Santiago Swallow may be one of the most famous people no one has heard of.
His eyes fume from his Twitter profile: he is Hollywood-handsome with high cheekbones and dirty blond, collar-length hair. Next to his name is one of social media’s most prized possessions, Twitter’s blue “verified account” checkmark. Beneath it are numbers to make many in the online world jealous: Santiago Swallow has tens of thousands of followers. The tweets Swallow sends them are cryptic nuggets of wisdom that unroll like scrolls from digital fortune cookies: “Before you lose weight, find hope,” says one. Another: “To write is to live endlessly.”
Swallow is a pure product of the Internet: a “speaker and thinker,” who specializes in “re-imagining self in the online age,” an apparent star of the prestigious TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference, and a hit at Austin’s annual art, technology and music event, South By South West (SXSW). His Wikipedia biography explains why: Swallow is “a Mexican-born, American motivational speaker, consultant, educator, and author, whose speeches and publications focus on understanding modern culture in the age of social networking, globally interconnected media, user generated content and the Internet,”
who has “dedicated himself to helping others know more about how media and personality can be manipulated in the 21st Century.” Famous for its “neutral point of view,” Wikipedia also reports that Swallow’s opinions are controversial in some quarters, especially his prediction that “the disassociation of self would lead to a revision of the standard definition of Multiple Personality Disorder to include selves that only manifest in the online world.” He can be expected to take up this argument in his book, Self: Imaginary Identities in the Age of The Internet, due out later this year, something that his Wikipedia biography, his official web site (santiagoswallow.com) and his Twitter feed all confirm.
There’s just one thing about Santiago Swallow that you won’t easily find online: I made him up. Everything above is true. He really does have a Twitter feed with tens of thousands of followers, he really does have a Wikipedia biography, and he really does have an official web site. But he has never been to TED or South By South West and is not writing a book. I—or rather he—flat out lied about that. (Editor’s note: Santiago Swallow’s Twitter account was suspended after the publication of this piece. After about 30 hours the account was reinstated. In the meantime, a fake Santiago Swallow Twitter account named @SwallowSantiago appeared.)
Creating Santiago and the online proof of his existence took two hours on the afternoon of April 14 and cost $68. He was conjured out of keystrokes in a matter of minutes. I generated his name on “Scrivener,” a word processor for writers and authors. I turned the “obscurity level” of its name generator up to high, checked the box for “attempt alliteration,” and asked for 500 male names. My choices included Alonzo Arbuckle, Leon Ling, Phil Portlock and Judson Jackman, but “Santiago Swallow” just leapt out as perfect. I gave Santiago a Gmail account, which was enough to get him a Twitter account.
Then I went to the web site fiverr.com, the online equivalent of a dollar store, and searched for people selling Twitter followers. I bought Santiago 90,000 followers for $50, all of whom would, he was assured, appear on his Twitter profile within 48 hours. Next I gave him a face by mashing up three portraits from Google images using a free trial copy of Adobe’s “Lightroom” image manipulation software. I gave Santiago his “Twitter verified account” check box by putting it onto his cover image right where his name would appear. It will not fool many people, but might give him a little extra credibility with some. By the time I uploaded these images to Twitter, Santiago had developed a large “following,” even though he did not have a profile and had never tweeted anything.