The Nathan Bitner Saga
Happy 31st birthday to Nathan Bitner, one of the more unusual obsessions of the blogosphere a couple of years ago.
On May 21, 2003, the publishers of a blog called X-Entertainment (focusing, in the publisher's words, on some of the "more obscure, geeky parts of [80s] pop-culture") posted an innocent piece of fluff on a 1986 contest held by Mattel Toys, maker of the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe line of action figures, challenging children to design a new He-Man character. The winner of the 1986 contest, and a college scholarship, was a sweet-faced 11-year old kid named Nathan Bitner, who had designed a humanoid superhero with a camera in place of its head named "Fearless Photog." In its press release, Mattel promised that it would "produce Fearless Photog as part of the Masters toy line," but as the publisher of X-Entertainment observed, Mattel never got around to making the toy.
Like countless other blog postings (the one you're reading for example), this one might have been consigned to web obscurity were it not for a diligent group of X-Entertainment readers who took it upon themselves to find out whatever happened to Nathan Bitner. One of the readers posted a follow-up pointing out that someone named Nathan Bitner was one of the lead designers of the videogame Halo (1998; a story-based fighting game) for Bungie Software. Soon, other "Nathan Bitner" Internet sightings were found: in one, he appeared to have left Bungie in 1999 to set up his own videogame company, Island Four; in another, he was posting thoughts about suicide on a newsgroup; in others, he had attended UNC Chapel Hill, or was serving in the U.S. military, possibly in Iraq.
Then came a sordid tale, posted on a Halo message board, about the collapse of Island Four, and Bitner's bankruptcy, eviction, non-sexual involvement with a prostitute named "Genesis" whom he hired as a concept artist, and mental illness. As reader Ed Franklin wrote, within hours of the original X-Entertainment posting, "I think I've found out too much already. It seems obvious that he won the contest, got the scholarship, went to UNC Chapel Hill, worked at Bungie for a bit . . . quit Bungie to start his own company, flopped, then joined the army at age 28. That's more info than I have on some of my blood relatives."
Franklin's stripped down version of the tale turned out to be true, but the Nathan Bitner mystery began to take on a life of its own, especially after Franklin found an interview with Bitner elsewhere on the Internet in which the Island Four founder boasted, prophetically, "Oh, yeah, and most importantly, I want a cult following." The story was picked up by Matt Haughey's MetaFilter blog, drawing hundreds of readers to X-Entertainment to join in on the speculation, creating a humorous blog-thread of epic proportions (comprised of thousands of individual messages) and multiplying "Bitner" references across the Web.
Old friends, a disgruntled investor in Island Four, and several runners-up in the original He Man contest all made appearances on the Nathan Bitner thread of X-Entertainment over the next several months; there was a collection of Bitner haikus ("Paid hooker, no sex/ Screwed out of Fearless Photog/ That is so Bitner"); people claiming to be Bitner flamed in and were swiftly weeded out by the "experts," and there was even one person who claimed to be Bitner's father who said that Bitner had died many years ago.
Finally, on Thanksgiving weekend 2003, 6 months and one week after the first posting, Nathan Bitner addressed the assembled bloggers with his own posting. Gallant, clearly humbled by his past travails and frankly blown away by how much of his personal life could have ended up for all to see on the World Wide Web, and how much speculation about him could have been inspired among total strangers, Bitner -- then serving as a medic in the U.S. Army at Fort Stewart -- wrote:
"Wow . . . This has got to be the most insane thing I have ever seen on the internet. And that's coming from me . . . When I first saw this, I have to admit that I was pretty devastated. I couldn't believe it. It was a harsh reminder of just how horrible everything had been not so long ago. I had done everything I could to put that life behind me and flat-out start over. Much of it was brutal to read, to say the least. I knew very well when I posted non-anonymously to alt.suicide.holiday (oh, yeah, those were the days baby) that it would be there forever -- so that's pretty easy to accept. But there are other things I never thought would be up for public discussion, and I have the very strong opinion that they never should have been. I think it was wrong, poor taste, poor judgment, kind of vindictive, and somewhat cruel. At the same time, I was guilty of at least the first three on enough occasions that it is not very difficult to understand that it happens."While there may have been nothing all that extraordinary in the Nathan Bitner saga itself that bears memorializing, the Nathan Bitner scavenger hunt was a curious example of the speed with which gossip and pop-mania can spread, and the surprising indelibility of one's "fifteen minutes of fame" within this seething, larger-than-life electronic archive known as the Web. Behind it lurks the uncomfortable realization that there is nothing that is truly private in any of our lives. Google your own name and see.
The Nathan Bitner thread on X-Entertainment is preserved for posterity, and unauthorized Nathan Bitner t-shirts and mugs are available at Cafe Press.