Lauren Oyler is 6’0. That may or may not be a lie, but it is in her Twitter bio. It also has nothing to do with her searing debut novel Fake Accounts other than the fact that no one can be sure who is and isn’t lying on the internet.
Her novel, set in the early days of the Trump Administration, follows an unnamed narrator who discovers her boyfriend is a prolific online conspiracy theorist. She flees to Berlin where she falls in her own pattern of lies and deception. The book, which takes place entirely in early 2016, is a reflection on the America we live in today. Not much has changed in the past four years. The lies are bigger, but they were always there. If the internet has done one thing, it’s just exposed us to the seedy underbelly that always existed. Fake Accounts also sheds a light on this world of lies, attention seeking, and distruction.
I chatted with Oyler the day before Biden’s Inauguration about the internet, lies, and why conspiracy theories are boring.
Fake Accounts starts on the eve of Trump’s Inauguration. We’re talking on the eve of Biden’s Inauguration. It feels like this book was a pretty short turn around from conception to publication for a debut author. Was this actually conceived when the last presidency started?
I think maybe I can write a book set just before the an inauguration every four years until I can’t write anymore. Faker Accounts. Faker Accounts 2. Are the Accounts Fake?
I got the idea for the first specifics of the book because my boyfriend at the time had written an article about Instagram conspiracy theorists. It was thought of after Trump had won but before the January inauguration. I had been thinking more generally about all these people I had been meeting in various contexts. The ones that are the life of the party and you’re having a good time but when they leave you think about how they could have been lying to you about everything they said. I was really interested in this inability to determine what some of the actual belief is behind what people are saying.
The conspiracy theorists, particularly at the time, and maybe even more so now, is if they’re serious. Do they really think this? How much do they really believe this? Is it 50% they think it’s possible so they run with it and then develop more belief over time?
I have that experience more generally on social media when I see someone acting ridiculous, making an extreme point, or taking things a little bit too far. My immediate reaction is figuring out what their motivation is behind their actions.
Most of the time I feel like people are posting on Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, and darker places for the attention. Like they’re kind of kooky, but not really. They just want likes, retweets, upvotes, or whatever fake currency they’re after. But now, especially after January 6th, I feel like this is a dark part of our life we sort of pushed aside.
I think your initial response was something I initially thought: Oh, they’re doing this for attention. In fact, the working title of the book was For Attention. Then as it went on, I figured that no one would spend so much of their time doing something if they were just seeking attention. There has to be some other element.
Throughout the book the narrator is processing different explanations for why things are the way they are. Because she is so analytical, she is always poking holes in the reasoning. I think that’s where we are now. There’s this constant battle at every level of politics and discourse.
While writing this, did you go down rabbit holes to learn about these type of people?
A little bit. I wanted the narrator who wasn’t interested or susceptible to the conspiracy theory element. I think the natural impulse is to get really interested in the details about the stories and research all of the people who are involved, but I was interested in the other side of it. I was interested in the more normal character who would say obviously those conspiracies were wrong and that they weren’t even that interesting. I did do some research, but because Felix keeps his identities separate, he’s not as interesting as a research subject for her.
Later in the book, you can see how those research impulses can be applied to more day to day situations, particularly online. A parallel would be she is researching random people on Twitter who is talking about their break ups or gossip about some writer she has never met that is being shared by two other writers she also has never met.
Was the narrator always who the backbone of the book was? Not actually the conspiracy theorists?
Yes. Something I do in my writing is taking the easily predictable thing and subvert it somehow. Obviously I did not anticipate the rise of QAnon and when I started writing this QAnon didn’t exist. I do think we are in a strikingly similar place now that we were four years ago. Even the people who comment on conspiracy theories don’t actually care about the conspiracies themselves. They are more interested in what they mean and what they stand for.
As the world got crazier, did you have to adapt the novel?
The biggest thing was the temptation to add things later that don’t fit with the exact timeframe. The book takes place in the first six months of Trump’s presidency. One reason for that was because I wanted to write an Internet novel that wasn’t dated. I didn’t want it to be sweeping but to be quite specific.
One thing that makes me want to write another novel about this is that the social world of social media has gotten so much bigger and so much more extreme. The things people will say about themselves or about others has gotten crazier than what the book depicts.
I’m trying to think about what the internet was like four years ago and I’m tempted to say it’s wildly different because of how technology advanced.
I think it’s more similar that we want to believe. When I was doing copy edits six months ago, there are some things I forgot were in the book and it was similar to something that happened a few weeks ago. It still feels very applicable.
Thinking about the internet now, I think most of the people I know – or at least most of the people I interact with often – are “friends” from the internet. I don’t even know real people anymore.
Exactly. And the nature of those relationships are naturally intimate in a way because there is implicate trust but they’re also very paranoid relationships because you don’t know those people. They could be misrepresenting themselves in very small ways or very large ways.
I recently got involved in an online roleplaying game where, in theory, you’re supposed to be yourself but with maybe a fake name. I took it a step further and played as a woman named Veronica just to see how women are treated differently as men in competition. Anyway, these people put their trust in me for a month until eventually I had to out myself because real bonds were forming. That could be viewed as twisted or a social experiment or whatever. But it was within the confines of a game as opposed to people who are fake selves on public social media.
I’m always fascinated by why people make those decisions. Sometimes the decisions are consequential and meaning, but sometimes I do think those decisions are arbitrary. People get attached to the arbitrary decision they made and have to keep going with it and amplify it in various ways. Eventually it becomes out of control or something people never intended.
The narrator in Fake Accounts suffers from that and suffers from other people turning it back on her in small and large ways.
Do you feel it’s the conspiracy theorist that is interesting as opposed to their theories?
Absolutely. There is a little bit of a conspiracy theorist in everyone. I’m a very gossipy person which is why I’m drawn so much to social media but drawing a comparison to someone like me to a conspiracy theorist who is seen as an extremely bad person is interesting. It allows people to see how becoming a conspiracy theorist can happen to anyone.
It’s an easy slope to fall down. Especially with how much we’ve spent online during 2020. I’ll find myself on pretty normal Reddit threads then all of a sudden I’m somewhere kind of dark. Then I saw start to wonder what these people who are spewing such dark or crazy things are like in their day to day lives.
I can understand how people get sucked into things. So many innocuous topics can snowball into such dark topics. … There was such a resistance for using the internet and social media in novels, but it’s such a great resource for different kinds of people and reflections of society. All social media does is make clear about what was always going on.
That’s exactly it. People will say Trump allowed people to be who they really were, but I think it’s social media. Now you can say whatever you want to tens, hundreds, or thousands of people instantly without even thinking your thought through.
What’s interesting is how you can post something that is very dramatic and it gets no traction and no one knows about it. Or you can post something innocuous to your ten followers and you don’t think it’s going to be read but somehow hundred of thousands of people find it in a way you didn’t intend.
The idea of this being an internet novel. I think the internet age is now timeless. We no longer have to be afraid it was just a fad. Did you feel you needed to make the internet feel “normal” for staunch literary people?
From a very basic perspective, I wanted to write the book in a style I like. I like a very long sentence or a long paragraph. I like a detailed passage about a process or an experience. Those are all timeless literary strategies and I just wanted to apply those novelists’ tools. I think being on the internet is a regular experience that we have. Getting specific about what people are doing on the internet or what the protagonist is doing with her phone hopefully allows people who aren’t internet savvy to understand what is happening. It’s the same thing as if people read something from the 19th century, people can infer what the characters are doing as a normal thing that was done.
I remember when text messages started appearing in some novels and people got hung up on that but it’s just another form of communication like long form hand-written letters.
Right, and there are ways to do it that are tacky but text messages aren’t that different from letters, emails, or even traditional dialogue. For me, I tried to solve the problem by using sturdier words. I tried to use phrases like “she sent a message” or “he posted it online” as opposed to slang to make it clear that they’re just talking in a way. I didn’t want to make a big deal that they were using their cell phones to do it.
Do you feel like you’ll always write about the internet?
I think the internet will always have to be involved because that’s where so much of my life is. What people are willing to do on it is fascinating and inspiring. Ultimately, my interest is in the social dynamics.
You’re very much on Twitter. You’re a tweeter. I wasn’t following you even though I thought I was because I follow you on Instagram.
Oh yeah, the book is semi-autofictional for sure. It’s great you didn’t know I was a tweeter because so many people interviewing me notice my profile picture was described as the narrator’s in the book. I’m making a joke in the book and people who know me know it’s a joke I made in the book. The book is a realistic depiction but it’s not real.
I’ve been on Twitter for eleven years and have been in the media just as long. I was able to play along with my own internet persona and use it as a source of humor and a cheeky meta element to the book. It adds a different layer to everything else going on in the book.
I’ve been really interested in the public persona of writers recently. Anyone who is actually interested in following a writer can feel like they’re friends depending on how the writer uses social media.
What’s bad is we did it to ourselves. All of these people know you and in a way you wanted them to and you asked for it. The identity or the role of the author is a semi-important part of the book. It’s asking what do we think we know about the person and how do we want to behave. The book has all of these pseudo intimacies that don’t have any analog in the “real” or offline world.
You mentioned how online relationships always have an element of asking yourself, “is that a lie?” Your Twitter bio mentions you’re 6’0 tall and now I am not sure if I believe that.
I am 6’0 tall. I kept meeting people who would tell me I’m really tall so I thought I’d circumvent that by putting it in the bio. Now I meet people and they go, “Oh my god, you’re really 6’0 tall!” Like I lied.Even objective facts and objective truths have this instability about them now. There are tons of way you can make a direct statement that will make people trust you more or less. Now making a joke about my height in my Twitter profile makes them doubt me.
I think with the height it has to do with all of those men who claim to be 6’0 on dating apps but they’re really 5’10. Everybody lies now.
I always wonder if there are people who don’t mind being lied to. Does the person feel bad about lying? Do people care? Obviously people lie about little things all of the time but whenever I do it, I’m worried people are going to think less of me or catch me. So many people don’t even seem to care.
We are definitely living in a post-truth world now.
Isn’t everybody sad about it? Isn’t everyone mad?
I think people bend what lying is now. Like, when I first moved to Denver I told a story to new friends but cut out some details to make it succinct so, in theory, I lied to them and I supposed they could catch me, if that is even catching me.
That’s natural and there are always little lies that are harmless. Maybe that’s why it’s fine to fudge their height in their dating profile or make themselves seem more important than they are. They can say they aren’t lying but that they are telling a slightly better story. When everybody is doing that and it’s a collective belief, it does create an element of consequence.