Look at it this way: Manti Te'o is a millenial. He's a late millenial, born on the last year that qualifies one for the next great generation, but he's got all the symptoms. To borrow the New York Times's language for what makes a millenial, Te'o's peers are "entitled whiners who have been spoiled by parents who overstoked their self-esteem, teachers who granted undeserved A’s and sports coaches who bestowed trophies on any player who showed up." That is not a universal definition and might not completely apply to Te'o — based on his last season with Notre Dame, it would appear that he actually earned all of his trophies — but it does give us some insight into how Te'o's been acting lately.
This week Te'o sat down with Katie Couric for his first on camera interview since Deadspin broke the news that his dead girlfriend, the one he flaunted in front of the media, did not actually exist. Previews from the interview, which airs on Thursday, reveal that Te'o actually knew that a woman claiming to be his dead girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, called him on December 6, nearly three months after she had supposedly died of leukemia and just two days before the Heisman Trophy winner was announced. Trusting Te'o's claim that he was not in on the hoax before then — and that's a generous dose of trust, at this point — we now know that Te'o played along with the hoax after that.
Wearing khaki pants and a cardigan sweater Te'o does his best to sound sincere on television. Te'o described the unexpected phone call and asked Couric, "You know, what would you do?" Couric, who's actually a pretty brutal interviewer sometimes, turned it around on him. "You stuck to the script, and you knew that something was amiss, Manti." Te'o replied, "Katie, put yourself in my situation. I, my whole world told me that she died on September 12. Everybody knew that. This girl, who I committed myself to, died on September 12." It's unclear how he found out about his fake girlfriend's fake death, but one thing is for certain: it was the Internet that told him and everyone else that she was real.
Millenials love the Internet. And for as long as it's been around, millenials have loved constructing alternate realities on the Internet. They spent the early days of AOL hiding behind a screenname, sometimes pretending to be other people and sometimes getting fooled by people pretending to be other people. Fast forward about a decade, and you'll find the same kids mapping out their lives on Facebook, documenting thoughts on Twitter and doing whatever it is people do on Pinterest. After a while, it's easy to forget that the things we read on these websites aren't necessarily real. They're just a series of ones and zeroes rendedered into pixels and pumped into our brains.
It's unclear how he found out about his fake girlfriend's fake death, but one thing is for certain: it was the Internet that told him and everyone else that she was real.
But millenials like Manti Te'o do forget that fact. Why? Because they're overconfident and impatient. This attitude has been a boon to the generation in a lot of ways. Just look at the world-changing success of many millenial entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg. It can also get them in trouble, as it did last year with former Wired and New Yorker writer Jonah Lehrer who was caught fabricating quotes and as it has this year with Manti Te'o. Hotshots at the World Economic Forum in Davos are even discussing this new "digital wildfire" problem this week. The Te'o hoax qualifies as a digital wildfire, a lie that — like a spark on a dry pile of leaves — ignites an inferno that spreads fiercely. Digital wildfires are like the emergency version of fake girlfriends.
It's our own fault in a way. As a 2012 study of millenials' web searching habits asserts, people Te'o's age tend to "proceed erratically through an information search process, make only a limited attempt to evaluate the quality or validity of information gathered." This would explain how Te'o went months believing he had a smoking hot online girlfriend, when she was actually, allegedly, a figment of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo's imagination. Tuiasosopo, who's also a millenial and an acquaintance of Te'o, has yet to explain himself, but everybody still seems preoccupied with how the hoax went down, content to save the why for later.
None of this completely explains why Te'o lied about his fake dead girlfriend, but it should seem fairly obvious at this point. He was embarrassed and, in a stereotypically millenial way, selfishly concerned about how he would be affected by the truth getting out. And keeping the lie going was so easy. Te'o's hoaxer, perhaps with help from Te'o himself, already easily constructed this fantasy of a woman who was Lennay Kekua. They'd given her a Facebook account, sent thousands of tweets on her behalf and, most importantly, convinced the entirety of the media that she was real. (A lot of those journalists must've been millenials too, since they didn't bother checking the validity of Te'o's claims either!) The apparent online reality of Lennay Kekua quickly became blurred with actual reality, and nobody could tell the difference. You can blame a well contructed hoax for that, in part. But you also have to blame Te'o, the press and, in some cases, yourself for getting sucked in.
It would be fun to walk away from this story, whenever it does end, with good moral in mind. Most people probably won't, though. They'll continue sliding into their own curated reality online, believing what's half believable and avoiding real life. Heck, maybe our digital reality is becoming the realer one. Or maybe we're already living inside a computer. Or maybe you should consider actually shaking hands with someone before telling the world they're real.
Image via Reuters / ABC