Sunday, April 1, 2012

John Titor, the greatest Internet prankster of all time

In November of 2000, someone created an account on several bulletin boards claiming to be "John Titor". But soon his claims grew much more fantastic than just an unusual name. He claimed to be a time traveler from the future. Over time, he responded to many forum member's questions, weaving a detailed, intricate story. He vanished after 2001.

During his "visit", he made predictions about the future (all of them in the immediate decade, all of which have proven untrue), spun a story about his mission being to recover computer technology for the future preservation of data, posted detailed explanations of how a time machine works, and supplemented his claims with many images, including diagrams of supposed future technology and his military insignia, shown above.

From all of this, Internet culture has built a Byzantine mythology. A book was published, John Titor A Time Traveler's Tale. A play was also produced, called Time Traveler Zero Zero. He became a regular topic of discussion on the radio show Coast To Coast AM, a wonderful program full of midnight wackiness and conspiracy theories. While his story has been shot full of holes, there are nevertheless people who *want* to believe and will never be unconvinced.

We are left with a few mysteries: The supposed original "john Titor" has never been identified. We also cannot pierce his motives; either he was a desperately delusional schizophrenic who believed his own story, a very dedicated surreal practical joker, or (my favorite theory) a budding (or perhaps even already made) science fiction author using the Internet as a test audience for some ideas he was kicking around.

There is even the remote possibility that it was all an attempt at a viral marketing campaign for some summer blockbuster that never got made (remember that the dreadful Blair Witch project was made with similar marketing right around this time). Or perhaps it was a psychologist researching people's threshold of disbelief. Maybe it was a test program by the US government to gauge whether they could invent an urban legend. Perhaps, because it singled out a potential problem with Unix-based systems, it was anti-Linux astroturf by Microsoft.

Why is the test-audience idea my favorite? Because I use this method all the time. In my creative work, be it my home blog, my webcomic, my funny pictures blog, my paid online freelancing work, or this very blog before you, any joke or theory or rant probably started out as some discussion I ignited on a web forum. I may even "troll" by pretending to take an opinion, while actually reading through the responses to see how people react to it. Later the idea might be fleshed out into a story, a joke, or an article for a client.

Now, I hasten to add, I don't get one-tenth as carried away as our "John Titor" example. When I test an idea, it's a couple of paragraphs maximum. So even the "testing ideas" theory doesn't hold water when someone keeps at it for a year and a half. 

There is also a great deal more analysis and exploration of the ideas provoked by Titor at this site, including extended chat room logs and excerpts from his messages and those of others. Note, in studying the transcripts, that he might have been an elaborate liar, but not a very good one. For instance, in one chat he says "But Im a little pissed right now.", then follows with "Is that still the right word?" Now, he had detailed future knowledge of our culture if he's telling the truth, so why should he have to ask? He only claimed to be from a few decades from now, so why assume that language changes so fast? The word "groovy" might have fallen out of vogue in our time, but you can still use it without raising more than an amused smirk.

Who is John Titor? The world will never know, because conditions are such that even the original person would not be believed. What were his motives? Whatever they were, if it was all just for a laugh, he must still be rolling around in stitches after all this time. Because it was the most successful joke in history.