Manti Te'o's Imaginary Social Relationship
Notre Dame football star Manti Te'o’s story continues its strange course: his grandmother and girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, die on the same day within six hours of one another. His grandmother actually died; however, what is becoming clear is that the girlfriend never existed.
After reviewing the many articles that have been written about the hoax, at first it wasn’t clear whether Te’o ever actually met the girl or if this was a virtual romance, taking place through mobile phone texts and over the Internet through social media like Twitter. It has now come to light that this was a virtual romance, which explains Te’o's reluctance to clarify the matter; indeed, he lied about it. He is embarrassed, which is understandable, but he need not be. Manti Te’o was involved in an imaginary social relationship.
It’s important to point out that pretty much everyone in Western culture engages in imaginary relationships, although it is common for people not to want to admit they do so. Imaginary social relationships may take the form of a teacher-student, parent-child, or even a love relationship, as is the case with Te’o and Kekua. Such imaginary relationships are quite normal, and only become pathological when one party stalks or perhaps attempts to physically hurt the other (the individual or individuals that perpetrated this hoax may fall into the latter category). I have studied imaginary social relationships between fans and celebrities over the past 20 years. In some instances there is a wish for a fairy tale romance; in other instances, it might include an imaginary invitation to join a rock band. The range is wide.
However, social media has been a game changer with regard to imaginary social relationships, because social media open up the possibility for the imaginary to become real or seemingly so. When a fan tweets at Kim Kardashian and Kim tweets back inviting the fan to her birthday party, or Michael Phelps tweets back to a fan asking what kind of sandwich she got at Subway, it feels real. Furthermore, with the advent of social media, we have all become media figures, at least all those who participate in it, because we are performing when we use social media, just like celebrities perform on stage or in social media.
So, the difference is diminished between a celebrity, micro-celebrity (some ordinary person who temporarily becomes a viral sensation on YouTube), or in this case where the sports figure is attracted to an ordinary person. On this point Te'o's official statement is quite telling: "This is incredibly embarrassing to talk about, but over an extended period of time, I developed an emotional relationship with a woman I met online. We maintained what I thought to be an authentic relationship by communicating frequently online and on the phone, and I grew to care deeply about her."
The key word in the statement is authentic. Social media provide the possibility of increased confidence that the individual is who she or he claims to be, lending to the atmosphere of authenticity. Social media also provide two key markers: first, the absence of privacy, as what takes place on social media platforms is public, making the exchange seem real; and second, spontaneity, which leads to the feeling of sincerity. The illusion engendered by tweets, for example, provides a glimpse into the inner life of the individual, encouraging him or her at the most basic level to believe (or want to believe) that the person tweeting or posting to their Twitter feed or Facebook wall is who they claim to be.
Manti Te'o need not feel embarrassed because he was duped. All of us who participate in a culture of social media dupe ourselves every day.
Neil Alperstein, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Communication at Loyola University Maryland and founding Director of the M.A. in Emerging Media program. He researches our imaginary social world including our dreams, fantasies and imaginary social relationships we have with media figures. His current research looks at the ways in which social media impact those imaginary relationships.