Early one morning, a man who identified himself as John Titor posted a message on the forums of the Time Travel Institute, a website "dedicated to research and exploration of the temporal sciences." Titor said he had returned from the year 2036, and that he was a survivor of a civil war and nuclear attack. He had been sent back in time to retrieve an IBM 5100. That computer, a primordial desktop PC released in 1975, supposedly had some key to solving a future crisis.
Titor methodically listed the parts required for what he called "gravity distortion system." His grandfather, he claimed, had worked on such a machine, and he was on his way back to 1975 to find him. Titor’s messages from continued for a few months, then he claimed he had to return to 2036 for good. That was weird. But then something even weirder happened. The followers online couldn't let Titor go. Now this is the Sasquatch of Generation Net. It's a real-life version of a new kind of game - the alternate reality game, which sends surfers down reality-blurring rabbit holes.
Geeks began unearthing strange facts about the IBM 5100s. Obsessives launched Titor sites, stitching together his postings. They created timelines, charts...they even held conventions. It was cited many times by Art Bell, the host of the paranormal radio show Coast to Coast. Ultimately, an Italian TV show hired a private eye to go on Titor's trail. The gumshoe ended up at the doorstep of a flashy entertainment lawyer living in the Disney utopia of Celebration, Florida. The lawyer claims to be merely "representing" Titor, but some online think that he or his teenage hacker son made up the whole thing. No matter. Titor has legs. There are now Titor books, websites, fan clubs, merchandise... even a stage play. The most compelling question of all isn't whether Titor exists. It's why a story so ludicrous would seize the imaginations of so many people online.
David Kushner is the author of many books, including Masters of Doom, Jonny Magic & the Card Shark Kids, Levittown, The Bones of Marianna, and Alligator Candy. A contributing editor of Rolling Stone, he has written for publications including The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Wired, and The New York Times Magazine.