In the weekend of April 14 - 15, 2018, the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant published a staggering research article about the Dutch singer Dotan. The article describes how two journalists found out that the famous singer lied about things he posted on social media, simply to boost his image. Before the article in de Volkskrant was published, Dotan was known as a sweet, humble and all-loving singer-songwriter. He wouldn’t even hurt a fly.
At least that is what his spurious mask made him look like. He contrived stories that everyone believed, that everyone wanted to believe. For that, Dotan’s affair is a perfect example of how the tension between truth and fiction play a large role in our society. It tells us something about the way in which we tell stories in our current media landscape.
In this paper, I will elaborate on the ways in which our current media landscapes allow us to present ‘the self’. As a case study, I will analyze how Dotan’s media performances create a form of life-narrative. To understand why this life narrative was at first trusted by many, I will focus on Dotan’s media-expressions from the notion of autobiography. Further, I will add how digitalized media redefined the genre of autobiography and the way in which we perceive life narratives of ‘authors’. To be as specific as possible I will focus on one ‘story’ through which Dotan presented his life at a certain moment. This is a story that Dotan shared live on Twitter, the one that was the last straw...
Dotan: The Plane Story
On July 31st, 2017, about 8 months before de Volkskrant published their article, Dotan tweeted about an interesting experience he found himself in at that very moment. As he was sitting on a plane, he tweeted that a girl next to him was listening to his music on her phone. And miraculously, the girl did not notice that it was Dotan sitting next to her. As Dotan tweeted:
In about 6 more tweets Dotan shares this live experience with his followers. The live story ends with a last tweet wherein he says that he left the girl a note with his name on it. Saying that it was him, the singer of the music she was listening to. But, this was not where the story ended at all. A week later, Dotan posts a screenshot of an e-mail on Twitter. The e-mail was from the girl who was sitting next to him in the plane. The girl, named Alicia, apologized and thanked him gratefully for his amazing music. Soon after, newspapers all around the world wrote about this unbelievable situation Dotan found himself in. BoredPanda titled their fresh juicy news story: ‘Girl Does Not Realize She’s Sitting Next To The Guy Whose Music She’s Listening To, And It Escalates Hilariously’. Soon after Dotan’s adventure went viral.
Spectacle: Dotan saying sorry
For the journalists Mark Misérus and Robert van der Noordaa from de Volkskrant, the explosion of publicity around the "plane-story" was the moment when they started to doubt the truthfulness of Dotan’s adventure, and the truthfulness of Dotan himself. After some extensive online research, it appeared that Dotan’s positive online image was supported by the help of 140 trolls and fake-stories, which he shared on Facebook and Twitter.
They found that most of the loving words said about him on the internet came from Dotan himself or people he hired to post things via fake Facebook and twitter accounts. The plane-experience is one of the stories that appears to be staged. There was no Alicia, no plane and no e-mail. He made it all up. Dotan never directly admitted it himself, but the signs were too obvious. After Dotan was confronted with the fake-accounts and fake stories, he first said that it might have been an old fan behind those accounts. But not too long after Dotan’s meeting with De Volkskrant, his social media accounts mysteriously disappeared and he lost all connection with the world. This consequently added fuel to the fire surrounding Dotan’s lies.
Dotan saying sorry before his disappearance
Just like Dotan’s adventure in the plane, the news about Dotan’s lies also spread widely through the media. From the morning radio to the smallest local newspapers, everyone was shocked. People were amazed by Dotan’s lies and his ‘troll-army’. Articles were published with titles like: ‘Dotan Exposed: Musician accused of masterminding fake fan accounts’ and ‘Dotan is getting dragged through the mud for using fake-accounts on social media’.
But why was there so much spectacle that boiled up around this revelation? Why did this matter so much to so many people? It is known that social media can be very powerful, and for some, it may be obvious that these responses come from the trust he established beforehand. But what is the power of social media then, that it is able to create this amount of trust? What are the affordances of social media that help people like Dotan present himself in the way he wanted? So, we can ask ourselves, how does our media landscape present the boundary between truth and fiction when presenting the self?
Autobiography: presenting the self
Approaching Dotan’s actions from a perspective of ‘storytelling’ may give us interesting answers about this spectacle. Dotan’s way of storytelling online would then be a way of narrating the ‘self’. So, I propose looking at the image Dotan wanted to create as a notion of ‘Autobiography’. Elements of this traditional way of self-representationare still embedded in the opportunities for self-representation that digital media landscapes bring. For this I will again look at Dotan’s ‘plane-story’, but now from the framework of an autobiography. Or rather, the way in which he presented this story as truthful, and how it was perceived by the public before its falsehood was known.
To define what the term autobiography means, I will elaborate on Philippe Lejeune’s essay: Le Pacte autobiographique (1985), or, The Autobiographical Pact. In this essay, Lejeune particularly focuses on the role the reader has when reading an autobiography. It is an attempt to identify the relationship between the reader and the author, wherein he focuses on the expectations ‘the reader’ has when he is confronted with an autobiographical text. Together with his other books on autobiographies, the goal of this French scholar is to create order in a mass of published texts.
Lejeune’s definition of an autobiography is as follows: “a retrospective prose narrative produced by a real person concerning his own existence, focusing on his individual life, in particular on the development of his personality.” (Lejeune, 1985). Leaving a bit of his structuralist approach aside, Lejeune mainly argues that as long as the author, the narrator and the protagonist are identical, we can say that we are dealing with an autobiography (Lejeune, 1985). This also lays in the basics of what the term ‘autobiography’ means, since the definition of the word ‘autobiography’ goes almost without saying: it is a biography written by the person involved.
What is typical of the autobiographical genre is that the reader does not know ‘that person’, but is still expected to believe in their existence. To understand who that ‘person’ or, “I” that represents itself is, we have to look at the way in which the identity of the author manifests itself. Who is it who says “I am”?
Mostly from the reader’s perspective, this “I” is immediately accepted as fact, and it refers to both the author and the narrator. As Lejeune states “The “I” refers, each time, to the person who is speaking and whom we identify by the very fact that he is speaking” (Lejeune, 1985).
But perceiving this as a ‘fact’ all depends on a relationship established between the author and the reader of an autobiography (Lejeune, 1985). It is a matter of trust that is connected to the very meaning of the non-fictional roots of the genre. This trust is established by a 'social contract' between the author and the reader. Phillipe Lejeune refers to this contract with the notion of an ‘Autobiographical pact’. As Lejeune states: “The Autobiographical Pact is a specific “contract” between the author and the reader. By signing his or her “proper name” on the title page, the writer first guarantees the identity of author with narrator and then the truth of the story as written and read” (Lejeune, 1985, 22-23).
“The Autobiographical Pact is a specific “contract” between the author and the reader. By signing his or her “proper name” on the title page, the writer first guarantees the identity of author with narrator and then the truth of the story as written and read.”
With that, he implies that the very existence of the “I” can be ensured by fundamental details that define an autobiographical text. When the name of the author of an autobiography is shown on the cover of the book, it is as a sign, given by the author to the reader, that it was him who wrote it, and what the story is about. Thus, the name refers to a real person, as his actual presence is marked by the place. That place is essential, as Lejeune argues, “it is linked, by a social convention, to the pledge of responsibility of a real person.” (Lejeune, 1985).
But in the end, the reader is the one who decides to perceive the autobiographical work as an actual autobiography of this genre. Reading an autobiography is, therefore, a ‘mode of reading’. Lejeune states that we are sensitive to mistakes in stories that are perceived as autobiographical. The reader of an autobiography often looks at themself as a detective, searching for signs that violate the autobiographical pact. But when this contract is violated, the mode of reading changes to fictional, or maybe even one of distrust (Lejeune, 1985).
Dotan’s story as autobiography
If we analyze Dotan’s self-representation on Twitter as an autobiography, it is noticeable that Dotan writes about his life from a personal perspective. Dotan's tweets are told from an ‘auto-diegetic’ perspective, characteristic of an autobiography.
Therefore, we could state that Dotan’s story is one that refers to an actual experience, with an existing “I-figure”. This also implies that the author and the narrator are identical. We know that the name refers to a real person, whois at the same time also the main character and narrator of that what is told. A story about Dotan, written by Dotan himself.
We especially ‘know’ this because there are signs that make us, as readers, believe the authenticity of the “I”. People still seem to have the tendency to trust social media and stories that people tell on social media, simply by the fact that those ‘contractual’ signs are established very obviously. Or, so obvious that it is almost implied within social media channels themselves. The social contract which is normally established by, for instance, the author’s name on the cover, is now (for instance) his name next to his avatar: Dotan, or @DotanMusic. Adding to that is the ‘verified’ mark next to his name, wherewith he, and Facebook and Twitter, promise that it is "really" him.
It promises the truthfulness of his Twitter-account, it refers to who is behind that name, the real person: Dotan Harpenau. With that, he promises that he is telling the truth. And also, that the publisher, which is Twitter in this sense, verified this truth. This is the modern or updated ‘social convention’ that concerns the promise of a real person with a real story. In Dotan’s case, the ‘reader’ doesn’t really know him, the author. It is expected that he tells the truth and is truthful. Which is only emphasized by the blue shades that mark his authenticity.
These also imply the idea of a ‘reading mode’. Social media, as story-telling platforms, are read and perceived from a non-fictional perspective. Still, the smallest mistakes can change the ‘reading mode’. When his ‘followers’ started to notice signs that did not match with reality, Dotan violated the autobiographical pact. The fact that Dotan broke this pact, and it appeared that he lied, is deceiving from the very idea that it was him who narrated, and thus so, lied. It is logical that people were extra sensitive to the fact that he lied. Dotan built his realistic and positive image very intensively, simply by using deceiving and painful stories. Whereas in the beginning it worked well and people trusted him, he has now broken every line of trust people had, and was therefore painfully dragged through the mud.
Autobiographies in the 21st century
From this traditional perspective of ‘autobiography’, we might notice some things that are more difficult to explain or elaborate on. Defining Dotan’s story as an autobiography with Lejeune's theory also leaves important aspects of social media behind. Digital and social media seem to disregard telling only one long story, there is no beginning or end.
For the time Lejeune wrote his books, his search for a definition of autobiography was influenced by the perspective of the contemporary reader, the 20th-century reader. Storytelling has changed due to the new forms and opportunities digitalized media provides us with, which implies that the definition of the genre ‘autobiography’ has shifted as well. Especially in a century where concepts like digitalization and the internet are part of everyday life, we may ask ourselves: what is an Autobiography online?
Smith and Watson argue that autobiographies have gained a broader discursive meaning since the emergence of digital media. Autobiography, or telling about the self, is no longer a fixed genre but rather is a social action mediated through digital platforms. Virtual and visual elements of story-telling via (new) digital media changed the way in which we perceive autobiographies. As Smith and Watson argue: "It should be read for what it does, not what it is. Rather than being simply the story of an individual’s life" (Smith & Watson, 2010).
For that, Smith and Watson suggest that the old terms and ideas of autobiography and memoir should be exchangedfor the more inclusive idea of ‘life writing’.
In online media landscapes, life writing can take the form of blogs and articles but also as mixed media, such as on social networking sites. As Smith and Watson state, “Self-representation may take many guises as narrators selectively engage their lived experience and situate their social identities through personal storytelling. Not as fixed genre but as social action, mediating.” (Smith & Watson, 2010).
On the basis of Smith & Watson’s ideas, Anna Poletti proposes in her article: Relational Autobiography, Affect and Popular Culture in Tarnation (2012), the notion of ‘autobiographical acts’ rather than autobiography as a genre. With that idea, Poletti argues that self-representation across multiple media takes the form of scattered discursive acts that form one narrative. It explains how multiple media acts can represent one’s life story, forming a form of autobiography, or life writing.
What is typical of those autobiographical acts is that they are no longer published by the publishing industry, but take place outside in online environments. The scattered acts form the narrative but have no literal beginning or end (Poletti, 2012). Poletti adds to that idea that autobiographical works can also take the form of cinema, photography, videos and other cultural media explorations. They are given a broader meaning and are less structured than the definition Lejeune proposed, but more a definition of our time.
This conception, that scattered acts form the narrative, also means new possibilities of prefabricated lives. Self-fabricated lives or, ‘autobiographical hoaxes’, are a common concept in digital environments. At the same time, this also makes it harder to validate what is told as true. But due to what Smith and Watson call the ‘authenticity effect’, it seems that many are unconcerned about the accuracy of what is presented. The view of the self is now flexible, responsive and dynamic. The amount of ‘friends’ and ‘followers’ online has become a suggestion of this ‘authenticity’. Further, “Regarding users as social beings defined by consumer tastes and the size of their friend group may suggest a conformist sense of personhood.” (Smith & Watson, 2010).
Back to Dotan
Elements of autobiographies that have dominated our lives have been taken over by new ways of narrating that go beyond the traditional expectations of autobiographical stories. With both ideas, Smith and Watson (2010) and Poletti (2014) show the complexity of self-presentation in contemporary society. These notions of life-writing and autobiographical acts help explain the way in which we perceive Dotan's stories as trustworthy in the first place.
The story in the plane was an attempt at (digital)self-representation. It is a piece that was ‘made’ to contribute to Dotan’s life-story. As actions, his live-media presentations are chosen to contribute to his whole image. The narrative represented Dotan’s life, his goodness, and who he was by the things he did. The trolls Dotan used appeared to literally boost the suggestion towards authenticity. Social media allows the creation of fake communities, suggestions of ‘friends’ and ‘followers’, and the stories confirmed by them. By using photographs, playing with time (Tweeting live), and the connection to his music, he created a "truthful" story with a truthful character. Information is seen all the time, and for that confirmation is still sometimes taken for granted. As Smith and Watson suggest, the downside is the ease with which prefabricated lives can exist among public debate and in popular culture.
The 21st century celebrates a time of creating your own stories, whenever and however you want. New media landscapes create new opportunities, but still the promise stays: what you tell about yourself is a truthful narrative of your own life. It is about the relationship established by the author and the reader from the very meaning of the word ‘autobiography’. This works from the very relationship between the reader and writer and how that is established. And it is on those authors to keep this promise and stay true to themselves and to the public.
Lejeune, P. (1985). Le pacte autobiographique. In Moi aussi. Collection Poétique. Paris: Seuil, 1986. 13–36
Poletti, A. (2012). Reading for Excess: Relational Autobiography, Affect and Popular Culture in Tarnation. In Life Writing, 9:2, 157-172. Routledge, London, UK
Smith, S. & Watson, J. (2010). ), Reading Autobiography, A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.