Posted on April 11, 2022 in Technology

Online True Stories… Or Creative Fiction?

You think somebody would do that? Just go on the internet and tell lies?


Obviously, some of the stories you see online are fake – some are more fake than others. Tumblr’s large audience of tweens and young teens meant that stories they found funny and stories they couldn’t compare against real-life experience tended to blow up, until adults with experience in the relevant fields started chiming in, and then the people reblogging the fake story would either double down or act like they knew it was fake all along.

For example, the Tumblr post where the OP worked for a calling service with autodialers that generated numbers instead of pulling from a list.

The responses and reblogs are full of people laughing at the story, at how funny it is that Some Guy stumbled into a classified number, just like a movie. As mentioned before, Tumblr’s young audience meant very few of them knew about stuff like the CAN-SPAM Act, or how call centers worked. Adults with relevant jobs started responding to the post, turning reblogs from sincere to ironic.

Just in case readers also don’t know and don’t feel like Googling, autodialers have to pull from a list – OP seems to be American, so if their org called someone on the DNC list, they’d be fined at least five digits if that person decided to complain to the FCC. It’s simply not worth the risk to just dial up people out of the Yellow Pages or ‘generate numbers’ even for allegedly Harvard. Besides that, generating numbers instead of buying a list is a completely asinine thing to do. The likelihood of getting a real, working number for however many calls you make to get to it makes just buying a phone list with valid numbers, that aren’t on the DNC list a much better investment of time, if not money.

With the benefit of hindsight, this all seems obvious – but at the moment, people fell for it.

Tumblr’s fake writings are interesting because they vary both in length and believability, but the really fake ones that get a lot of notes still get the youngest parts of the site to this day even though the posts themselves are ancient – “somebody put weed in the vents at our rival high school and now everyone is slowly getting high” ( for example, makes perfect sense to the kids on Tumblr who’ve only ever encountered cannabis via in-school drug programs or age-appropriate media. Some people are reblogging because of how obviously fake it is, some are reblogging because they genuinely believe that’s how cannabis works. Either way, it’s still funny, so it still got shared over 400,000 times (notes can include ‘likes’ which don’t spread content and ‘reblogs’ which do).

Luckily Tumblr’s grown a lot as a site, but unluckily that means no more ‘weed vents’ and ‘accidentally contacting the White House’ stories.

And On Reddit

A huge number of writing subreddits with the aim of sharing user experiences gradually turn into creative writing exercises instead – which is how you get callout posts where the OP is a writer, a doctor, a high school student, 60, and also a married atheist and a devout single missionary at the same time. To give the benefit of the doubt, some users will want to chime in with their friends’ or relatives’ experience, but don’t want to sound like they’re giving the classic “my uncle’s girlfriends’ friend’s cousin’s dog…” waffle when they don’t mean to, so instead they take on a character to tell the story.

Some are looking to add spice without having a story exactly fitting the prompt themselves – others still know the thread could turn really juicy if only people could be swayed to share. People don’t generally like talking to an empty room, so some people take it upon themselves to seed the thread with stories to get the rest of the stories flowing.

Some are simply looking to harvest as many fake internet points, reblogs, retweets, and likes as they can, but don’t have or do anything that would earn them that gratification organically, so they lie. (Or, they’re trying to sell their account to an account farm, and thus don’t want to tie personal info to an account that will eventually leave their control).

Most of the stories on subreddits R/TIFU (Today I F’ed Up), R/AITA (Am I The ***?) and other assorted true-story subreddits desperate for juicy, barely-believable content have fallen to these urges. There’s another subreddit called R/ThatHappened that picks these stories up, dusts them off, and presents them to a crowd of skeptics to laugh at. Which later spawned the subreddit R/NothingEverHappens, when some of said skeptics realized some of the outrageous stuff was only outrageous to people who doubted that strangers would argue in public or that kids would say something profound accidentally.

Nothing is provable – even texts and chat logs aren’t as solid proof as they used to be in a post-photo-editing app world. The internet has allowed people to lie to other people on the other side of the world, so long as they share a language, so if you find yourself really stressing about how you’d ever identify the truth in these stories, maybe it’s time to get off Reddit.

To Make Somebody Else Look Bad

There’s one more twist left to fake Tumblr stories on Reddit – one guy had edited a handful of screenshots of Tumblr stories to post to Reddit, many of which bled over to Tumblr and other social media sites because of how clearly fake they were. He really did a great job of making something that hits every interaction button – cultural references, unbelievable characters, an unreliable narrator who seems to believe other people will buy these stories – and to this day, some people still believe those ‘screenshots’ were real. (Youtuber Sarah Zed has a well-researched video on this, but it’s long:

He picked an easy target: Tumblr kids. He wrote from the perspective of the primary demographics on Tumblr because picking on Tumblr kids was easier than picking on Reddit or 4chan ones. Tumblr was a liberating website, so the main demographic was often open about being young, overweight, underweight, having self-diagnosed illnesses with varying levels of reliability, etc. (there are a lot of people of color and LGBT+ kids as well, but his stories didn’t really touch on them so much as they did the average young white woman on the site) so reading these stories that are clearly fantasy allegedly by these people on Tumblr was ammunition and a sort of Schadenfreude for the people seeing them on r/thathappened.

Some guy with a hankering for fake internet points starts making stuff deliberately designed to hit the front page of r/thathappened, and then disappears off into the sunset with these stories becoming more famous than he anticipated, spreading “back” to Tumblr and then going viral from there until the blog world-heritage-posts did some digging looking for the original post, at which point heritage-posts and their collective sphere of Tumblr documenters realized something weird was up.It seems to stop there, and he stopped making these fake Tumblr posts long before the deception was ever revealed.

Remember, you don’t know anyone online!