The evidence was inand it wasn't looking good for the Layneaholics. Best-case scenario, she misled her online friends; worst case, Layne was a complete fiction. But someone trying to argue that Layne was a phony would have one big baffling question to answer: Why? Why would someone spend years on a gigantic project--4,138 words on a May 30 post, as a random example--with no financial gain and no hope for personal fame? Did the author have a guilty conscience about tricking everyone? Were any of the people in Layne's cast of characters real? What if one of those jilted characters was actually the author of Plain Layne? Those pictures must be somebody--who? What does it mean to be an inverse roman à clef?
As proof that Layne could never truly disappear, plainlayne.dreamhost.com returned 11 days after the site's Houdini act with all the comments and pictures back in place. Layne's disciples bought the abandoned domain (ostensibly to save it from pornographers) and reassembled her site, piece by piece, from shards found in each visitor's browser cache. Hundreds of pages with thousands of comments came back from the dead. Everyone admitted it was a little creepy, like walking through a dead lover's house. Somewhere in the blogosphere, Todd Mahon of Minneapolis asked the most difficult question for Layne devotees to answer: "What would you do if she turned out to be fictional, but decided to keep blogging? Would you still read? Would you comment? Would you feel betrayed?"
Before you answer, think for a moment: How would you feel if someone you communicated with on a daily basis--someone who told you about how she had been raped, someone who gave and requested advice--suddenly ceased to exist?
Just as it seemed that Layne had disappeared into the ether, the online investigation unit uncovered more information. Mitch Berg, author of ShotInTheDark.com and member of the right-wing Midwestern blogger association Northern Alliance of Blogs, revealed that he was "99 percent certain" he knew Plain Layne. "I have it. I just can't tell it," he wrote. That set the blog borg to researching Berg. Jimmo, the fan who originally discovered Acanit, noticed that Berg had worked at a local failed dot-com with someone named Odin Soli. Googling that name brought up the July 2003 obituary of Irene G. Thompson, at whose funeral Odin was a casket-bearer. Jimmo went back to the archive of Plain Layne posts and found this title the day after the funeral: "Burying Aunt Inga."
From there, it was just a matter of connecting the dots. An archived biography that Odin posted in 1997 sealed the deal: Soli graduated from the U of M, studied Latin American studies at UCSD, and was once a database administrator--all characteristics that matched the Layne persona in some way. The final line was the clincher: "Mr. Soli is also a novelist." Odin Soli was Plain Layne.
At least one person has read this far and asked how thousands of online morons could have been this credulous. For years, the internet has been practically synonymous with anonymity. In this nefarious realm, anyone can be anyone (or so the shaky logic goes). Before someone even knew how to type www.match.com into a browser, he had had heard stories about being duped by fake pictures and false pretenses. Caveat emptor hangs above the online portal, so how could no one have realized this earlier?
There are at least two answers. First, Layne interacted with those on her buddy list. She spent hours conversing with people, and remembered small details about them. She left Chuck Olsen, local netizen currently making a documentary about the international blogging community, a happy-birthday comment on his blog. Layne created and kept strong friendships--they just happened to be virtual.
The other answer is more complex. Our culture is fascinated by the juxtaposition of faux-authenticity and micro-fame. From fan fiction to The Simple Life to the memoir-driven bestseller list (with Plain Layne ingeniously intersecting all of these), we want to identify with fantastical--and fantastically miniscule--celebrity. Not surprisingly, the ascendancy of personal websites (blogging) coincides with the continual rise of reality television. As Jason Kottke, a popular blogger whose November 2000 profile in the New Yorker is sometimes credited with igniting the blogging frenzy, wrote on his site, "PL [Plain Layne] was my soap opera. Some people watch Friends or American Idol, I read Plain Layne." Keepin' it real has never been more phantasmagoric.
Not everyone is ready to conclude that Odin is Layne. If you're curious, you can find other theories still sprawling away. Layne is a group writing project. Layne is one of her jilted characters from the past. Layne is an Iranian girl who was ostracized by her own country. Maybe Layne is you--a T-shirt is already available online with a simple monogram: "I'm Plain Layne." Chuck Olsen summarized the notion on the community weblog Metafilter: "We're scrambling to find this ghost, only to find ourselves."
That was Plain Layne: a ghost in the machine.
Rather unpoetically, "Plain Layne" creator Odin Soli is an average 35-year-old man who lives with his wife and two kids in Woodbury. He has many answers to the question of why he fooled online readers into thinking he was a 27-year-old woman, but one of his responses might say the most about his personality: "I never went to cool parties. With Plain Layne, I was meeting the coolest people--people I would never have met otherwise." Soli's confession at emitter.dreamhost.com says that his heart condition led him to dismantle Plain Layne, but many of Plain Layne's followers find that explanation disingenuous. Speaking at a coffee shop near Hamline University on a Saturday afternoon, Soli spoke the way Layne might have, but the voice was clearly Odin.