Tracking A 'Missing' Man By Virtual Bread Crumbs Evan Ratliff eschewed his identity and picked up a new one, challenging Wired readers to find him in 30 days in a contest sponsored by the magazine. Lured by a cash prize, readers mobilized online in a mad dash to locate Ratliff — who got a little too cocksure for his own good.
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Tracking A 'Missing' Man By Virtual Bread Crumbs

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Tracking A 'Missing' Man By Virtual Bread Crumbs

Tracking A 'Missing' Man By Virtual Bread Crumbs

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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We live so much of our lives digitally, from text messages to online videos. Wired magazine wondered if it's possible for somebody to just disappear. So they sent writer Evan Ratliff out to start a new life incognito. They offered $5,000 to the person who could find him within 30 days and tell him the password: fluke.

Alex Cohen of member station KPCC reports.

ALEX COHEN: Evan Ratliff wasn't allowed to hide out in a tent for a month. He had to go places, be public � both in the real world and online. So he picked a fake name, James Donald Gatz, a nod to a character in �The Great Gatsby,� to confuse people who Googled him.

Mr. EVAN RATLIFF (Wired Magazine): The idea was, they would go Google that and say, ha ha, you have the same name as the guy in �The Great Gatsby,� and I would say yes.

COHEN: As Don Gatz, he traveled unnoticed from San Francisco to Las Vegas to Venice Beach. He also set up a fake Facebook profile and Twitter account.

Mr. RATLIFF: I was, you know, describing where I was and what I ate, and that kind of thing. When the contest was over, I could say - hey, look, everybody, I've been broadcasting exactly where I was this entire time.

COHEN: And people all over the world were looking for him. Take Sarah Manilla(ph) of Rochester, New York.

Ms. SARAH MANILLA: Well, I would start, I wake up. I would check online to see if anything happened while I was sleeping. And then I would make phone calls pretty much from then until around 4 o'clock in the morning.

COHEN: Sarah made over a thousand calls looking for Evan. One guy in Seattle set up a Facebook application. A 16-year-old kid in Oregon created a secret chat room to share information. Some clues were provided by Wired. Evan likes soccer, dive bars, and he can't eat gluten because of a medical condition.

(Soundbite of music)

COHEN: Meanwhile, this band, the Hermit Thrushes, had hooked up with Evan through a ride-sharing site. Drummer Sam Tremble�

Mr. SAM TREMBLE (Drummer, Hermit Thrushes): The only rules we have on the bus are no whiners, no minors and no drugs. And he seemed to fit the bill.

COHEN: Don Gatz traveled with the band all the way to St. Louis. From there, he went on to rent an apartment in New Orleans, catch a soccer game in Salt Lake City. He narrowly dodged getting caught at the Atlanta airport. With each step, Evan grew more paranoid. Whenever people looked at him, he worried they'd say: fluke.

Mr. RATLIFF: I became more and more emotionally attached to the idea that I was going to show all of these thousands of people that, you know, they had found all this information on me but they weren't going to catch me.

Mr. JEFF REISMAN (Founder, New Cloud): For a long time, it seemed like the contest was unwinnable.

COHEN: Jeff Reisman, who had set up the Facebook application, was stumped, until he saw an online video interview Evan did in California.

(Soundbite of video interview)

Unidentified Woman: The question is, are you at all concerned about swine flu, the H1N1 virus?

Mr. RATLIFF: No, it just doesn't seem like it's that much worse than the regular flu.

COHEN: Reisman thought that shaggy-haired guy with a goatee and glasses looked familiar.

Mr. REISMAN: I recognized that, that disguise, as an account in our Facebook Vanish Team application. Someone named James Donald Gatz.

COHEN: He followed that account to a Twitter account, which was following a New Orleans business that sold gluten-free pizza.

Unidentified Man: Naked Pizza.

Mr. JEFF LEACH (Owner, Naked Pizza): When I first got the email from Jeff, it read like one of these desperate letters from a princess in Nigeria needing nothing more than my account number to wire me some money.

COHEN: Once Jeff Leach, owner of Naked Pizza, figured out the contest was legit, he took the hunt off the Internet and onto the New Orleans streets. Leach passed out photos of Evan to his staff, flagged every gluten-free order - but no Evan. There was, however, one more clue leaked by Wired, that Evan was probably headed to a book reading. Jeff Leach went to a local bookstore that night with a friend.

Mr. LEACH: And a guy went by on a bicycle�

Mr. RATLIFF: I thought, well, I'll be cautious with these guys and I'll act like I'm walking by the place.

Mr. LEACH: And he made eye contact with me.

Mr. RATLIFF: And one of them took a step towards me and said... ..TEXT: Mr. LEACH: Do you know anybody named fluke?

Mr. RATLIFF: I was frozen for a second and then I just said, Yeah, that's me.

COHEN: Evan Ratliff lost the contest, but he gained a very real glimpse of what it means to vanish.

Mr. RATLIFF: There was a feeling of freedom in it. And there were moments in there where it felt like I didn't have any obligations. I didn't - I was just sort of out there on my own, having new adventures.

COHEN: But having those adventures without being able to share them with his real-life family and friends - Evan says that wasn't worth much at all.

For NPR News, I'm Alex Cohen.

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