The Story of My Imposters

Who were these people pretending to be me?

A still life photograph of a book against a grid background with internetty overlays and magnifying glass and fingerprint
Pete Deevakul for The Atlantic

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I started out as a writer in the early 1990s, before the internet was important. I existed for a long while without a social-media profile, let alone a website to promote my brand. Then—it was about 2009 or so—I was strongly encouraged by my publicist to join the 21st century. I had an opportunity to expose my work to new generations of readers! I thought, Why yes, I would like to do that.

I was teaching at Oberlin College, and I hired a student who was double majoring in creative writing and computer science to make me a website. The student showed me how to purchase the URL of danchaon.com, and suddenly I had a domain, a web presence, a frontier settlement named after me. My student helped me paste my accomplishments and accolades into a kind of virtual scrapbook, and he showed me how I could blog my musings to the public.

I was determined to create a likable persona and become active on social media and possibly get invited to the hip literary parties I’d heard were happening in Brooklyn. But I never actually did anything. I never blogged. I never created a likable persona. Getting into my website was always a hassle, because I could never remember the password for the dashboard, and after a time I more or less abandoned it. I rarely looked at the site more than once a year.

So I didn’t know that I had lost it for quite some time. It turns out that one does not simply purchase an URL. One rents it, and my lease had expired. In early summer 2021, I decided to check on my website and found that danchaon.com was mine no longer, and I couldn’t get it back. My domain belonged to another party.

How strange! Why on earth would anyone but me want to pay for danchaon.com? When I told an internet-savvy friend about this, she shook her head. “It’s a scam,” she said. “They’ll try to sell it back to you at an exorbitant price.”

“Ha!” I said. “Let them have it. I’ll just find a different URL.”

And so I cleverly nabbed danchaon.net. Now what will you do with your worthless danchaon.com website, extortionists? I thought, and went peacefully back to my regular life in Cleveland—hanging out with my dogs, Ray Bradbury and Shirley Jackson; making soup; staring out the window of my study and considering the new project I was not writing. But it turned out that danchaon.com wasn’t finished with me yet.

In September, I was still staring out the window when an email arrived from the web designer who was setting up my new site. “A SERIOUS ISSUE” was the subject line.

She explained that the new owners of danchaon.com had upped their game. Google my name and the site is the first result that comes up, next to the words DAN CHAON | OFFICIAL WEBSITE OF THE WRITER.

This website is astonishingly elaborate. Click on it and you’ll see a picture of me at my glossiest, taken by a professional photographer at a festival in Paris—a photo that I don’t own the rights to, but the owners of danchaon.com have cavalierly stolen. The publications page is accurate, and the press page encases choice review quotes in tablets as if they’re wise sayings. The blog is a replica of the scrapbook I’d put together for the original website. The contacts are slightly out of date—I have a new publicist and speaking agent. The biography is not untrue, but it’s written in an odd style—there is a tang of Google translate, a sense that AI might have been involved: “The future master of the word was born on June 11, 1964, in Sidney, Nebraska.”  Elsewhere it continues, “Dan’s passion for literature started in elementary school when he spent most of his time reading books. Just a bit later, being only a junior high school student he started trying his hand at writing by sending his short stories to magazines. Unfortunately, all of them were rejected.”

It’s eerie having my life interpreted by an alien being, especially one whose concept of American letters and fame sounds so heartbreakingly optimistic: “The most famous Dan Chaon’s books were Among the Missing (2001), and You Remind Me of Me (2003). The former was a finalist in the National Book of the Year competition. The latter was called ‘one of the best books of the year’ by many famous publishers.”

These lines appear, bizarrely, in a section titled “Dan Chaon’s Writing School.” Apparently, my imposters have never heard of an MFA, and seem to believe that I invented the idea of the creative-writing major: “At the beginning of this year, a brilliant idea struck Dan Chaon’s mind. Being an experienced author of worldwide known books and stories himself and a professor in a college, he came up with a concept of a school for writers. Soon, the idea has become reality, and Dan Chaon’s Creative Writing School at Oberlin College has opened its doors.”

Not only has my brilliant mind created the Dan Chaon School of Writing; I also designed incredible classrooms: “The education process might seem similar to the usual school. Yet, after having a closer look, you can clearly see that it is different. Students work in small groups instead of classes of twenty and more. The rooms aren’t filled with tables and chairs that usually create a strict atmosphere. Instead, they look more like living rooms from the Victorian era, having armchairs and couches. This allows for a much more comfortable thinking process, as students feel way more relaxed. Dan Chaon says that it’s easier to create imaginary worlds and stories when you don’t feel the pressure like in a standard school or college.”

Though I haven’t taught at Oberlin College in several years, I have to admit that I’m charmed by my biographer’s fantasy. I like to imagine a bunch of dirty Oberlin hippies relaxing on Victorian couches, their thinking processes extremely comfortable.

“Oh my God,” my sister said. “You’re charmed? Are you out of your mind? These people are scamming you! They’re using your name to bilk people out of money!”

“But how?” I said. It was true that there were advertisements on the website for an “essay writing service,” but I couldn’t imagine that it was particularly profitable. In any case, I had already tried to dupe the website’s owners by sending them a message from a dummy email address. “Hello!” I said, pretending to be a college freshman. “I am in need of essay writing services! I can pay up to $1000! Please help!” But I got no response whatsoever.

“Maybe it’s more like this kind of weird, friendly trolling,” I told my sister. Ironically, a number of my books are about con artists and identity theft. “It sounds like something out of a Dan Chaon novel,” an acquaintance said. Maybe it was a tribute from a black-hat-hacker fan—an honor in a way.

“That may be,” my danchaon.net designer said. “But the fact remains that this website is the first thing that comes up in Google search. It represents you with incorrect information. Your official website comes up well below the fake website.”

At first, she was hopeful that there would be an easy fix. I needed to file a report with Google, she said, explain the situation, ask them to list my new URL as my official site, and have the old site marked as malicious so it doesn’t show up in my search results. It was important, she said, to claim my Knowledge Panel, which, according to Google, “are information boxes that appear on Google when you search for entities (people, places, organizations, things) that are in the Knowledge Graph.”

But as it turned out, despite the evidence that I provided, Google simply did not believe that I was me. “It appears that the website through Search Console we have linked for automatic verification is correct,” a member of the Google Knowledge Panel Support Team informed me. “We recommend that you check to ensure that you are trying to claim the proper knowledge panel that you represent.”

My web designer was exasperated. “No, no,” she said. “These people don’t have any power. They’re just following an algorithm.” We needed to find someone a little higher up, she thought, someone who was actually allowed to make decisions.

Thus we went on a months-long quest to discover a real live human who worked at Google. I asked my former editor—she and her colleagues are listed on the fraudulent site—and she contacted the lawyers of the Penguin Random House corporation, but not even they knew how to access the impenetrable tower of Google.

My web designer and I sent out messages to friends, asking if they knew anyone at the company, and a few of my Twitter followers responded. But it seemed as if Google’s policy was that if you knew someone personally, they were not allowed to help you—perhaps as a guard against nepotism and unfair partisanship.

Which is probably a good thing, I guess.

Over the following months, other remedies were suggested. I was told I could file a UDRP (a Uniform Domain-Name Dispute-Resolution Policy) complaint to ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), but usually the plaintiff has a registered trademark. I could contact the FBI’s IC3 division, to report illegal internet activity. If I wanted to get serious, I could send a cease and desist, and if I wanted to get super serious, I could sue the website creator, and then use the courts to subpoena the billing/user information from the web host to figure out the identity of the imposter or imposters.

But all of that costs money. Besides, it’s hard to explain what is actually malicious about danchaon.com. What exactly are they doing that’s illegal?

There is no law against emulation. If I wanted, I could dress up to look like you; I could even use your name and borrow a picture from your Facebook page and pretend that your children are my children, your spouse is my spouse, and I could write my fantasies about our daily lives, and what could you do to stop me? Think about it: Is the “you” of your Instagram or Twitter account a tangible thing that you can call property? Is it a part of your “self,” like a kidney or a bank account? Now that you’ve let yourself loose on the internet, you’re more or less open source, aren’t you?

I’ve written to them a few times, my imposters, asking if they’d consider letting me buy the website back. But no one ever responds. I wonder if they are even there anymore.

It may be that they erected this website as a joke or a scam or a tribute. Maybe they made it for no other reason than to hone their web-design skills. Maybe they long ago abandoned it. Yet it remains, like an Ozymandias monolith, a site more visited than any I’ve actually created. Even just now, while producing this essay, my editor went to grab the link to my online bio to paste into my author line, and she accidentally copied the first thing that came up: my imposters’ link. It is a fraudulent monument that perhaps will live well after I, the real Dan Chaon—Oh, me! Myself!—cease to exist on this Earth.