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09.25.2003

Celebrity Turing Test

In which a rock star visits his own forum, but neglects to bring a valid I.D.

Longtime readers will know I'm a big fan of Frank Black, the former Pixies frontman.

Like every other famous person, Frank Black has a fan site devoted to his comings and goings. With a new album out and a Pixies reunion just announced for 2005, the site (frankblack.net) has been having a busy month.

In the middle of all the commotion last week, a curious thread popped up on the discussion board, entitled The King holds court. The thread was spawned by a new user named frnck blck and purported to come from The Man himself:

Hi, there patrons. Thought I'd hang out for a bit and take a few questions or whatever. I'm feeling chatty. Plus I get a kick out of this site. Not to mention the fact that it saves me the trouble of having to set up one of these things. Mr. Noisy [the site moderator] will confirm that it is actually me I imagine; or maybe not. Maybe I'll just have to convince you . That could be fun. News item. Scott Boutier will miss the first 15 shows of our European tour as he has recently become A DADDY! We all wish he and his family the absolute best, of course. I'm very excited for Scott. OK. Later, Frank Black :-D What do these smiley faces mean? Does this mean that I am cool? I hope so. I've always wanted to be cool. Not too cool for school, no, just cool, man.

Here you have to understand that Frank Black is no Moby - while he is known to use email, electricity, and other modern conveniences, having him descend into a fan forum is like having a meteor strike your house - theoretically possible, highly unlikely, and sure to get your undivided attention.

Naturally, people took the post with a grain of salt. The general concensus on the thread was that the poster deserved credit for trying - Frank Black does indeed call his fans "patrons", and his drummer is a new dad - but gave himself away through the juvenile writing style and various little solecisms.

After all, the real Frank Black is a guy who writes lyrics like:

In division pelagic / you were choragic

So a smiley is really stretching the bounds of credulity.

It didn't take forum regulars long to reach a verdict:

Atheist4Catholics: They're just not even trying these days, are they?

EbbVicious: yeah frank posts a lot like a semi-retarded adolescent.

And another veteran pointed out that Frank Black, in his rare previous appearances, had posted under the username Frankus Blackus.

But the pretender was undeterred:

So. What's up with this Pixies reunion? Think they'll...exuse me....WE"LL do it? Ha. Sorry. Couldn't resist. So I failed my written driver's test the other day here in Oregon....what a fool I felt like! Been driving for like 23 years or something. I passed the next day. 93%. I got 2 wrong still. Some guy the first day was moaning about how one of the questions was worded; he was insisting on a written versus the standard computerized test that they usually set you up with. It seems he wanted to change the format because he wanted not only to pass (you only need to to get 20 questions right to pass I think the DMV lady said), but no, it seems he wanted to get a PERFECT score. Pretty funny. Ah yes. The exciting life of a rock musician. Sorry I blabbed on so. I guess since technically I'm "on topic" I'm aok. But I don't want to be TOO boring...

This effort got him deeper in the soup. Some of the people on the thread were hedging their bets by asking legit questions, but the old-timers seemed convinced that the guy was a fraud.

Wowee Zowee: Wow, dude, you're, like, so funny and stuff.

Ebb Vicious: you're not even trying any more. lame.

And a site moderator with the handle El Barto pointed out another fatal flaw:

I can't believe there are people actually defending this guy and thanking him as if he were the real Frank Black. I guess some of you are relatively new to the internet... He obviously has some sort of inside info. Of all things, he's posting from AOL, so there you go.

Meanwhile, other people on the thread were working hard to come up with questions that only the real Frank Black could possibly answer. This proved difficult, since by definition there was no way to know if the answer was right.

Most of these challenge questions boiled down to "if you're the real Frank Black, what is the title of track #4 of the demo tape my girlfriend handed you when you were walking out of the restaurant in Athens, GA last January?"

And a user called ProverbialCereal came up with the best quiz of all:

Here are some questions that only the real Frank Black would know:

Finish the sentence:
"On a wave of __________."
"Where is my _______?" (HINT: begins with "M")

Trivia :
What band prior to your solo career did you play in?
Who was the lead guitarist for that group?

While frnck blck worked on the challenge questions, another discussion moderator, CultOfFrank, launched a devastating flanking attack by providing a sample of the real Frank Black's prose (a letter on bootlegging policy) from the last time he had posted to the site:

To Whom It May Concern:

As long as we don't know about it we don't care. For example, a walkman in your jacket? Cool. Stereo mics taped to the back wall of the club? Not cool. Mainly because people with sophisticated recording equipment tend to get in the way of other patrons trying to enjoy the show. And don't bother the soundperson with requests for channels to tie into. He/she has other stuff to do (like mix our show) and while it may all be friendly, we just don't have time for that kind of accomodation. But bootleg away and have fun. I mean, don't start your own record company or something like that. We have a very good attorney. And give me a copy if you have a chance (my brother likes to collect that kind of stuff).

Pointing out the complete sentences, short and to the point writing, and lack of AOL-style acronyms in the authenticated sample, CultOfFrank had a pretty strong comp-lit case going against the pretender.

But the would-be Frank Black didn't let himself be fazed by close reading. Note the clever reasons he found for not answering some of the more detailed questions about his life, or providing a phone number or other token of authenticity:

Ha ha ha. This is great! I'm sorry. But it really is me. I'm trying to figure out how to prove it while not stooping to giving out personal info or have to get into behind the scenes emailing with someone...let's see...I did mention Scott's temporary replacement on the upcoming UK part of the tour...Joe Kidd...not too many people should know about that...what else?...I guess we could do a question and answer about my songs; that would eventually be revealing I suppose. Well, anyway, I'm not trying to waste anyone's time here, just having a little fun. I think ProverbealCereal was pretty funny. It's actually kinda hard to "prove" this without getting into something I don't want to...like....what color are Dave Philips' boxers? And even then, that doesn't prove does it. Something we can all confirm...I'll check the next page here for any ideas...

By now the challenges were flying thick and fast. A lot of people on the thread seemed to be playing along in a bemused kind of way, because the pretender had done a good job staying in character, and obviously had researched the part. Still, everyone on the list (myself included) was pretty much convinced that the guy was a fraud. Maybe an ambitious roadie, or even a mischevious bandmate.

Maybe a vengeful Kim Deal!

So imagine the surprise when the site moderator finally chimed in, nearly three pages into the thread:

DaveNoisy: Hey guys, fyi this really is FB. (Sorry for taking so long to respond.)

And six pages of frenzied questioning followed.

Coming across this online adventure made me really happy, for many reasons. Obviously, it's great to see your rock star hero answering questions on a dorky web forum, in between doing loads of laundry. "He's just like me", you think "except for that bit about exceptional talent. For I too had problems with my driving test."

It's also funny to see people go from being snide and dismissive to extremely, extremely deferential in the course of just a few lines. It's the old plot of the unrecognized hero playing itself out in real life. In 1929, a Russian folklorist named Vladimir Propp wrote a book called Phenomenology of the Folk Tale, where he laid out a 31-point generic schema for all hero stories, across all cultures - a kind of Universal Plot. The Frank Black episode is a perfect fit, if we skip all the business about him leaving home in the first place:

  • (23) The hero arrives home unrecognized
  • (24) A false hero makes unfounded claims
  • (25) The hero must perform a task
  • (26) the hero is recognized
  • (27) the false hero is exposed
  • (28) the hero is given a new appearance
  • (29) villain is pursued
  • (30) hero marries and ascends the throne

In our case, the false hero was a certain Stuart, who wrote "for all you guys know, I could be Burt Reynolds", only to see his attempt to impersonate the mustachioed one fail under withering fire.

Maybe this good fit means Propp's schema has some predictive power, and that numbers 28,29, and 30 are events still to come. I would hope 28 implies a US concert tour, and 30 some kind of career and personal triumph for our recently divorced king of rock and roll. 29 is vague but quite exciting - it's almost like Nostradamian prophecy.

The best thing of all about this thread was watching FB try, and fail, to prove his identity on internal evidence alone. Sitting in a room together, or even on a phone line, all of the participants in the thread would have known immediately the man was telling the truth. But on the Internet, it's just text, baby. It would have been interesting to see if FB could have proven his identity just by discussing lyrics, or talking about life on the road. A kind of celebrity Turing test.

And if Frank Black has this much trouble, imagine how hard it would be for poor Britney if she ever decided to head over to IRC chat. Or for good old Jesus to send a mass e-mail, announcing his return.

"Dear friend, you don't know Me, but I am writing to share exciting news..."

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