You all know me. Some of you love me. Others hate me. But I don’t exist. I never did.
That might be a lot to digest. Some of you are already calling bullshit. However, it’s the truth. Let me state it another way.
I am Audra Steffenberger.
I am not Audra Steffenberger.
Neither statement is a lie.
The first post went up when I was still in college. It was a joke, that was all. I was going to do it as my dissertation. But I got attached, as sometimes happens. No, attached is not the right word. I got addicted. To the anonymity. To the power.
All the likes and then the shares. And when people started commenting and creating the memes… well, that was like adrenaline. I had created something powerful. It was, I imagine, like seeing your child accomplishing great things.
Because Audra was my baby.
It’s too bad that sometimes children, despite our best intentions, grow into monsters. Hitler had a mother. Stalin a father.
Audra had me.
Father, mother, man behind the curtain.
It was still fun a few months into the project. Because that was all it was. I didn’t intend for it to go anywhere. Every day I was going to pull the plug. Not come clean, no, just leave it, as it was. Another dead island in the clutter of the cloud. But at the end of those days I always said one more.
Then the money came.
I don’t know what kind of person you are. I don’t know if you value money. But I know one thing about you: you need money. We all do. And when someone comes knocking with bags with dollar signs on them it’s hard to resist. Perhaps you’re a better person than I am. I doubt it.
We all do have a price.
Mine was a partnership with a major fashion label. You all know the one. After that Audra became more than a talking head.
I had been using a modified DeepFake engine to create entirely new photos and videos from existing material. Audra wasn’t anyone that existed; she was a composite of lots of people. And never the same people. She was everyone and she was no one.
Mostly she was a talking head, mimicking trending memes and one-off jokes. Like I said before, it was just a lark. She was a real-to-life Max Headroom; no actors here. And people loved her. Maybe it was her everybodyness, maybe it was her everythingness.
Audra became real with the business partnership. I modified the software I was using so I could overlay the fashion designs from the label. It worked better than I ever imagined. And the company didn’t put any constraints on content; I could do whatever I wanted. I had made sure of that before I signed. Though it’s hard to imagine that a contract signed by a non-existent being would be binding anyway.
Audra wasn’t just a head and shoulders mouthpiece anymore. No, she became a person.
Her look, her personality, had all fluctuated a little before that. But now it solidified. Audra Steffenberger, citizen of nowhere, flesh and blood of nobody, became the first citizen of the Internet.
God help us all.
Those months after the fashion launch were heady. I had never seen so much money, had never dreamed I ever could see so much. And I spent nearly as much too.
Houses. Cars. Boats. All the usual culprits. And drugs, oh, yes. You know that old saying, if all your friends jumped off a cliff would you? Hell yeah, I would. And I’d do a line or three with them too. I was fucked up.
But then I woke up. I have never been overly self-destructive, luckily.
And the world I awoke to could have been a dream.
I had managed to keep Audra going while in my addled state. She was going better than ever. It was still mostly fluff, bullshit. She didn’t say anything that mattered.
Well, no, that wasn’t exactly true. I noticed that I had started to slip some of my own politics into her vapid discourse. And people were eating it up.
Audra Steffenberger was on fire. Everyone wanted a piece of her.
I should have let her die then, at the top. But the money was too good. And the power. More than anything it was the power. Audra had her finger on the pulse of the world. Not just Europe, not just the United States. Everywhere.
There had never been anything like her before. She was featured on the cover of Time, the front page of The Guardian and The New York Times. She even had animated billboards in Times Square and Shibuya’s Center-gai, right there above the stock tickers.
You couldn’t escape her, she was everywhere. And that made her more powerful.
In a time of apathy and solitude she sparked life and brought people together.
I should have let her die. Right then.
I was stupid.
I saw a chance to change the world.
I could try to justify what I did, say that it was necessary. It’s certainly true that the world powers weren’t doing enough.
The climate crisis was in full swing. The car of humanity was careening toward the cliff edge, pedal to the metal, and no one saw fit to let up. Oh, some people tried, sure. The kids mostly. The same ones who loved Audra. She was their voice. They weren’t old enough to vote and yet the world was drowning around them.
It was getting hotter in the summer and colder in the winter. Storms of biblical proportions raged everywhere. And the water was rising in oceans so full of greenhouse gases that algal blooms were about the only thing living in them. Hundreds, thousands of species were going extinct every year.
That was what humanity was doing as a whole. Smaller pockets were doing even worse.
Crimes against immigrants rose. You all know this, sure, but I feel like I need to list it out. The ideas of multiculturalism and acceptance — essential to a global community and economy — were threatened by a handful of assholes. From the far right and the far left, from conservative Christian to conservative Muslim. The majority of us sat somewhere in the middle, just wanting to get along. Just wanting the world to go on.
What would you have done, if you had the power?
In Audra I had that power. And I used it. I riled them up. I stirred them into a frenzy. I tried to pull humanity’s handbrake.
I wish I had noticed that I was also pushing on the gas as I did so.
They called them the Audra Riots. I call them my undoing.
It’s hard to write this. I close my eyes and remember those times. It’s… difficult. The videos I saw, shared everywhere, of people being slaughtered in the streets. There was so much blood.
And it was all my fault.
Well, no, as much as I am to blame I’m not the only one responsible. It was the times. The state of the world. I incited people, yes, but I didn’t put guns, knives, saws, axes and, in one case, a hammer, into their hands.
I know some of you are saying that I might as well have.
And perhaps you’re right.
I was safe then, with my personal security team inside my compound. Snuggled in my anonymity. Even those security people didn’t know who I was, what part I played. No one knew. No one. Not my family, not my first wife, my second or my third. They knew I made money from the tech industry. That was all. No one pried, not when I was handing out cash left and right.
Remember, we all have a price.
But there’s always a cost too. Sometimes it has to be paid in blood.
My name is Hans Stopen.
I am Audra Steffenberger. I am not Audra Steffenberger. We are all Audra. She is a piece of me and a piece of you and a piece of our times.
Do I regret creating her? Yes. And no. If I didn’t someone else would have. It was where we were. The rise of social media and the erosion of traditional media. The truth is subjective now. What is real is what we believe is real.
I have one final truth for you. Believe it, or not, as you will.
I am dead.
You might think me a coward for waiting to release this information until I’m gone. You’d be correct. But there was also a practical reason: those times are over now and they can be looked at with, I hope, a more critical eye. If this had become public earlier then, perhaps, there would have been more death.
There is enough on my conscience already. It’s why I took my own life. Again, maybe I’m a coward. I’m hiding here in these pages instead of being out there, posting all of this live. Social media is not evil. But it does make some people evil. Or, rather, it brings out the worst in our human character.
I don’t know if we were ever meant to be able to connect so readily. There is something that is lost in that instantaneous space. Once you had to look people in the eye, could hear the tone of their voice, see the tremor in their jaw. Now everyone can be the other if we want them to be.
The past never dies and can never be forgotten. That is no way to live. We have to be able to grow. Have to be able to change and learn. No one is born enlightened. It is a hard road and a long road. We have to be able to become new people over time. And those past selves must be able to die and be left to rest in peace. Even if they were monsters.
I think it’s changing. Slowly. I hope so. I hope you are here to see it.
Audra was meant to be my better self. But she was corrupted. And now, like me, she is dead. And, yet, she will never die.
May history look upon her with a merciful eye.