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How the Internet Ruined Mysteries

Myths like Elena Ferrante can’t last in 2016

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

When The New York Review of Books published an investigation into Elena Ferrante’s identity this week, proposing that she was Rome-based translator Anita Raja, her fans were outraged. Many were upset at the prospect that she would stop writing — something the author of the popular Neapolitan Novel series has implied she would do if her true name were revealed. Others declared the story a violation of female privacy, an investigative journalist’s chauvinistic grab at the “low-hanging fruit” of a woman who wanted to control her own agency. A friend of mine was especially upset that the piece suggested Raja’s husband could’ve helped write the series, based on a “special text-analysis software” that a “team of physicists and mathematicians” used to evaluate her books. “Dear god, I hope a man didn’t cowrite the Ferrante novels,” she texted me the day the news broke. “GIVE ME THIS JESUS.”

But underlying all these complaints was a collective regret that we could no longer daydream about the unmatchable myth of this brilliant literary figure. The same woman who chronicled the emotions of her iconic female characters with such fearless and revealing detail had suddenly been reduced to a mere mortal — a woman with smart real estate investments and a sensible bob. The day that Elena Ferrante was doxed was the day that the imaginations of the millions of women who worshiped her got a little bit smaller.

It’s a shame, especially since — in an age when J.K. Rowling feels compelled to explain that Remus Lupin’s werewolf-dom was a metaphor for AIDS nine years after the original Harry Potter series concluded — Ferrante covets the value of obscuring herself. “It has become natural to think of the author as a particular individual who exists, inevitably, outside the text — so that if we want to know more about what we’re reading we should address that individual, or find out everything about his more or less banal life,” she said in a 2015 interview with The Paris Review. “Remove that individual from the public eye and … we discover that the text contains more than we imagine. It has taken possession of the person who writes. If we want to find that person, she’s right there, revealing a self that even she may not truly know. When one offers oneself to the public purely and simply through an act of writing — which is all that really counts — this anonymity turns into part of the story or the verse, part of the fiction.”

But Ferrante’s wish for obscurity, however noble, seems sadly impossible in our digital era. Since she began publishing her series in 2011, the internet has swarmed and ingested every morsel of biographical information on the author, link ants feeding out of a discarded tuna can. The theories are plentiful enough to populate a Bustle listicle: Ferrante is actually a man, maybe even the Neapolitan writer Silvio Perrella; Ferrante is the Italian professor Marcella Marmo; Ferrante is the books’ translator, Ann Goldstein. Last year, several news outlets theorized, convincingly, that the author could be either Neapolitan writer Domenico Starnone or his wife, Raja. Then, what was mostly an educated guess became a nice lead for a journalist who knew a thing or two about digging up documents. The quest to dox Ferrante is similar to the quest to unmask Satoshi Nakamoto, the anonymous founder of bitcoin whose identity news outlets have tried and failed to unveil over the years (Nakamoto, by contrast, is much more equipped than Ferrante with tools keep his identity secret). A holy grail dox like Ferrante’s is almost inevitable if you have thousands of people who are willing to embody the spirit of Carrie Mathison listening to jazz and making conspiracy collages on Homeland to get the answers they want.

The past decade has been filled with fruitless battle after fruitless battle for privacy online. The European Union’s “right to be forgotten” law, which was intended to delink potentially damaging or private information about individuals, has forced companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter to create vague and imperfect removal processes that, in one case, (somewhat) aided a doctor with a history of botched surgery cases. As Guns N’ Roses frontman Axl Rose demonstrated earlier this year, figures who attempt to remove images or information online through legal or private means are often rebuffed by an internet phenomenon known as the Streisand Effect. Even a recently passed California law that allows actors to remove their age from IMDb seems, in practical application, to be more about whether that information should be Googleable in five seconds or 20 minutes.

I don’t bring up these examples to decry the loss of privacy in the 21st century. No matter how personally protective I am of Ferrante as a fan of her work, I acknowledge that, for many important reasons, investigations into the identity of a famous author are legitimate. Setting up systems through which powerful and influential people have the unquestioned right to hide information about themselves online is a dangerous precedent. And as the “right to be forgotten” law shows, a system that must process such a high volume of privacy requests will always do so imperfectly. In many ways, we rely on those internet users who favor radical transparency to reveal the bad stuff. No one would’ve known that UC Davis spent $175,000 to scrub photos of police officers pepper spraying the eyes of 21 students and alumni unless those photos were republished all over the internet by users working for the cause. It’s the little guy’s only online defense against an institution or person with seemingly endless money and lawyers.

Plus, no matter how legitimate an institution or a celebrity’s plea to stay private might be, attempts to reason with the internet are useless — it’s a hive without a mind, and it’ll do what it wants. Attempt to reason with a crowd so varied and drunk on the power of is anonymity and you’d likely get a dickbutt GIF in response.

As the internet has evolved into a ruthless spout of indiscriminate information, we have gained things: a system of power checks, the ability to hold celebrities accountable for their vanity, the ability to order pizza by tweeting a single emoji. But we’ve lost the precious delight of an awe-inspiring mystery. No longer can we watch a Stevie Nicks–inspired Grammy performance from Lorde and wonder, bemusedly, if she’s actually a 30-year-old claiming to be 17 — The Hairpin has already published her birth certificate. No longer can the good commenters of wonder how tall Jake Gyllenhaal is — the Mystery Show podcast launched an (albeit incredibly satisfying) investigation into the matter. And no longer will an unnamed Ringer editor — true story — hold out a sliver of hope that her 50-something Italian therapist is Elena Ferrante. Facts that flatten the enjoyable auras of our mysterious heroes might be fair game, but they’re never that fun.