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Me and Belle de Jour – “Could it be Brooke?”

Let’s break out of this self-imposed link blogging format for just one post… it’s not every day the biggest secret you’ve ever kept gets revealed on the front pages of the national press.

I have an admission to make about Belle de Jour.

It’s time for me to admit that I solved the puzzle of her identity almost at the very start after she (as Belle) sent me the link to her new blog to add to the list of Updated UK Blogs. Sending the link to me implied somebody who knew quite a lot about how UK blogging worked at the time and I found it hard to believe that an escort that had starting blogging would use me to announce the blog to the world. Then, after BdJ proceeded to knock the ball out of the park in the blog writing department, I started to seriously consider if it was somebody I knew.

In late 2003 I was well placed to guess Belle’s identity. I’d been blogging myself for three years at that point, I had met many London bloggers and briefly read most of the UK-written blogs during 2000 and 2001. UK blogging was (and still is) full of young, smart people and anyone of them might have written Belle’s blog. I never believed that a professional writer could be BdJ – apparently effortless blog writing takes practice, and required an understanding of a new medium which not many people had at the time. So I asked myself: which blogger is it?

A couple of months went past, and after Belle de Jour won the award for Best Written Blog from the Guardian and the whole BdJ phenomenon kicked off, I had my eureka moment – I was sitting on the tube one morning and suddenly thought: ’Could it be Brooke?’

Brooke at the time ran a couple of blogs – A link blog called Methylsalicylate and another science blog called Cosmas. She also had done a few short, smart pieces of writing online – The Autopsy, What The Dead Remember and one called Malted. Malted was about whiskey and was the bit of writing that gave it all away. I remembered reading Malted a few months previously and realised the style and content was reminiscent of Belle’s and was suddenly convinced I had the answer.

I then spent the first three months of 2004 “internet stalking” Brooke Magnanti, collecting together a whole bunch of circumstantial evidence that Brooke was indeed Belle. I also slowly became aware of the heightened stakes, as Belle became increasingly famous and obviously wanted to maintain her pseudonymity.

For a while I believed that Brooke would get outed immediately – but it turns out the British press could not investigate anything not handed to them on a plate, and were never looking in the right place – the small clique of people who starting blogging in the UK in 2000/2001. Belle de Jour remained pseudonymous and the mystery remained intact even after two TV series based on her books.

During this time I published a googlewack hidden in my blog – the words “Belle de Jour”, “Brooke Magnanti” and “Methylsalicylate” were published and available in Google’s index on a single page on the internet – my weblog. This “coincidental” collection of links could in no way reveal Belle’s identity. But I wondered if anybody else knew the secret and felt that analysing my web traffic might confirm my strongly-held belief. If someone googled “Belle de Jour” “Brooke Magnanti”, I would see it in the search referrers for LinkMachineGo.

I waited five years for somebody to hit that page (I’m patient). Two weeks ago I started getting a couple of search requests a day from an IP address at Associated Newspapers (who publish the Daily Mail) searching for “brooke magnanti” and realised that Belle’s pseudonymity might be coming to an end. I contacted Belle via Twitter and let her know what was happening. I didn’t expect to hear anything back.

And then early last weekend I received an email signed by Brooke that confirmed that she was outing herself in the Sunday Times because the Daily Mail had discovered her identity.

It was finally over, the secret was out. I no longer have to worry about inadvertently revealing her identity. If I’m honest, solving the puzzle of the biggest literary and blogging mystery of the last six years has been fun and exciting. I’m just really disappointed I don’t get to dig up a gold hare as a prize!

One last thing: Good Luck Brooke, I’m very glad you’ve managed to maintain some control over how and when your real identity was revealed to the public. I think I probably owe you a bottle of your favourite whiskey. Let me know what you like and I’ll see what I can do. – Darren/LMG.

Update #1: Belle has confirmed the story in the comments to this post.

Update #2: Googlewack Screengrab Published

Update #3: How Belle de Jour’s Secret Ally Googlewacked The Press – the Guardian cover the story.

Update #4: The End

Me and Belle de Jour – ‘Could it be Brooke?’

This entry was posted on Monday, November 16th, 2009 at 9:57 pm and is filed under Belle de Jour, Blogs, UKblogs.

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47 Comments

Hmm.. “but it turns out the British press could not investigate anything not handed to them in a plate, and were never looking in the right place – the small clique of people who starting blogging in the UK in 2000/2001″

Would you have told them, had you been asked?

Probably not but I’m a terrible liar and my face would have given it away.

Very interesting post. Though I somehow don’t think that the press would ever have considered looking amongst that UK blogging clique of 2000/2001 for the identity of BdJ, mostly because blogging didn’t really register on their wavelength until about 2004. (And I seem to remember BBC News, amongst others, dubbing 2004 and 2005, possibly even 2006, ‘the year of the web log’ (sic).

All these posts about this saga are making me feel extremely old. Really.

Well done Sir, this story finally puts some of my faith back in humanity! Not only did you protect her identity, but you set a trap for when someone like the Daily Fail found out. Serious respect.

What Scott said. Kudos.

Agreed. A thoroughly enjoyable story and excellent detective work.

Is the Rat and Parrot still open? Maybe we should… no, perhaps not.

And watch out for the journos, everyone. They are in full “sniffing” mode.

Hats off for the Googlewhack ploy…

And there I was, wondering for years why this site was the go-to place for all Belle-related information! It all makes sense now. Well done, you, and if (as it seems) you saved Belle from a very ignominious outing at the hands of the Mail and her ex, you’ve done a real service to us all. Not only by helping Belle, but by leaving the Mail with egg all over its hideous face.

Wow…
You could get a book deal for a short detective story.

An Unreliable Witness and Graybo posting comments again – this has made my day!! :)

Maybe old school UK bloggers of the 2000/2001 vintage could use linkmachinego as a regular checking-in point, once a year, just to reassure each other that we’re still alive.

17 November 2009: I am still alive.

I actually like coming here because not much has changed since then – similar themes of content, same template, unchanged writing style. I suspect that says rather a lot about me.

17 November 2009: I am still alive, although I need a coffee.

Never mind all that, is the Updated UK Weblogs list still going? Can we work on it to make it better? :)

Maybe the British press had more important things to report than the secret identity of some tart. Sheesh.

” you saved Belle from a very ignominious outing at the hands of the Mail and her ex”

Um, no. The Mail had three pages about BdJ on Monday and a further story on Tuesday and I’m sure more to come.

” you set a trap for when someone like the Daily Fail found out. Serious respect.”

Some perspective, people. It’s not a “trap”. I expect the Mail journalist who was trawling that page looked at it and thought “oh well, that’s no help” though she might have picked up on the other confirmatory details and said “hey, wait, this is useful”. So it’s the complete opposite of a trap to someone who’s trying to find out whether Brooke M blogged at that time, if she knew her way around a blog, and so on.

Sometimes, a bit of objectivity is worth having. It was more like a little alarm tripwire, but unless you’re suggesting that the idea was to then get in touch with Dr BdJ to say “the Daily Mail seems to be looking at my Googlewhack page about you” then it’s not very useful.

I’m assuming though that you didn’t contact BdJ to say “the Mail’s after you, apparently”. So what was the point again?

Charles — as I mentioned above, I informed BdJ earlier in the month that somebody from Associated Newspapers was searching for information about her real identity on my blog. She contacted me (signing off as Brooke) before the Sunday Times published her identity and interview confirming it would happen on Sunday and indicating what was going on that made it necessary for her to out herself.

You are right that it was little better than an alarm wire and mainly for my own interest rather than protecting hers but I am very happy to have helped her in a small way.

FWIW Darren *did* contact me to let me know, I’d already had another heads-up but his message convinced me it was serious.

And I always thought Malted would be the one that fingered me. But I can’t resist :-)

I’m assuming though that you didn’t contact BdJ to say “the Mail’s after you, apparently”. So what was the point again?

From Darren’s post: “I contacted Belle via Twitter and let her know what was happening.”

Better reading comprehension skills, please.

Sorry – yes, should have read it again, but that’s what happens when you read the piece once, respond (first!) and then come back to find a pile of comments – you react to the comments rather than reading the entire post again and all the comments. I’d been focussed on a different part of the post (my original comment) and not the latter part.

I’ve been thinking that a millennial UKBloggers reunion would be a fine idea (although the conference circuit seems to be a de facto, in many ways). It would be odd if this were the thing that kicked it off.

“The Mail had three pages about BdJ on Monday and a further story on Tuesday and I’m sure more to come.”

Charles> You’re missing the difference between an ignominious outing catching somebody off-guard, and (what the Mail ended up running) a petulant follow-up piece to somebody else’s scoop. Have a look at Google and see where the Mail’s nasty little piece ranks, compared to India Knight’s well-written, sympathetic Sunday Times article.

Well done Darren, for a) figuring it out and b) having the decency to keep your mouth shut and c) giving us a good story here. Plus it never hurts to be reminded that geeks are generally the most trustworthy, reliable people around.

I remember reading loads of articles written by various shit-for-brains hacks confidently fingering Belle as various media tarts. I hope Private Eye does a feature pointing out how they were all completely wrong. I knew they were wrong for the simple reason Belle’s writings were far more intelligent than any of the people she was compared to.

Yep, still here, though far away! This is excellent by the way.

Well done, well done, well done! Yes Tam, geeks are generally the most trustworthy people around. Brilliant story.

Best secret-keeping ever. I would have popped.

There’s just one further detail to add to this excellent tale. If you go back and look at Belle’s first ever post, you’ll find that she effectively signed the whole thing.

And another early UK blogger has also come clean. (Follow the links in his post for evidence.)

That is a fantastic story. Congratulations on working it out, keeping the secret and giving Belle a heads-up. I wondered why you hadn’t posted about the Times story on Sunday straight away, and now it makes sense.

You’ve made the FP of the Grauniad website:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2009/nov/18/belle-de-jour-identity-secret

Long time reader, first time comment-writer.

A true gentleman. It’s Belle that owes you the malt whiskey.

I’m impressed. And I’m not easily impressed.

It’s funny, just shows how good journalists can be at investigation (or even reporting) when the new Guardian article can’t even work out your surname (“who gives his name only as Darren”), when you give it yourself on the TimeMachineGo page.

But funnier, you link from this post to a 2003 Guardian article about their British blog awards where both BdJ and you win awards, and the Guardian knew your surname then.

And can’t they even do a whois or even email you to ask? It’s not suprising they couldn’t work out BdJ’s identity.

I’m intrigued to hear the circumstantial evidence you collected. Do share!

Bravo Sir, bravo.

Well done chap! Though after all these years of reading the blog I’m slightly alarmed to find you have a real name!

Oh la la. Nice coup. Can I get a bottle of whiskey too? Bruichladdich 1970 please.

@Pearl – when you pull off something like she did I’ll consider it.

good work Darren, you’re a hero. Several prime ministers have failed where you succeeded, sticking it to the tabloids :)
I’ve commended your achievement on my blog:
http://proseandpassion.blogspot.com/2009/11/how-to-beat-tabloids.html

Back to the Easter Eggs on the BdJ blog, then. This one’s from November 2007, when Belle considers the ins and outs of revealing her identity to her parents:

“And yet, what would I gain by telling them? Nothing that can go in the brag book next to my university graduation photos. […] Nothing that would see our family name preceding an -ism.”

*groan*

Nice one, Belle! :-)

@Hugo – the Guardian are aware of my surname. They kindly agreed not to print it.

I don’t get it, why do you owe Belle the Whiskey and not the other way round? It just sounds like your being martyrishly modest.

@mike – I’d always worried that the googlewack (which I assumed she had seen but never clicked on) must have increased her paranoia about having her identity revealed to some extent. She was aware of my blog but did not know me so could only guess at what my intentions might be. I think I owe her a bottle of whiskey at least for that.

BTW, Modesty? If I was modest I’d have never mentioned this story on my blog at all.

>I’ve been thinking that a millennial UKBloggers reunion would be a fine idea

I promise to wear neither a shirt from Dildo, Newfoundland, nor that orange pullover.

Everything else is fair game, though.

You could at least have taken a photo of the headline probably “Hacker helps keep the name of prostitute secret…”

So, are you active anymore, or did the whole thing wipe you out completely?

@pearl – All is well and I still blog regularly right here. I’m rather glad I’m not aware of any big blog secrets any more.

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