It was Thanksgiving 2013, and I was fixated on Twitter. Specifically, on a string of irate tweets from a reality TV producer named Elan Gale, who was on a plane en route from New York to his home in Los Angeles.
“Our flight is delayed,” he started. “A woman on here is very upset because she has Thanksgiving plans. She is the only one obviously. Praying for her." Gale was venting to his 30,000 followers about a woman, seated behind him in seat 7A, who was being rude to a flight attendant on board. And Gale was getting increasingly irritated. “She had to sit down because we took off. She has been muttering ‘about DAMN time’ and I can hear her breathing from 5 rows back.”
After about 90 minutes, he finally worked up the courage to send her a handwritten note.
“Dear Lady in 7A,” he wrote on a coaster, the letters hurried and messy. “It has come to my attention that today is your ‘Thanksgiving!’ It must be hard to not be with your family!
Please accept this glass of wine, it is a gift from me to you. Hopefully if you drink it, you won’t be able to use your mouth to talk!
She sent an irritated reply, igniting a back-and-forth on spare coasters and scraps of paper — which Gale snapped pictures of and posted to Twitter, in real time.
Two months earlier, I had moved to New York City from a quiet neighborhood in Boston to be BuzzFeed’s weekend editor, working with a skeleton crew of reporters and writing breaking news posts about everything from the terrorist attack in Kenya’s Westgate Mall to stories emerging on social media other outlets might miss. Gale’s story was the kind of entertaining curiosity that I knew would translate to viral gold: an unlikely battle between a scruffy, twentysomething anti-hero and a middle-aged woman in mom jeans and a surgical mask. It was like a fight between bickering kids in a classroom — except the classroom was a massive tin can filled with strangers hurtling through the sky.
Hundreds of people had tweeted to their friends to follow Gale, but the story had yet to break out from its social media incubator. I neglected to set the dinner table so I could toss all of Gale’s tweets into a post, topping it off with the headline “This Epic Note-Passing War On A Delayed Flight Won Thanksgiving.” When I published, my story became the first of dozens over the next couple of days — including articles from outlets like ABC News and CNN — to feature Gale’s catfight at 30,000 feet. Peeking at my phone under the table, I watched the story's views explode, my Twitter mentions spinning as thousands shared the link to my post, which eventually hit 1.5 million views. By the next morning, Gale had gained 130,000 Twitter followers.
Little did Gale or I know that over the next few days the story would become a roller coaster of hero worship and outrage. Gale and Diane's feud was seen by millions of people who read one of the dozens of stories about it. The hashtags #TeamElan and #DianeCanEatMyD were tweeted by everyone from anonymous Twitter eggs to celebrities like fellow flight-attendant-offender Alec Baldwin, who called Gale’s antics “so f#%*ing funny.”
After the initial hype, the conversation took a turn: Journalist Rebecca Carroll called Gale the “quintessential I-can-say-what-I-want-delusional-white-intellectually-free-hipster-man.” His behavior was “manipulative, misogynistic and self-aggrandising,” another blog added. Mediaite put it simply: “Of course it’s sexism.” People started pointing out how unbelievable the saga's details sounded. “Nothing about Gale’s story passes the smell test,” wrote Daniel D’Addario in Salon. “How does he know that “Diane’ is ‘breathing through her teeth’ if she is ‘wearing a medical mask over her idiot face’?” On a widely shared Storify page, someone claimed that “Diane” was his cousin, and she had Stage 4 small cell lung cancer. “Certainly everybody wanted to get where they were going, but perhaps she can be forgiven for thinking that her need was more pressing than most,” the person wrote. A handful of outlets picked up the cancer story, too.
At the time, I didn’t know that Gale had a knack for making up elaborate stories on social media. On multiple occasions, for instance, he claimed to be tweeting from a restaurant bathroom during a brutal first date — when he was really just hanging out alone at his apartment in Santa Monica.
On Thanksgiving 2013, however, Gale really was tweeting from the front row of a flight out of New York. He had, in fact, scribbled out an angry note to a woman he overheard berating a flight attendant. He just never gave it to her.
Around 9 p.m. on Dec. 2, Gale announced on Twitter that he would reveal Diane’s identity in 15 minutes. For the last few days this juggernaut of a story had taken over my world, and whatever happened next seemed like it was going to change everything. When he finally posted his confession, it was a picture of an empty chair. “Here is Diana,” he wrote, spelling the nonexistent woman's name wrong for good measure.
“Goddamnit,” I said out loud to my empty apartment. “Fuck. Fuck.”
I cautiously wrote a new post. “Gale took to Twitter tonight and seemed to confess it was all a big lie,” I said. “You got us, Elan!”
Shortly after publishing, Gale tweeted at me: “I did not say it was all a big lie.” And again, the next day: “I’m still waiting for my apology.” Apology for what? I thought defensively. Inadvertently turning him into an internet celebrity? (The apology tweet has since been deleted).
The day after his confession now feels like a blur of angsty I told you sos. At Slate, columnist Dave Weigel put the blame on me, writing that if I worked at a small newspaper, I’d have been fired. For months I’d get snidely teased online about the whole ordeal. The Washington Post’s Caitlin Dewey dubbed 2013 the year of the internet hoax, adding that it was also “the year the media decisively elevated social media phenomena, real or imagined, to the level of actual news.”
A few days after Gale’s reveal, my boss texted me that we needed to talk. When I called her, she said that the New York Times wanted to know if I ever reached out to Gale.
“Not really,” I said, feeling lightheaded. “I tweeted at him a couple times.”
I didn’t lose my job, but my anxiety about having been exposed lingered, along with the nagging paranoia that I would slip up again; a normal workday would be interrupted by the quiet fear that people were waiting for me to fail. Comments lobbed my way online didn’t help. And Gale, I knew, harbored his own grudge against me, though I didn’t really know why. I was anxious, guilty, and resentful; a big part of me wanted to know if he felt weird about any of this, too. I began to fantasize about sitting face-to-face with him. And it didn't go away, even long after anyone else stopped caring.
Over email, Gale agreed to meet as long as I was willing to have an “open and honest” discussion. “As you may or may not know, I take some issue with your coverage of the Diane incident,” he wrote. My anxiety ballooned.
Gale, now 31, shuffled into the sterile, empty hotel cafe in Times Square wearing turquoise pants and a tattered brown corduroy blazer. A waterfall of silver necklaces hung down his chest. He mentioned he’d been working at his reality show until dawn that morning but didn't want me to name the show in this piece.
Gale slumped in his chair. I asked him to tell me about that day from the beginning. A stack of bracelets clacked on his wrist as he heaved forward, recalling how worked up he got on the flight when he heard a woman complaining to the flight attendants, how entitled she sounded.
He told me how he opened up a blank tweet, attached a photo of the note he’d written — which would never go further than his folding tray — and sent it out into the world.
“I just started having fun,” Gale said. “And I was like, this is really, really fun.”
Growing up in West L.A. as the baby of the family, Gale loved watching professional wrestling, thriving over the juxtaposition between the heroes and villains. He created his Twitter persona, The Year of Elan, to exercise his alter ego: a bombastic character with all the irrational, in-your-face qualities he doesn’t quite possess. Gale may admit he’s “a little bit of a dick” in life, but he’d never actually confront someone like the woman who inspired Diane. The Year of Elan would’ve done it, he said. Did do it.
“It's a coping mechanism,” he explained, sounding sentimental. “It's the humor in place of sadness, it's the brashness in place of insecurity. … He's a dick. But he's unafraid. For better or worse.”
In person, he danced between pointed conviction and boisterous laughter, sometimes chuckling hoarsely at himself; he’s self-deprecating, but with the kind of charisma that draws you in. And he seemed to mirror my desire to see how the person I’d built up in my mind would line up with the actual human behind the computer screen that day. “We have an entire relationship that exists in my head and in your head and is only today having any real reality to it,” he said. Despite myself, I began to trust him.
It only took about 20 minutes for us to start clashing. After I instinctively referred to the incident as a hoax, Gale got defensive, insisting it was anything but. He prefers to call it a “fictional story.” Whenever I slipped and said the word he got mildly irritated, launching into an elaborate rumination on the definition of truthfulness. Because a hoax implies deliberate deceit; to Gale, he was writing a narrative for entertainment — what he already does for a living as a reality television producer.
“It's like going to the movies,” he insisted. “It's not about whether you believe it or not. It's not about whether Gone Girl really happened, you know what I mean? It's about whether you're enjoying it.”
Gale is far from the first person to pass off a story as fact on social media; it is part of our daily lives at this point. In some ways, we’re more skeptical than ever: Just as quickly as YouTubers Sam and Nia’s pregnancy and miscarriage announcements went viral earlier this month, people began raising doubts over their veracity. But we still make mistakes. In March, a 19-year-old aspiring comedian named Morgan Jefferis deliberately tricked the New York Times. When a reporter solicited for teenagers who smoke e-cigarettes on Twitter, it annoyed Jefferis; he found it unprofessional. So he came up with a fake name and email address, which he used to reach out to the reporter, writing he was “a teen and I love to vape what’s up.” The paper published his quotes on its front page.
Jefferis thought the whole ordeal would be entertaining, even if he felt a little bad after the writer was so nice to him. Although he used the pseudonym “LeVar Burzum” on his popular Twitter account @drugleaf (since changed to @weedhitler), he hoped the Times stunt would give his generally anonymous real-life persona a bit of recognition.
“I know it’s a terrible thing to say, but it’s a great feeling to be able to look at something like that and go out and say, ‘Yeah, I did that,’” he said. (After Jefferis gave me his name, I reviewed his driver's license and the public records database Nexis. I knew he might want to mislead a reporter again.)
I’m grateful to Gale, in a way, for giving me an early stab at making what hopefully will be my biggest mistake. At the age of 23, the chastising crested over me and then, just as quickly, I was spit out dry. Even the Times, ultimately, didn’t use my name. I like to think our collective gullibility helped to usher in something of an end to those overly trustful Wild West days of the internet. My co-worker Michael Rusch, who got tricked by both of Jimmy Kimmel’s painstakingly crafted viral video hoaxes, put it well what the new reality is for writers who have gotten burned: “It’s something I think about each time I touch a story like this, even to this day: Is it worth trading in my credibility for this?”
And creative people like Gale don’t just lie down after the first taste of virality. He told me he’s created plenty of other online projects. He proudly admitted that he writes Texts From Your Ex, an Instagram account that claims to collect "REAL texts from REAL exes." The account has 1.5 million followers and a book coming out this fall.
“Here's the fun thing about me,” he said with a grin. “You'll never know what things out there I'm secretly doing in my spare time. There's more. There's all kinds of stuff out there.”
Gale considers his behavior online a "zero-victim game” — “I’m never mean to people,” he said. It’s not the first time he’s framed himself as a nice guy: Hours after his Thanksgiving flight, he wrote a blog post espousing kindness to service workers by encouraging readers to attack anyone who doesn’t act “nice,” using his caps lock key like a fist into the sky.
“Most people are great,” he wrote. “And then there are a bunch of Dianes in the world.”
“And it’s OUR job to tell every Diane to shut up.
It’s OUR duty to put the Diane’s of the world in their place.
We need to REMIND them about the way of things.
We outnumber them.”
Championing niceness by acting like a bully; tricking me and then demanding an apology: That’s why I was so resentful of Gale — and so wary of sitting down with him — in the first place. Before we met, I had self-consciously practiced a retort to his nice-guy claims. But in the moment, I couldn’t locate the comeback I prepared. I started grinding my teeth, my nervous habit, and stumbled over my reply.
“You tweeted at me once, ‘I’m still waiting for my apology,’ which seemed very strange to me at the time.”
He thought for a second, but it felt much longer. “I must’ve been really mad,” he replied glibly. After taking a slow sip of his coffee, Gale told me that my follow-up story, in which I wrote “You got us, Elan!” felt like it put all the blame on him.
“‘You got us’ is, 'You performed deviousness,'” he said.
“You did!” I shot back.
“You created deviousness,” he replied.
I resisted gnashing my teeth together, instead squeezing my hands under my legs. “You wanted people to believe it, though,” I said, hearing my voice rising.
“I wanted my followers to play along with a story I was telling.”
I couldn't help feeling that most people see the distinction between a “story” and a “lie” as much more black and white. After all, so many readers wrote in comment sections and on Twitter that they felt betrayed by his tweets when the truth about Diane finally came out.
That wasn’t the only reason he wanted an apology, Gale added, mentioning there was some story, “maybe on CNET,” that reported I had reached out to him, a lie I never claimed. I haven’t been able to locate it. “I’m mad about that lie, whether you told it or whoever told it,” he said. “It’s just a lie. So whoever told it made it up somehow. And that really does change things.”
When I asserted that I never told anyone that, he said, “If I were you I would’ve lied about it.”
Though we disagreed at our core on what constitutes truth, I was surprised to realize Gale and I found ourselves in oddly similar positions: both left feeling victimized by the other. I get the sense that being a hoaxer, a storyteller — whatever you want to call it — can be a bit of a lonely endeavor. There’s a powerful isolation to being the only one who knows the real story. When he said he thought it was unfair that I never reached out to him, Gale seemed genuinely hurt. Despite whether he should even get the privilege of feeling slighted, my guilt swelled up again. And I think that solitude, that lack of agency over how your story gets told that I’ve come to know so well, is why he asked me to say that I knew the story was fake when I posted it.
Which I couldn’t have. I believed it hungrily, joyfully, riding the story along with the thousands of others. Though by the time he tweeted that Diane slapped him, I was admittedly considering that he may have embellished, at least a little. By then, though, my post had become a monster, and everyone was so entertained, rallying around Gale like a gallant enforcer of courtesy, riding in on his white Twitter horse. Maybe, I mistakenly thought, that entertainment value was worth such a story, no matter what the truth might have been.
Months ago, I would’ve asked him why it mattered. Or fought against the question, having already said a half dozen times over the last hour that I had no clue either way.
But instead, I said, “I knew.” Because, in that moment, I realized I didn’t need to prove anything to him.
Gale created the Diane story to make people laugh, and, maybe, achieve the status of an internet renegade; I wrote about it hoping to illuminate this whisper of a relatable human experience. In the middle somewhere we crashed, but when it came down to it, both of us emerged fairly unscathed. Always, we’ll be connected in this small way. I think that’s manageable, though. I’m OK with it now. This one person, this one mistake, can’t define me if I don’t let it.
“Life has gone on,” he said. “But I really did want at some point an acknowledgement that someone out there who is on the other side of things understands, even if they don’t agree, that I wasn’t trying to fool a bunch of people. I was having fun on a plane.”
Next to our table, a pair of women in tailored blazers and heels sat down and looked over at Gale questioningly — they were his co-workers, signaling that my time with him was almost up.
“I don’t have any ill will about any of this,” he continued. “But I like the honesty of it. … At the end of the day, the two people at this table really created that giant kerfuffle that shook the world. And we wouldn't have met otherwise, and that's pleasant.”
There was a time when strangers campaigned to get Gale fired for what they considered bullying, or for harassing a woman, and then became even more incensed after finding out he had lied to millions of people about doing it at all. Dozens of commenters wished he would get cancer. Gale claims his plane antics get brought up on most of his first dates. Often, someone tweets a “Diane” comment in reply to him. He briefly tagged me in all of them.
When I mentioned that I sometimes still get criticized, that those comments still get under my skin, Gale was surprised.
“At the end of the day, this is a blip,” he said. “To me, and to everyone. It's a funny little moment in time. That's all it is. Anyone who got upset by it, well, you know what I think they can do…” he gave a smarmy grin.
“It's like you're saying, ‘Aaaaand, scene,” I replied, laughing.
He spat out a sip of coffee. “I can't help myself,” he said. “I'm still a storyteller.”
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Texts From Your Ex are real, according to Gale. An earlier version of this post misstated what he said.