The thing about weddings is that they feel divorced from reality. That’s why I brushed off what Kevin, an old roommate from college, was saying. “That’s major,” he insisted, sharing how proud he was that I’d been on an episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the network police comedy starring Andy Samberg and Terry Crews. The main problem was: It never happened.
Kevin and I hadn’t seen each other in five years, maybe longer. It was a mutual buddy’s wedding in Dallas. We traded thunderclaps of laughter throughout the night, reflecting on our reckless undergrad days, when we roamed campus and perfumed the dorm room with weed smoke. There was a lot to catch up on—including, apparently, my minor celebrity. I am a chronically bad compliment taker, but that’s not why I sat there and said nothing. I was genuinely mystified. Had I appeared on a popular TV series and forgotten about it? Soon enough, Kevin moved on.
It wasn’t until a few days later, back home and cleansed of the tequila, that I thought to investigate. The truth of Kevin’s claim wasn’t a total impossibility, I had to admit to myself. Once, during my preteen years in LA, I was an extra in the UPN sitcom Moesha (a nonspeaking role for which I was paid $75). In 2018, I had appeared on a docuseries called Explained. But I would remember being on a Hollywood set … in 2014 … at the adult-man age of 28 … right?
There it was—next to a smiling mugshot of me, no less: “Jason Parham is an actor known for Brooklyn Nine-Nine (2013) and Explained (2018).” According to the description, I appeared in a season one episode of the show, in the role of “perp.”
You’ve got to understand the irony in all of this. I’m a black guy—6 feet, around 215 pounds—and I often believe a segment of society perceives me as a wrongdoer. The thought licked my brain. On Twitter, I jokingly cried racism. Over and over, I scanned every inch of the page, taking in the newness of who the internet said I was. I let out a small puff of nervous laughter.
Mostly, though, I wanted to know how this happened. Was the matter a simple error, or something else? Like a writer and his words, an actor is the sum of his work—didn’t the real guy want credit? Was it possible that he knew of the mistake and didn’t care? Was he pretending to be me? It could mean nothing. It could mean everything.
Beyond a name, it was hard to know exactly who I was looking for—“jason parham actor” yielded no reliable images and only four results on Google, all pointing to Explained. His internet footprint was nonexistent.
As for the Brooklyn Nine-Nine episode itself, it only presented more puzzle pieces. There seemed to be a dozen men who fit the role of perp. I zeroed in on one scene in particular, freeze-framing a group jailed behind precinct bars, looking for my face. Was this other Jason here?
Naturally, I assumed he would resemble me in some way—brown skin, relatively tall—but that was wrong too. When I spoke with an NBC spokesperson, they said that the only unnamed perp appears in the first three minutes of the show, where Rosa (Stephanie Beatriz) and Jake (Samberg) chase a guy through a stairwell. I replayed the scene again and again, a stranger’s face growling at me through the TV screen. We didn’t share any of the same features. This Jason Parham was an average-looking white guy with a goatee. I wondered what other stray fragments of me were on the internet—where else was I someone I wasn’t? How many other Jason Parhams were out there? (63 in the US, according to HowManyOfMe.com.)
On IMDb, I was one name in a sea of 10,378,806. Billing itself as “the world’s most popular and authoritative source for information on movies, TV shows, and celebrities,” the online database has amassed over 364 million items of data since it launched in 1990, spanning TV episodes (4.5 million) and movie titles (538,353) to details like set decorator credits (479,592), videogame titles (24,732), user reviews (4.6 million), and actor nicknames (132,560).
The inner workings of IMDb operate somewhat like other crowdsourced databases. Credits and other information are submitted from a variety of channels, including studios, distributors, publicists, entertainment professionals (an actor, a producer, etc.), and IMDb users. What separates the database from Wikipedia or Genius is that submissions are not automatically published on the site: They first undergo “processing steps” before being listed, which vary depending on the type of data and may include manual verification and semi-automated checks based on the identity and reputation of the source.
Even with such precautions, mistakes do slip through. In 2012, actor James Marsden’s IMDb page noted how much of a Barry Manilow fan he was. Marsden later said that his page had been hacked, admitting, “I have a famous actor friend of mine—I won’t tell you who he is—but he likes to go into other people’s bios and add things.” Was I a new target? (While false data is not an uncommon occurrence on the site, an IMDb spokesperson told me it represents “a minuscule portion of all the changes being applied on a daily basis.”)
When I inquired about my own case—What exactly happened?—the IMDb spokesperson said it was nothing more than a case of mistaken identity, an easy fact-checking error: A credit was listed for an actor named Jason Parham in 2014, when he appeared in Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Four year later, another credit for Jason Parham appearing as “himself” (me) in Explained was added, along with my photo. “The name matched an already existing acting filmography, and because people in the entertainment industry wear many hats,” the spokesperson said, “the new credit was added to the information of the pre-existing actor.”
Per the rules by the Screen Actors Guild, no two actors are allowed to have the same name. “However,” a TV executive told me, “because you’re not a real actor—no offense, I’m sure you’re very talented—nor a member of SAG, they wouldn’t have flagged that there are two Jason Parhams.” This also explains how the error likely happened. “Maybe this was his last acting job, he just didn’t stick,” they said. “I thought he was very convincing running up those stairs.”
IMDb informed me that they have since updated my page and separated both profiles. The culmination of the search didn’t contain any of the dramatic scheming or internet trapdoors I’d hoped for at the beginning of my journey. It’s not so much that I wanted to hoard any semblance of fame, but the thought that perhaps there was someone else possibly claiming to be me, or that I was someone else, stoked my obsession. Maybe that’s just what it comes down to in the end, a reminder that our internet selves endure in a state of precarity—slippery, never as fixed as we hope. I should probably call Kevin at some point and let him know.
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