan’s safety. It wasn’t a single, isolated incident; she massaged her messaging over time – masterfully exploiting Megan’s vulnerabilities. But that’s the crime here, not assuming a fictitious identity.

    I think this case should primarily be used to educate, not legislate. For example, there should be campaigns that teach kids about the dangers of “friending” anyone online they haven’t met face-to-face. And parents should be better educated about how to keep their kids safe online. For many families, the chasm between the kids’ and parents’ understanding of technology is deepening, which must make it infinitely more difficult for parents to know how to protect their kids online.

    Likewise, adults and kids alike need to understand that their actions online can have just as poignant an effect on people as they do in face-to-face interactions. That point hit me hard when I read about the 19-year-old young man who broadcasted his suicide on justin.tv just a couple weeks ago. I read the transcript of those who urged him on and was shocked – and not just because the incident sadly resulted in death. Even if it hadn’t, it was reckless and heartless. Would they have been as cold if they had been in his bedroom with the drugs? And without a crowd intoxicated by the drama? Probably not, sociopaths aside.

    Why not target our taxpayer dollars to creating education campaigns that can make a difference in protecting kids from the inherent dangers of participating in online communities, rather than going after every anonymous avatar out there? Let’s pick our battles strategically and go after the cyber bullies who are being driven by malicious intent.

  19. netmeg December 1, 2008 at 10:56 AM

    I’ve been active online in forums and conferencing systems since 1985 (yea, I’m old as dirt) and if I had a nickel for every time I’ve seen this sort of thing (and the argument it inevitably spawns) I’d be rich enough to have my own T1 line running to my house.

    It always comes back to the same thing – you don’t let your kid have unsupervised access to something like myspace without knowing what the pitfalls are – particularly if you know that your child has emotional or behavioral problems that could be exacerbated by what goes on there.

    The mother who was doing the harassing is another piece of work, and I’d love to have about ten minutes alone with her in a room, but I still don’t think what happened justifies the rather sensational idea that all fake identities and/or avatars are evil and should be destroyed.

    I use a “fake” avatar. Mostly I picked it because I haven’t had a decent picture taken of myself in over 20 years, and I happen to like the attitude conveyed by the one I use (which was sent to me by a friend who thought it reminded him of me). Nobody particularly *needs* to see what I look like to judge the value of what I write. If they do – tough shit. I’m not particularly hard to hunt down (and in fact over the years have had to seek out three separate PPOs for people who actually *did* hunt me down – another valid reason to maintain a fake identity, if I wanted one) and I don’t care how many scammers and spammers and tricksters abuse the fake avatar, I’m not changing because of them. If I perpetrate fraud, then charge me with that fraud. Other than that, ain’t nobody’s business but my own.

    You can’t fix social / ethical / moral problems like these with legislation. It has never worked since the beginning of time, and it won’t work now.

    And by the way – what the mother did was horrible, but have you heard how some kids talk to each other? Do you remember your jr high (middle school) years? Kids are *cruel*. Would this situation have been handled differently if it weren’t an adult behind it, but another kid or kids?

  20. Brian Carter December 1, 2008 at 11:14 AM

    Hmm I wonder how this applies to fake funny avatars?

    e.g. http://www.twitter.com/thewholeworld
    and no, that’s not mine.

    Is it ok if they’re obviously a joke?

    That’s kinda different from pretending to be a real person, no?

  21. Internet Strategist December 1, 2008 at 11:18 AM

    If laws could prevent crimes, we’d have no crime. Do we still have crime? Obviously. So more laws don’t help. You simply can NOT legislate morality.

    We don’t owe people we meet in physical life our entire backgrounds; neither must we reveal personal information online. There are some very serious privacy issues looming in our futures that could endanger our freedom.

    There have already been bloggers who quit blogging because of death threats. Many wise individuals are not going to give up protecting their privacy.

    Every law that in unenforceable (how many “fake” Avatars are there online? how many enforcers?) provides another opportunity for selective enforcement. The bad guys can not create nearly as much havoc in our lives as authorities with bad laws can.

    The problem here is NOT the fake Avatar – it is the actions of an adult. Those ACTIONS are the cause. Outlawing “fake” Avatars will do nothing to change that or prevent another incident like this one.

  22. Lisa Barone December 1, 2008 at 11:40 AM

    I’m still reading through all these awesome comments (thank you for your insight and smart, smart words!), but wanted to really thank Marty for being brave enough to step into this conversation. We’ve had some heated exchanges about this in the past (damn passion!), but I think he provides some great links in his comment to add more to the dialogue. I’d encourage readers to check them out.


  23. Olivier December 1, 2008 at 12:03 PM

    It’s rather simple I think. You don’t write laws for people with good intentions (99% of the population), you write them for the 1% that will break them. The province of Quebec’s law are all governed by one thing first and that’s good will. No matter what you’ve done the law will always take into account good will over the letter of the law. It makes jurisprudence a bitch, but you know what, if you’re avatar has you with a six pack and you have a beer belly and you’re commenting on marketing blogs, then you’re intention wasn’t to attract people with your six pack, but get attention to you post. American law should take note of Good will. By the way I think Louisiana also has Good will written into its code of law (Quebec and LA are both based on Napoleonic Code). C’est tout.

  24. Sean Maguire December 1, 2008 at 12:08 PM

    Using this logic – all guns should be outlawed because they are a weapon, and one that is much more dangerous than an avatar.

    Clearly this law is unconstitutional and therefore illegal.

    Fake avatars don’t kill people. Mentally disturbed and vicious people kill people.

    Legislate the crime, not the weapon. The crime is always the individuals actions.

  25. chuckallied December 1, 2008 at 12:38 PM

    I agree with QualityGal about pen names. Make the maliciousness an offense, not the delivery method.

  26. The Burnman December 1, 2008 at 12:44 PM

    If people run to the government for regulation every time some idiot does something wrong, then the people running to the government will be the idiots doing something wrong.

    The idea that people should provide their true identity on the Internet by law, is one of the more ridiculous concepts floating about, and one which I think could do more harm than good. There are all sorts of reasons why people do not use their real name, or picture, and most of those reasons are perfectly harmless.

    Does anyone actually think requiring people to use their real identities on the Internet will do any good? Such a law would instill a false confidence in people that they are dealing with legitimate people, and fails to address the simple fact that if someone really wants to break the law by scamming or harassing you, they aren’t going to care if they break another law to do it.

    The problem in protecting children on the Internet is not simply related to the Internet. Parents are not nearly as aware of the dangers in the world today. I could walk around my neighborhood growing up without worry, relatively safe from the dangers which stalk the streets now. I would never let my daughter walk around here without me now, and this is a decent neighborhood. Times have changed, and parenting should have changed with it. Well, it seems that it did, just not for the better.

    I could rant for hours about why parents today are irresponsible, careless, and neglectful, but I’ll save that for my blog. And I could rant for days about how gullible people can be. But enacting new laws telling people what name they use online will have no effect whatsoever on how people treat each other on the Internet. The scammers will still scam. The haters will still harass. The predators will still stalk their prey.

    What we need is parents who give a damn, and people with a bit more common sense.

  27. QualityGal December 1, 2008 at 12:46 PM

    Excellent point, Burnman. Parents need to be parents. They need to stay informed and involved. Being the cool parent who doesn’t ask questions only hurt children in the long run. And sometimes, sadly, in the short run.

  28. Kat December 1, 2008 at 1:04 PM

    Again, it’s a case of the MEDIUM being blamed for a person’s actions. Seem similar old adage: “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people”… and I believe there’s truth in that. What I’m saying, is that sure, social media can be a venue for some people to do horrible things. However, the people who have the intent to do horrible things will most likely not be stopped by regulations or laws. If Lori Drew was in fact HARASSING this girl, whether that be by MySpace or text messages or stocking or whatever, the crime is in the harassment…not in creating and portraying a fake avatar.

  29. Joe Hall December 1, 2008 at 3:21 PM

    Honestly, allot of my favorite people on the internet are fake avatars.


    I may or may not own one of the above.

  30. Kim Krause Berg December 1, 2008 at 3:35 PM

    Having just launched a new website in which all the writing is done by people using pen names, I’m finding this interesting. In the birthing days of the Internet, nearly everyone used a fake ID rather than their real names. It was a time of caution and getting used to the medium. And, nobody trusted it. Today, when there’s clearly more reason to not trust the Internet, more people are using their real names and throwing out their personal info.

    I think using fake avatars and pen names is fine when this is made known up front. It’s when the motive is deception that the problem arises. When the motive is purposeful pain and suffering to another person, then all bets are off and I have no problem with there being laws in place to protect people from being victimized. I don’t, however, believe one mass swoop of laws making fake IDs a felony solves any problems. I can’t stand it when the whole class is punished for something one stupid person does.

  31. Ken Jones December 1, 2008 at 3:45 PM

    I did have a lengthy and well thought out response prepared, based around the point that the “guns don’t kill people, people with guns kill people” argument isn’t really an appropriate comparison to use here, but that may be because I’m British and as such have always struggled to understand the logic behing America’s gun laws and I wouldn’t want to de-rail the discussion here with that.

    I would be interested to hear Sarah Bird from SEOmoz’s legal opinion on how this might effect certain online marketers’ methods.

    In the UK there is already legislation banning the use of false identities to promote products and while it doesn’t deal with tragedies such as this girl’s death, it would seem to point the way to a happy median far laws governing online representations.

    On a side note I’m happy to use my real name for my online presence, but use a costume for my avatar pictures on my profiles (sorry to burst the bubble for anyone who thought I actually was a giant chicken). Much like QualityGal, I wonder where the line would have to be drawn and whether an online identity register as the result of US decision to introduce some kind of Megan’s Law, would try to expand to require registration from users outside the US who wish to use American based website. How do you draw juridictional lines on the world wide web?

  32. Robert December 2, 2008 at 12:07 AM

    Well it’s really a very, very sad story. But when looking at the facts 2 things are obvious. We have one very sick lady (with way too much time on her hands) and one very sad little girl.

    In any setting at any time this is a bad combo.

    It wasn’t the use of a fake identity that was the problem. It wasn’t the use of an avatar that was the problem. It was the bad combination.

    I wonder how much of the blame could be transferred to the parents here? Would you let your child hang out with the bad elements of society? Would you allow them free reign where ever they went? Would you at least try to arm them with some sort of sense of reality (the dangers lurking anywhere and sadly everywhere).

    MySpace wasn’t the problem here. It’s easy to blame a tool or the system for the bad apples in society. But when are we going to simply shift the blame to those that deserve it. Lori Drew has been taken to task. Harassment was her crime really, the effects of that… well tragic.

    Personally I don’t have a problem with fake avatars/personalities. But I do not and could never offer them a fraction of trust that a “real” personality could gain.

  33. Maurice December 2, 2008 at 1:55 AM

    I thought Politicians make law Judges interpret it – and don’t you think that using a tragedy like this is in poor taste – I would not do a similar post using baby P as link bait.

  34. karalynia December 2, 2008 at 2:58 AM

    I think punish is necessary to harassment.

  35. karalynia December 2, 2008 at 2:59 AM

    I think punishment is necessary for harassment.

  36. Annie Cushing December 2, 2008 at 6:54 AM

    @Maurice, I think the discussion is relevant to this blog b/c of the involvement of social media in the crime, as well as the resulting ruling. The Baby P disaster involved neither of these elements.

    So, if I’m interpreting your comment correctly, I think your concern of WBP using this tragedy as link bait is a bit unfounded.

  37. Lisa Barone December 2, 2008 at 7:26 AM

    Maurice: I really wasn’t trying to take away from the severity of this situation and all. And I don’t see this post as “link bait”. Instead, my goal was to open a discussion about something that I think really does affect this community. I’ve long been passionate about my distaste for fake avatars and the deception that sometimes plays into social media. This post was intended as a forum to again revisit that situation. If you took it a different way, we apologize for that but it was never my intention.

  38. James December 2, 2008 at 9:57 AM

    I don’t think that taking away the avatars will really help anyone. I don’t mind having an avatar. In fact I think that is half of the fun being on the internet. You have the ability to be someone else that you aren’t outside of the internet. I think avatars help give a face to what you would want to look like.

    I agree with you completely, however about using your secret identity to cause harm to someone. Why would you do such a thing, I don’t know.

  39. Joshua Dorkin @ BiggerPockets.com December 7, 2008 at 1:30 PM

    As someone who runs a real estate social network (BiggerPockets.com), this is an extremely important discussion. We frequently have people come on to our site, purporting to be people that they are not, in an effort to promote a business, course, or website. Is that okay? Doing this is extremely manipulative and can in one full sweep, alter the online image of a company.

    Think of all the review sites out there . . . I’ve worked with several companies who’ve had angry people create multiple identities in an effort to do a bad review on one company. One bad review on a restaurant and I start looking the other way. What about this?

    Something must be done here, but I’m just not sure what exactly that is.

    BTW – When we determine that someone who has written some kind of testimonial about a company is in fact a representative of that company, we 1) call them out 2) ask that they come clean 3) remove them from the site if they fail to do so. In almost every occasion, they have come clean and end up looking like jerks – that’s the price you pay, right?

Leave a Reply