This was originally published in the Yahoo! Internet Life print magazine. I’m putting it up for reference.
By Scott Alexander
As it turns out, online journals are the real killer App
Billiam was a new breed of human.
Call it Homo journalicus—a curious creation of the Internet Age that lives the majority of its life on the Web and interacts almost solely with other members of its species. There are legions of them out there—people who use online services such as LiveJournal and DiaryLand to post the nitty-gritty details of their existence, tossing in everything from their fear of commitment to what they ate for breakfast. But none could do it like Billiam.
Billiam lived on LiveJournal, the kind of low-budget, for-the-love-of-it space that is the Net’s pluralistic promise made manifest. Its code was cobbled together by a legion of distributed programmers who have rolled chatrooms, message boards, diaries, and blogs into one living, breathing, electric hive. If you’re an LJer (as they call themselves), 500,000 or so of your closest friends hang there 24/7. Within its walls you will find gossip, infighting, sex talk, hugs, and no small amount of whining about science teachers. The simple innovation of making every post in your Weblog (or blog) a topic for discussion means that LJ is endlessly interactive: Posts lead to discussions, which lead to subdiscussions, which people comment on in their journals, where the endless dissection begins anew. The friendships, feuds, loyalties, and betrayals change so quickly and cascade through so many incarnations that you could easily sympathize with someone about a caustic post in his journal only to trace the thread back and find that you left it there yourself.
But be warned: Stumble across one of its pages while at work, and you may well find yourself, five hours later, knowing a great deal about JoeyJoey and how she’s cheating on her boyfriend TimmyThumbs with a hot Latin Casanova video store manager (who drives a Camaro and has a reputation for making great bouillabaisse), but precious little about the presentation you’re giving tomorrow. As the site itself encourages: “Let the world know the story of your life, as it happens. (Whether they want to or not!)” Beyond mere voyeuristic journal peeping, LJ is humanity on display in all its glory, confusion, angst, and banality. It is heroin for procrastinators, a black hole for your attention span.
And for a brief, intense Net moment, it was home to Billiam and the chaos he created.
Calling Billiam’s journal, dubbed HardcoreBilliam.com, different is an understatement. For one, this obsessive diarist didn’t seem to care about making or keeping friends, only about speaking his mind: “I don’t sugar coat my wordz at all mothaphuckaz!!!!!!! it ain’t my fault you can’t handle my truth!” But despite (or perhaps because of) his cavalier, id-centric approach, Billiam had plenty of friends. It’s not clear that Billiam had a specific agenda in mind or that he knew what he was doing. But whatever he was doing, it worked. Hardcore Billiam was the toast of LiveJournal, with thousands visiting each day to read his musings, many of them scatological, misogynist, or just plain nasty.
But who was Billiam really? The pictures of him plastered all over his site weren’t much help. Most were just crude Photoshop doodles—cut-and-paste jobs that transformed Billiam into a professional wrestler, a chick magnet, or Britney’s hoochie-coochie man.
Actually, the phrase “pictures of him” isn’t entirely accurate. Billiam never used any real photos of himself. A little digging reveals that the cocksure mug dominating Hardcore Billiam belongs to Josh Souza, a runner-up on the TV reality show Big Brother (Josh Souza Onlineapparently provided Billiam with immense amounts of raw material). Indeed, Billiam played with the concept of identity as if it were Silly Putty—you never knew when you’d come to the bottom of his rabbit hole. A disclaimer on his site reads:
i know da pichaz are of Josh Souza from Big Brother…everyone knows dat. You aint speshal cuz u figured it out. Pretty much evrything u read in here iz bullshit, an it don’t got nuffin ta do with Josh Souza. So, eitha laff an enjoy, or move on.
Women wanted to meet him. Scores sent pictures with his obliquely perverse trademark phrase (“Billiam, would you like some sausage?”) written across various body parts. His groupies eventually organized themselves into a fan club of sorts called Billiam’s Bichaz. To meet demand, Billiam had to start up an altogether new journal just to handle questions about sex. And so “Ask Dr. Billiam” was born. LiveJournal, it seemed, had found its alpha male.
Of course, Billiam failed to charm many. The women who sent him naked pictures were virtually impossible to age-verify—a fact that made even the notoriously libertarian creators of LiveJournal nervous (but didn’t stop them from giving him a free permanent account). And then there were the LJers who were just plain jealous of the attention the community lavished on Billiam.
One of his main detractors was a thuggish ex–New Yorker living in Malibu who went by the handle Primo. His LJ page mainly focused on his phat ride (his car), his ice (jewelry), and his views on just how foolish you would have to be to mess with him. At least that’s what his journal was about until he tangled with Billiam. Thereafter, it was pretty much about how dumb/soft/ugly/gay Billiam was. Typically, though, Primo was more interested in Billiam than Billiam was in him. After slapping him around with some verbal jousts, Billiam left Primo to his ranting and went back to spreading his views on Lucky Charms, Willy Wonka, and freaky sex.
Was there a point to all this? It’s hard to say. Billiam’s journal tended to reveal more about others than it did about him. For all his outrageousness, Billiam was actually something of a blank canvas. While most LJers are pathologically exhibitionistic, he eschewed tortured re-creations of his inner life, preferring to coast on pure personality, watching as others projected their own biases and judgments onto him. Where other LJers would note that they had Trix for breakfast, Billiam would use it as an excuse to give the people what they really wanted—more Billiam:
fo some reason da kidz have decided dat Trix r only fo kidz an not fo rabbitz. where da phuck doez it say dat?!?!? wot kind of fascist phuckan country do we live in where certain peepz can eat certain cereal cuz of their species?!?!?!.
Amid the free-form, Ebonics-like jabbering, a few facts emerged. Billiam was the nephew of Barry Williams (who played Greg on The Brady Bunch). He was 25. He lived in Canada and hated it. He smoked Herculean amounts of marijuana.
He also loved women, and he held a typically raunchy contest to determine which lucky one would get a free plane ticket to come meet him. The winner, by virtue of a stash of Webcam pics that would have put Danni Ashe to shame, was one TomorrowWendy, a longtime fan who couldn’t wait to meet the man.
And this is where the mask began to slip, the hero began to falter. After a tumultuous weekend at Club Billiam, TomorrowWendy returned home and posted a detailed description in her journal. For Billiam’s fans, it was all a little unfortunate—like meeting the real Bill and Ted and realizing they were more fun on DVD than they were to hang out with.
Billiam was no slick player by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, the person TomorrowWendy met looked suspiciously like a loser with no job and nothing to do all day but get high and post on LiveJournal. Billiam’s “crib” was a dank basement filled with dirty laundry and pot smoke, TomorrowWendy reported. The beauty of suspended disbelief is that it allows us to live vicariously through our heroes’ outrageous actions. This becomes tougher to do when you find out your hero still lives with his mom.
Without going into the rest of the gory details, let’s just say things didn’t work out for Billiam and Wendy. Her posts sparked a he said/she said mess of epic proportions. Billiam claimed they slept together. TomorrowWendy said Billiam merely exposed himself to her and bluntly propositioned her (several times). Billiam said TomorrowWendy is certifiably crazy and a pathological liar (but that he found that sexy). TomorrowWendy said Billiam finds anything with a pulse sexy. Billiam then saw fit to post in his journal all the naked pictures she’d sent him (something she’d expressly asked him not to do).
The controversy eventually drowned beneath a tidal wave of spaced-out rants and dirty pictures. At the end of the year, Billiam announced he’d be going offline for a couple of weeks. He’d scraped together the cash for a trip to his favorite place on earth—Disneyland. For almost a full month leading up to the trip, readers of his journal heard no end of his excitement:
diz shit iz da bomb!!! i lovz dizneyland so much!!!! Luv iz fo mommiez an puppy dawgz an dizneyland!!!
That quote is from a post he wrote on January 3, the night before he left. It was to be his last. Billiam’s journal went dark until the 17th, when a post came across from his pal HardcoreScotti with a link to TomorrowWendy’s journal. There, fans read the news. Billiam was dead. Primo—yes, Primo, the thug from Malibu—had killed him.
TomorrowWendy reported in her journal that she and Billiam had met up in California (they were dating, she admitted; the fight had been a publicity stunt), and that while there, Billiam had also decided to see his old nemesis Primo to show he had no hard feelings. The rendezvous had turned ugly. Billiam couldn’t resist taking Primo down a peg or two with some semi-playful verbal smacks. Primo took something the wrong way and stormed off. The next morning, he showed up at their motel with a gun and put five bullets into Billiam. “I remember feeling his body shudder as he coughed…his body trying to suck air into lungs that couldn’t hold it. I remember his mouth moving as he tried to speak, but no words would come. Only blood.” He died in her arms, TomorrowWendy wrote, before the ambulance could arrive.
A community this large and emotionally charged is inevitably going to be home to some unstable people. The kind of people who wouldn’t recognize a joke if it insulted them in their journal. Behind his monitor, Billiam was king, and none of his outrageous actions had consequences. Now the online had moved offline with its volatility and unpredictability dangerously intact—and the LJers were stunned.
But not for long.
Billiam was dead, yes, but only insofar as he had existed in the first place. Which is to say, not at all.
The LiveJournal community was apprised of this salient fact by a grudge-holding LJer named Visions, who was on a personal crusade to unmask the man. With the help of some IP address sleuthing, Visions ultimately proved that not only was this goofy, obnoxious, fun-loving Canadian pothead not who he said he was, he wasn’t anybody at all. A phantom. A digital hallucination.
The man responsible was one Joe Humphrey, a struggling screenwriter living in Victoria, and a man who is about as un-Billiam as someone could be without turning into Orrin Hatch. Billiam was a fiction that somehow escaped Joe’s brain, landed on the Web, and promptly seduced a few hundred women. TomorrowWendy? That was Joe, too. And Primo? Of course. Using photos of Big Brother contestants for Billiam and Primo (and an aspiring nudie model named Stormy as TomorrowWendy), an active imagination, and equal parts charm and obnoxiousness, Joe managed to create a minor Web celebrity out of whole cloth, along with a full cast of supporting characters. Think of it as a documentary within a reality show within a movie. A movie where Peter Sellers plays all the parts.
On the phone, Joe Humphrey is soft-spoken and thoughtful. He says Billiam began as a prank to tweak his LiveJournal pal HardcoreScotti. Scotti had been anonymously messing with Joe in Joe’s journal. Joe created Billiam to mess back. A little trash talk from Billiam was all it took to get Scotti interested. Soon the fur was flying, and Joe was hearing incredulous stories from his friend about this mysterious Billiam character. Like any good fight, Scotti and Billiam’s fracas attracted some rubberneckers. By the time Joe let Scotti in on the joke, Billiam was getting cheered on by a large and unruly crowd—one that featured many nubile women. From there it was a simple matter of widening his sights a bit and pissing off the rest of the world. To quote Billiam:
da funniest part iz dat u r gettin yo granny pantiez in a bunch over some shit dat a fictional character iz saying. everythin im doin iz an elaborate joke…a joke played on YOU…a joke played on peepz too stoopid to realize dat wot im doin izn’t real. u think i CAN’T type normally? U think dat i write like diz because i think itz COOL or somethin?
To quote Joe Humphrey: “I was basically trying to make a character that people would just hate automatically.” Perhaps, then, we should call Billiam’s species Homo journalicus chimericus. But then again, maybe we’d all be more balanced people if we had an unedited alter ego. Says Joe: “Billiam can say whatever he wants to say and get away with it. That’s not something you can really do. Y’know, unless you’re a jerk.”
Billiam may never have existed in the conventional sense. But for his legions of followers, he did. In the process, he created a new kind of fame, and a new form of entertainment, one where the stars are completely accessible to the people, whether they actually exist or not.
And Joe Humphrey? He hopes to get a movie deal out of his online adventure. For now he’s keeping things as schizophrenic as ever with his new project, Up Your Mind, a collaborative site run by several of his different personalities, including such luminaries as TomorrowWendy, Darth Vader, and Christopher Walken.
As for Billiam, though his time may be up, we all know that nothing ever really dies on the Web. Good night, sweet prince, and angels sing thee to thy rest, biznatch. Dat iz all.
See also: The Official History of Hardcore Billiam