Israeli writer invented an online persona, killed him, then wrote about it

"It’s scary what a smile can hide: The story of Daniel Mercer"

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May 24, 2019 09:45
Israeli writer invented an online persona, killed him, then wrote about it

ALON TCHETCHIK: Our whole lives center on how many likes, how many friends.. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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“I look at the screen with a sort of smile (it only looks like a smile) and my thoughts run,” wrote Daniel Mercer in a Facebook post on December 13. “Another husband who posts a picture of his wife but has not looked in her eyes for more than two years; another woman who writes I am honored to have him as a husband, but has known that he has been busy for years with other ‘prizes’… and another woman with a million friends on Facebook but not even one friend for coffee.


“We all pass our lives by showing the world a false picture, a fake face, only to be accepted by other fake people,” Mercer continued, “because faking has become the new social norm. #GetRealPeople #AuthenticityTrolls”

Less than one year after this post appeared on social media, Mercer took his own life and disappeared from the virtual networks. Though, arguably, despite his 5,000 Facebook friends and 2,500 Instagram followers, he never existed.


The story of Daniel Mercer is the topic of a new book, It’s Scary What a Smile Can Hide, by first-time Israeli author Alon Tchetchik. Published by Niv Books, it hit Israel’s bookshelves this week. Tchetchik birthed Mercer five years ago, when he started to write his novel.


“I have a strong marketing background, and I knew that I needed to do something that would cause a big buzz,” Tchetchik told The Jerusalem Post. “I decided to take my book and give it a life outside of itself.”


Tchetchik built a fake Facebook profile and started to give his character thoughts and feelings. He would post excerpts from the book and people started to get to know him. But Tchetchik said, “I did not think Daniel could become so big, so well known – someone that did not even exist.”


He said it took him thousands of hours of work – “I really invested in this virtual life.”


But for many, Mercer was very real. People liked his posts, commented on them, and sent him private messages. Then, as Tchetchik planned from the beginning, just months before It’s Scary What a Smile Can Hide hit the shelves, Mercer killed himself.


His “family” posted a message about his suicide on Mercer’s Facebook page.


“In the beginning of the book, Daniel Mercer takes his life,” explained Tchetchik. “That is the connection between the book and the world outside. Daniel Mercer is a Tel Avivian. He has the right wife, the right everything, and everyone is jealous. On his birthday, he sits in his car, and he is getting a million congratulatory messages on Facebook, people telling him how great he is. As the messages are coming in, he kills himself.”


The rest of the novel replays Mercer’s life until that moment.


But the real story is what happened outside of the book’s pages.


“Our whole lives center on how many likes, how many friends,” Tchetchik said. “People lie on their pillow in a state of depression and then post something [on Facebook] like, ‘having fun with my wife.’ It is all fake.”


He said people compete between posts and about who has more likes.


“These likes are not really friends,” he told the Post. “I wanted Daniel Mercer to be a mirror, a wake-up call: social networks are not the real world,” Tchetchik said.


“For people to connect so deeply with someone who does not really exist, who never lived, who is a completely virtual personality,” he continued, “it says something about us and about social media.


“The message people need to learn is that when they are on vacation, at a movie or a restaurant, enjoy the people you are with and the moment and stop thinking about how you are going to post about it and who you are going to tag,” he said.


Tchetchik admitted that he is equally as guilty as the people he hopes will learn from his marketing ploy.




THE AUTHOR was born and raised in northern Tel Aviv. He struck success first in the advertising world and then as an event planner for some of the country’s largest corporations. Eventually, he transitioned to the restaurant business, from which he ultimately burned out and retired.


At age 43, married with four children, he was unemployed.


“I got up to another boring, gray day,” Tchetchik described. “I did not know what to do with myself, my self-confidence was waning, my wife was on my case, and I entered a deep depression.


“At the same time, when I’d leave my house, I would just put on a smile and tell people how good things were for me – and the same on the social networks,” Tchetchik continued. “I realized how inauthentic life is; how we have become afraid to let people in.


“And I asked myself: How can a man who has everything right in his life – a wife, a house, kids, at the prime of his life – want to end it all?”


The author enrolled in a writing course to pass the time. During one workshop, the teacher shared a quote by Anton Chekhov: “A man in Monte Carlo goes to the casino, wins a million, returns home, commits suicide.”


“It got stuck in my head,” Tchetchik recounted. “Then, one morning at 2 a.m., I opened my eyes and decided to write. And for six months, I wrote for 14 hours a day – I wrote, and I wrote, and I wrote. It was a soul-searching period, and it is during this period that Daniel was born.


“Daniel is a part of me,” he said.


So much so, that one evening the police knocked on Tchetchik’s door because they thought he was going to commit suicide.


“I had posted something on social media in the name of Daniel Mercer that led someone to believe I might take my life,” he explained. “The person must have called the police, who tracked me down via the IP address on my computer. And the police showed up at my door at two in the morning.”


The officer came looking for Daniel Mercer. It was not easy for Tchetchik to explain. Ultimately, he and the cop were drinking coffee and laughing about it in the living room.


Like that post, many of Mercer’s writings were quite personal. In a post on March 15, 2016, he uploaded a picture of a man sitting on a park bench with a pencil-drawn figure of a young woman walking the other way. “There is nothing worse than being alone when you are meant to be two,” the post reads.


“Maybe it is time to stop smiling at the camera and sharing something that we are not and probably never will be,” he posted on January 14, 2017. “Maybe it is time to stop living based on ‘what they will say,’ but rather on what is right.”


On May 6 he shared, “The beauty and the magic on social media is its escapism, its ability to escape for a moment from the reality of our lives, if it is for a moment of great joy or deep sadness. And to feel for at least a minute there is a place where we can let it go.”


Tchetchik said that his marketing trick was not immediately met with enthusiasm by many of Mercer’s “friends.” He said Facebook shut down the account when it learned it was fake, and a good portion of Mercer’s connections were angry and verbally attacked his creator.


Tchetchik admitted that in some ways it was unethical, but he does not regret what he did.


Soon before Mercer’s “suicide,” Tchetchik reached out to a select group of followers and asked to meet them in person to explain what he had done.


“There were people during the years who really supported him and wrote him personal messages,” Tchetchik said, noting how he was always careful either not to respond or to simply say thank you so that he would not face a lawsuit. “But people would write very emotional messages.”


In one instance, Tchetchik reached out to one of Mercer’s “friends” and asked if they could meet at Mercer’s recommendation. Tchetchik visited this friend at his office in Tel Aviv and tried to describe the situation. The man did not readily understand.


The author ultimately had to take out his book cover to convince this man that Daniel was fake.


“I took out a picture of me and then a picture of Daniel and I told him, ‘Daniel Mercer and me, we are the same person – I am him and he is me,’” Tchetchik described. “It was very emotional. But three months later, this person is one of my closest friends, and Daniel Mercer brought him into my life.”


The book, he said, is called “It’s Scary What a Smile Can Hide,” because it talks about the difference between what we put out into the world and what we really are inside. He said people connected to Daniel Mercer and his posts because, ultimately, they recognize how much these social networks “get us confused between real and fake, between what is important and what is not.”


Tchetchik does not yet have plans for another book. In the meantime, he hopes people will read his first one.

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