It’s always nice to open Facebook and find a friend request waiting for you, and better still if you’re a yet-to-matriculate freshman eager to meet your peers. But what happens when that friend isn’t, well, real? Bwog Editor James Downie goes gumshoe on the Case of Aaron Phillips in this winter’s issue of The Blue and White.
Freshman Aaron Phillips does not exist. Though he maintains a Facebook profile that states he is a member of Columbia College’s Class of 2013, Phillips cannot be found in the Columbia directory, and no database of registered students lists his name. Phillips has no Columbia e-mail address, does not answer the Yahoo account that is linked on his Facebook profile, and no freshmen we’ve spoken to say they have ever met him in person. He lists his hometown as Greenville, S.C., but says he attended Kennesaw Mountain High School, some 138 miles away in Georgia. Neither South Carolina nor Georgia has an “Aaron Phillips” of that age registered to vote. Emily Jennings, NYU ’13, another member of Phillips’ alleged 2009 Kennesaw Mountain High School graduating class, doesn’t remember him, either. “I even checked my yearbook,” she said.
The boy in Phillips’ Facebook profile picture—the only photograph of him available—has short, blond hair and uneasy, frenetic eyes that belie an anxious friendliness. He wears a grey Aeropostale-brand T-shirt and an ostentatious genericness on his sleeve; it’s as if someone created a composite of a teenage boy never having actually seen teenage boys before.Administrators deny that it is their fake profile created in order to gain access to Columbia students’ social networks. “We have nothing to do with it,” said Joyce Jackson, executive director of Housing. Since Facebook dropped requirements that users must have University e-mail addresses to list Columbia as their school, theoretically anyone can create an account, claim affiliation, and begin friending other, real Columbia students.
Phillips’ account boasts an impressive 918 friends, nearly all of them fellow Columbia freshman. His wall abounds with posts from real live first-years. Another student even wrote that she thought she remembered Phillips: “u look familiar…have we met? Days on campus may b?” Aaron Phillips causes hallucinations.
Phillips never replies to messages and there’s no evidence that he ever interacts with his classmates beyond the initial friending. “If any of you guys have ‘Aaron Phillips’ as a Facebook friend, be careful because I think he’s a fake,” warned a user on CollegeConfidential.com’s message boards in August. Wall posts echoed the widespread consensus that Phillips was indeed not real, growing more pointed and hostile with invectives like “little troll” and “you’re kind of sketchy.”
The mystery of Phillips and his Facebook account has resulted in a cult following among the freshman class. Students leave facetious messages on his wall asking how he’s doing, declaring that they “will never forget all that crazy stuff we did together!” Some have even made a Facebook photo album titled “Aaron Phillips,” and filled it with digitally altered images of Phillips’ profile picture. First-years have taken to tagging Phillips as various people and objects in their own Facebook albums. One photo shows his face superimposed onto clouds of smoke rising up from a hookah, while someone else has pasted his face on the bodies of other students. Grant D’Avino and Jonathan Lee, both CC ’13, admitted to discussing the Great Phillips Facebook Mystery at parties and other freshman gatherings; it’s evolved into a ready-made conversation starter for Facebook-savvy ’13s. “If you friended someone else from Columbia, he would always be a mutual friend no matter what,” said Lee.
And what will stand in as cocktail party fodder if the Phillips case is ever closed? “That’s a pretty big ‘if,’” D’Avino said. They’ll always have Sophocles.