If you wanted to know something about Layne Johnson, all you had to do was ask her.
Before she disappeared from her online perch at plainlayne.dreamhost.com a few weeks ago, "Plain Layne," as she was self-dubbed, answered anyone's questions. While the answers were occasionally elliptical, the descriptions of the lurid details of her life were never ambiguous. Despite the moniker, Layne was anything but plain. Within the past few months, she recounted a rape that she suggested led her to lesbianism, became engaged to a formerly straight woman, suffered a dramatic breakup with said woman (partially because her fiancée resented being dissected on Layne's site), hooked up and noisily quarreled with a girl from her work cafeteria, met her birth parents for the first time, got involved with a risky internet startup, and had a ton of hot sex (which, because of her linguistic flourishes, was often hottest when solo). All that while keeping up a high-volume website of 5,000 unique visitors per day and middle-managing an IT group for "Minicorp," a large pseudonymous company that from her descriptions sounded like 3M or Cargill or Honeywell. In short: Anaïs Nin, I'd like you to meet William Gibson.
Spend just a few minutes on her site, and you could learn everything about Layne. The link to her "About" page noted: "I was born in 1977 and adopted by a stable, hard-working and most of all Lutheran family in the North Woods, northern Minnesota's equivalent of the sticks." An entire Real World-ish cast of the friends and acquaintances Layne discussed in her online posts appeared on her site with photos. And a conspicuous link to "pictures" could leave Layne's beguiling, purse-lipped, gap-toothed smile indelibly imprinted on your mind. There was Layne, leaning over the edge of a swimming pool, standing in the middle of a cornfield, existing in the middle of nowhere: Each photo was practically a Midwestern Botticelli. Reading her detailed descriptions of local hangouts, you hoped you would run into her eventually.
In some haunts around town (mostly the hideouts with free wireless internet service and those subterranean joints that Lifter Puller wrote songs about), Plain Layne was famous, or at least some form of quasi-famous in which dungeon-cable reality TV stars and celebutantes are whispered about without guilt. When she briefly took a break from her site last year, McLean's (roughly the Canadian equivalent of Newsweek) ran a story about how people attach themselves to online identities. Layne was featured, despite turning down an interview. Fans kept a lookout for the black VW bug with the Radio K bumper sticker that the infowaif (as she called herself) reportedly drove around town. Layne could easily be your best friend, and you sort of wanted her to be. As it turned out, she might be.
Probably not by coincidence, Plain Layne became an online presence on September 11, 2001, with a post titled "Waking from nightmare into nightmare." She wrote long entries nearly every day for almost three years, until June 8, 2004, when, without warning, after a harmless post about lusting after David Beckham ("Just when I thought I'd never have sex with a boy again"), the site vanished. The archive, the pictures, and the comments all disappeared, leaving only a mysterious message in a bold Times New Roman font that almost resembled an error message. But not quite:
Trwa modernizacja serwera!
Serwisy beda czynne od polowy czerwca.
This type of chicanery was nothing new in the land of Layne. Loyal fans had witnessed her linguistic tricks and brief disappearances before. But this time, the loyalists decided to collectively investigate--or cyberstalk, depending on your view. Probing online databases, translation programs, blogs, and, of course, Google, Layne's followers used a combination of amateur literary scholarship and digital mind-sharing to investigate the ringleader. After an initial message posted on www.noematic.org/mine/ questioned the authenticity of Layne's identity, dozens of people realized they shared the same story: Nearly everyone had communicated with Layne through e-mail or instant messaging and discussed the possibility of meeting up with her in person, but no one had laid eyes on her in real life.
Another clue suggested that Layne was winking to techies: In addition to being Plain Layne's initials, ".pl" is the country domain extension of Polish websites (as in www.poland.pl). Those little enigmas signaled the tipping point, which, by the time it was over, led to a tale of internet intrigue.
One Plain Layne dweller, "Jimmo" (as he called himself online), broke the investigation wide open by pointing out that Layne's writing style bore a remarkable resemblance to another Minnesota web diarist, Acanit. Others remembered Acanit as a former Iranian-via-Kenya TV journalist living in Minneapolis who kept a site a few years back. Acanit was also an attractive, bisexual twentysomething with a vivid writing style, which won her a Diarist.net award in 2001. Both Layne's site and Acanit's site appeared to have been hosted on the same server at one point. The day Acanit disappeared from the internet seemed to be the linchpin: September 11, 2001. (Layne advocates were quick to point out that Acanit may have taken down her site because an anonymous, Middle Eastern woman was a persona non grata during those jingoistic times.) One phrase that Acanit used also seemed acutely Laynian: "the open veins of my life." Googling those words yielded exactly one matching result on exactly one website: Plain Layne's. Other phrases quickly followed: "hell takes a vacation," "life in reverse," and "anus of North America" (to describe Tijuana) were phrases that appeared on both sites. It now seemed undeniable that Layne and Acanit were linked. Somehow.
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.
City Pages:Are you Plain Layne?
Odin Soli: Plain Layne was an online character that I wrote.
CP:Were there others involved in the writing?
Soli: I was the only writer, but the website's visitors sometimes helped form her personality.
CP:How many of your friends knew you were doing this?
Soli: My wife knew, but beyond that, I'd rather not say.
CP:Who is the person in all those "Plain Layne" pictures?
Soli: I don't want to comment on that.
CP:Okay, but is there a singular person out there whose life you fictionalized into Plain Layne?
Soli: Absolutely not. Layne was a complete fiction. There was no model from which Layne began.
CP:But Acanit was modeled on people from your past?
Soli: Yes, she was a composite of the best man in my wedding and a female acquaintance who had worked in occupied Palestine. He never talked about his Muslim background and she never talked about her experiences in the refugee camps of Lebanon. I used Acanit to explore the parts of them I never knew.
CP:Do those people know they became an online character?
Soli: No, there was nothing identifiable about them.
CP:How many readers did you personally interact with?
Soli: It depends how you define personal interaction. Most people were reacting to the blog itself. The comments were a type of personal interaction--that's why I called it "creative interactive fiction." People got whatever they wanted out of Plain Layne. Most folks never commented. Others became very caught up in the character, much like you would with fan fiction or massive multiplayer online role-playing games. All I did was share the character. It was also interactive in that people would suggest new plots.
CP:There were people who made plot suggestions and you followed them?
Soli: Yes, absolutely.
CP:Did they know that?
Soli: Some did. People have asked at what point readers began to suspect that Plain Layne was make-believe, and the answer is, from the very beginning. Three years ago, there were people who wrote to say this is a great literary exercise. I like to compare it to what Paul Ford has done with the characters on Ftrain.com.
CP:But you have to admit there's something that makes other online writing, role-playing games, and even fan fic different from what you did: Plain Layne was clearly an attempt to trick people into believing she existed.
Soli: What's the most classic dilemma a writer faces? Making believable characters. How many times when reading a novel have you tossed it over your shoulder and said, "Oh my god, this character is unbelievable"?
CP:But the entire time reading a novel, I know it's a fictional character.
Soli: Some people figured it out. It's one of the things that came out in the comments.
CP:But you consciously deleted those comments.
Soli: Not always. And there certainly was a lot of speculation around the blogosphere.
CP:Did you ever feel deceitful about interacting with people using Layne's persona?
Soli: Most of the time the interactivity was a wonderful challenge, since every exchange forced the character to evolve. Just think about all the conversational questions that most literary characters never confront, or only at the preplanned behest of the author. What did Layne do today? Could she share a recipe? Was she going clubbing this weekend, and if so, where? What did she think of the Pawlenty administration? Why didn't she pull her head out of her ass and quit the girlfriend du jour? It was fiction in a hurry.
CP:It seems that Layne's followers are now dividing themselves up into two camps. There are those who revel in the playful, postmodern identity game. But other people are very upset about being duped. What would you say to those people who feel deceived and hurt?
Soli: That's a hard question to answer. You really can't predict how people will react. I don't mean to denigrate anyone for their reactions, but one of the things that most surprised me coming out of this was the fandom. It's like when Friends went off the air. There were people who felt personally betrayed.
CP:Let me ask it a different way: If the audience had known the entire time that Plain Layne was fictionalized, would it have been as popular?
Soli: Absolutely not.
CP:So there must be something at work more than just theFriends phenomenon.
Soli: The internet is an environment in which all the richness of communication and self-representation gets flattened into plain text. It literally is a text--a plain text that gets shared with many authors interacting in different ways. The suspension of disbelief is easier in this medium, but fundamentally people suspend their disbelief because they want to participate.
CP:Why did you take the site down?
Soli: Over the years, I tried to take it down several times. I felt like Sir Conan Doyle trying to throw Sherlock Holmes over the waterfall. It was very difficult because the audience wanted control. Also, I have a wife and two small children who will need to go to college some day.
CP:If I were a literary agent trying to convince you to turn this experience into a book, what would you say?
Soli: Thanks but no thanks. This was an experiment in creative interactive fiction. It was also not solely my work. Many people contributed in their own ways--with comments, with suggestions, with praise, with condemnation--and all of that was important for how that story turned out. My intent in creating this was never to come up with a product that could be turned into a revenue stream or any kind of personal notoriety.
CP:Did you ever think you'd get found out?
Soli: Yeah, you always run that risk. But at this point, I'm most concerned about what could happen. It's like being stalked. People have harassed my family.
CP:But you must have seen people attach themselves to Layne in very personal ways through e-mail and chat. Didn't it occur to you that you were playing with fire?
Soli: I didn't foresee all of this. I was intrigued by the ways you could practice a persona online. That's all. In that sense, maybe I was more naive than everyone who was reading the site.