At the office, he and my co-workers told me a bizarre story about how someone had Facebooked an article in LGBTQ.com about a young gay man in Lakewood, Washington, who killed himself because of bullying.
I’m a writer and follow the news and youth issues religiously, so I know that suicides resulting from bullying are a huge concern and have been become major stories.
The problem with this news story was that the picture displayed of the boy who killed himself, Terrel Williams, along with his dates of birth and death, was a picture of—and this is where it gets really freaky—me.
The photo was my profile picture as a "Rock the Trail" reporter for Rock the Vote, taken during the 2008 campaign. In it, I’m wearing a light-purple button-up shirt, a bit of peach fuzz around the chin, and what I can only describe as a smirk.
I look young, bright-eyed and maybe a little too sure of myself. But what I remember feeling the day I took that photo was something closer to dread. I’m a radio guy who’s never liked being photographed, and the idea of having my face all over the Internet was not something I was looking forward to. Stil, it had to be done, so I sat in a corner of my office beside an old bookcase, snapped about six pictures of myself, picked the best one, and sent it off to Rock the Vote.
Since then, I have found three instances in which that photo has circulated on the Internet without my putting it there.
The first time it happened was so Twilight Zone-y that I didn't believe my sister when she told me. A friend of hers acted a little strangely toward me when we were introduced. This wasn't the normal awkwardness you’d expect in a first meeting—something more was going on.
Later, she told my sister that she knew me online and that she had been talking to me via social networking for sometime. She asked my sister why I was acting as if I didn’t know her.
In those days, though, I didn’t have any social networking connections. I wasn’t sold on Facebook until a friend made a page for me much later, when I got hooked.
Yet when my sister looked up profile of the guy who'd been talking to her friend, there I was, my smirking face slapped onto someone else’s life.
In the second instance, a guy named Marcus Cherry used my picture for his profile, and as far as I know, he is still using it. I flagged his page and sent him a message, but the last time I checked, he had yet to take my photo down.
The incident that bothers me most, though, is the one that portrays me as a 17-year-old victim of bullying and suicide instead of who I really am— a 23-year-old journalist who's very much alive.
Within hours after it went up, the suicide article was being reposted, Facebooked and tweeted. My face popped up on numerous news and gay advocacy websites, seeming to stare back from beyond the digital grave.
As a co-worker and I sat glued to our computers, waiting to see where I would show up next, she stumbled across a memorial Twitter page for Terrel Williams—and there I was again, my button-up shirt and my smirk above hundreds of tweets from kind strangers sending their sympathies.
Afrer my previous experiences with online identity theft, my first reaction to the suicide story was: no big deal. Who hasn’t wanted to be someone else at some point in their lives? If someone, for some bizarre reason, wants to use my picture to represent himself —how he feels he really wants to appear—why not let him?
But as the article spread, I opened link after link to see my photo next to those of young people who actually did commit suicide. They felt as if they had nothing left to offer and took their own lives. The strange hoax using my photo was unfair to them and their stories.
Why someone would devalue a real and serious issue like homophobia and suicide by committing such a senselessl joke is baffling to me. Not to mention the morbidness and cruelty of whoever found my photo and decided I have the perfect face to represent this kid's pain.
To my surprise, a few sites started posting retractions, suspecting the whole story to be a tasteless hoax.
For me, the last straw was when someone created a memorial Facebook page for Williams and asked the Facebook community for pictures of him.
At that point, I posted a comment and link to my Facebook page urging no one to repost the photo that was being circulated online. I made it clear that the photo was in fact me, Donny Lumpkins, loveable radio host and writer, not sad suicide victim.
I don’t know if I will ever learn the true story behind the suicide article. I keep wondering where that photo is going to show up again and whether it will ever be fully mine again.
I can’t help but think about the people who haven’t read the retractions. It's strange to know that when they look at me, they see a dead person.
The three incidents have given me an eerie realization of how little we can control anything after we turn it over to the Internet. How distorted the perception of who we really are can become unless we are very careful.
I think about who I was when I took that photo. It wasn’t that long ago, but as we all know, life can completely change in mere moments—and often does. Why people stumbled across my photo and decided I would be their mask, I will never understand. Maybe it’s the look in my eyes or the smirk on my face—maybe it’s the quiet confidence I’m trying to convey, a confidence I don’t think I’m completely pulling off.
Maybe the people who use someone else’s social networking photos see something in those pictures that we all want to see in ourselves but have such a hard time finding.
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