Back in May I published my debut gay novel, Gulliver Travels, the story of a Los Angelino who flees his family, friends, and ex-boyfriend to start his life over (or at least try to do so) in New York City. Already it has become the #2 highest rated book in the Gay and Lesbian Kindle store on Amazon, while being named the 4th hottest entertainment item of the week by The Advocate. But Gulliver had a more interesting Genesis story than most novel protagonists. In fact, before he was a character in my book, Gully was a real live human being. Or, at least the Internet thought he was.
Earlier this year, I took the first draft of a novel I had written during National Novel Writing Month, and began to post it, chapter-by-chapter, on a Tumblr. I imagined this would help me stay interested in the piece long enough to edit and revise it for publication. This ended up being true. However, once I picked my Tumblr theme, I saw I needed a large photo to occupy the left side. I Googled "Hot Blonde Gay Guy" and found just what I was looking for, and added it to the left side. (FYI: the guy there now is a model who has approved my use of his photo, pictured above.)
From there I realized: there should be more to this than a Tumblr. So I created a Twitter, a Facebook profile, a Facebook fan page, and a Formspring for my darling creation. All of them, in tune with the source material, were written in first person. I blew up an announcement on all my social media channels that I had created a character and would be posting his story, day-by-day, for people who were interested.
I quickly learned that one announcement wasn’t enough. Facebook and Twitter are such rapid streams of information that people most likely missed my initial statement. But the Tumblr, fan page, and twitter account spread like wildfire in less than seven days. And everyone thought Gulliver was real.
Sure, I had my moral issues with this deception. Could I really just go on acting like I was Gulliver? Well, call me morally bankrupt. Or shameful. Or creative. Whatever. I decided I would go with it… with a few rules. Basically, if someone approached me, asking about Gulliver, I would tell them he was the protagonist of my novel. But if they wrote to Gully on any of his properties, he would respond to them.
Well, Gully quickly became an Internet celebrity. Over the four months I posted his story, he gained over 2,000 Facebook Fans, 1,000 Twitter followers, 500 Tumblr followers, and 2,000 Formspring questions. It didn’t stop there. He was also asked out on 527 dates. Propositioned 945 times for sex (with payment offered 322 of those times). If he were to suddenly come into actual existence, he could have walked into any of 34 gay bars in New York City, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania and drink for free. Oh, and he was offered 12 full-time jobs (and 23 porno film modeling gigs). He was also offered 14 blog interviews (2 of which he conducted).
Gulliver became an addiction of mine. I found myself updating his Facebook profile more than my own. I spent more time on his Twitter account, forsaking my own to silence. I would engage in email conversations with his admirers, and well-wishers (and not-so-well-wishers). Justin Luke took the backseat with Rebecca Black while Gulliver took over. I wanted to be Gulliver. His gorgeous blonde-haired, blue-eyed face was getting me everything I ever wanted, but could never get (while I’m cute, I couldn’t hold a candle to that Google Image mug).
Luckily, a few things threw a wrench in this avalanche. For one, I had to abandon his photo likeness. Turns out the photo I was using was the (straight, married, with child) bassist of a defunct UK pop-punk band, and he had gotten so popular that I was petrified of a cease and desist from the real deal. Upon switching his photos to a bunch I bought through a stock image site, an uprising occurred. Gulliver wasn’t who everyone thought he was. This cut out a significant number of his fans and friends. And then, the end of the line: the book ended. There was nowhere I could go. I had to come out of the closet as Gulliver, especially since in that time I had revised the novel into ship-shape, and was en route to pursuing publication.
The backlash was mixed. It is true that I turned off many people. I received my fair share of hate mail and threats for impersonating a gorgeous blonde boy. Luckily, most reactions were positive, along the lines of how convincing and interesting his tale was, which only fueled my desire to be published all the more. But in the end, Gulliver went back to where he belonged: the land of fiction. I was certainly sad to see him go.
What can I say? The experience was exhilarating. I got to be the gorgeous gay I never was. I got to be the fresh meat in New York City and have beautiful boys who wouldn't notice me if I was on fire fall over themselves to have me visit their apartments. The fact I couldn’t actually do any of this was beyond the point. I also never used Gulliver for evil. Just to entertain the masses. In the end, it was pure Internet crack that hurt no one and maybe cheered up a few folks.
Well it turns out that old habits die hard.
Many friends of mine like to remind me how my most successful Web projects involve me creating a character who everyone immediately assumes is a real person, and who I never tell them otherwise. I can’t necessarily argue this fact. I am also currently helming a joke Twitter that, if you ask me, is as far from real as you can make a Twitter. This hasn’t stopped the multitudes from assuming he’s a real person. And I once again lucked out with a Google image search, which found me a gorgeous brunette that every gay Twitterer wants a crack at.
I don’t know what to name what I am doing. Imposter Art? Social Media Science? Who knows? All I know is it keeps on working. And in my mimicry and faux personas, it seems like I am bringing people entertainment and enjoyment, which is all I really want to be doing.
So what have I learned? Nothing beyond the stereotype: If you’re hot and gay you’ll have the ears and eyes of many gays on the Internet. At least for starters. I guess it’s sort of like landing a first date: being attractive gets you in the door. But after that, you better prove your value.
To all of you who may consider creating someone on the Web as part of a creative endeavor, I wish you luck. Shady creeps have been doing it for ill since the days of MySpace. Let’s take phony profiles in the opposite direction and show people that you don’t have to be real to be really entertaining.
Justin Luke is the Co-Director and Head Promoter of the New York-Based gay nightlife events company, BoiParty.com. Justin has also helped countless companies and individuals take advantage of Facebook, Twitter, Blogs and Podcasts to get out into the world, and grab attention by the throat. He is also the creator of Gorgeous, Gay and Twenty-Something, a private international Facebook group now comprised of over 4,500 members