net.wars: Two Martinas and one party-pooper

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 31 October 2003

"How," Martina Navratilova asked a bunch of reporters (including me) on October 27, 2003 at the Philadelphia tennis tournament last week "can I prove I'm me?" She asked this question with the fascination of someone who has just stumbled on a brand-new conundrum. The web site is here, if you want to 'enjoy' it ... (and is that one of the worst Web sites ever, or what?)

Wendy M Grossman

Out here on the Net, the best scientific minds have been discussing this for at least 15 years, and everyone from governments to credit card companies wrestles with it. But it's understandable why, to Navratilova, it would be a shock. Unlike most of us, she moves in a world in which, for the last 30 years, everyone has always known and recognized her.

She was asking because on a message board set up by some of her fans to talk about "the Queen" someone using the moniker of "rachel" had posted notes she claimed came from Navratilova. One of Navratilova's friends spotted the imposter, and so Navratilova decided to appear on the message board - God descends into the middle of a church service! calling Herself "sebastiangirl"! -- to debunk this "rachel".

OK, you know the next bit: message board now has two competing "Martina Navratilovas", and doesn't believe either of them. Well, would you?

Navratilova took a celebrity approach to this: tell a load of reporters and hope someone prints the story, and that broadcast will verify she's the Real Deal. Well, that's sort of true. If you can get reporters to get the ID right. And be interested in message boards. No one covered it that I know of.

I said, in my guise as wg, intrepid "http://www.tennisnews.com" Daily Tennis reporter, "Get someone to vouch for you." She didn't seem much interested in this suggestion at the time, but the next day I decided to try an experiment. If, I reasoned, the Net wasn't my village the way the tennis world is hers, what have I been doing here all this time?

So I posted a message to rec.sport.tennis, where I've been posting since 1993. Then I did a Google search for the message board, reposted the same message there with an explanation and a note of the subject of the October 29 net.wars column (something known only to me, except then I changed it to this), and posted the fact that I'd done all this in my blog. As I write this, a few minutes later, there are therefore several ways someone who is interested can check the chain of my identity, decide whether I'm a trusted source, and therefore trust "sebastiangirl." The problem is not really Navratilova's identity; it's the link between her real-world identity and the sebastiangirl ID.

My prediction was: a few people on the message board will be swayed by my posting, but no one will actually check my chain of identity to prove the thing one way or another, because what they like to do is argue, not settle things. I wouldn't expect to know for another few days.

That evening. In fact, I had mostly swayed the board. One person recognized me from rec.sport.tennis immediately and accepted my word as Fact. Bunch of others fell in behind her, since they trusted her. Remains: two acerbic hold-outs, who now believe all three of us are imposters.

The next morning. On the tennis board, one of the two hold-outs is coming around. Navratilova is leaving him tickets at the box office as proof. The last one will give in (or vanish) when mike5012 reports back that he genuinely got his tickets. Nothing to see here any more, folks, move along. Except that it's kind of nice to note a day later that mike5012 did make the trip to Philly, found his tickets, met Navratilova, and gave her a dozen red roses in apology.

Ah, the ego in this story. On a tennis court I could never compete with Navratilova (although I challenge her to Scrabble any time, any place, anywhere). But on the Net I wanted to prove that I am an unimpeachable source. I now realize, of course, that the whole thing would have been much more interesting - and this would have been a much better net.wars - if I hadn't meddled.

I could have sat up there on my electronic cloud, watching as the peons argued, knowing all the time that I could end their angst and uncertainty. They had started a poll: which Martina do you believe? Voting on a fact, how quaint. What would they have done next? Anything practical, like call IMG or the WTA and request confirmation? Or, most likely, would gone on debating the mystery while the real Spartacus fumed?

I will never know now. Coulda, woulda, shoulda.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).