Today we're going to delve into a modern Internet-borne legend: the story of time traveler John Titor, said to have come from the future, and briefly stopped by the year 2000 to make some Internet forum posts. That, my friends, is essentially the beginning and the end of the story. However, this is Skeptoid, and we can't stop there. There's something to learn from every urban legend. Even in cases where the legend itself has no connection to any actual events or history, the fact that it has nevertheless managed become a legend offers a lesson. Moreover, the thinner a story is, the stronger is the urge to dismiss it out of hand, which is never a responsible type of analysis. So let's take a look at our apocryphal friend from another time, John Titor.
His first well-known appearance is believed to have been in the year 1998, when many accounts say that he sent some faxes into the paranormal radio program Coast to Coast AM, identifying himself as a time traveler from the year 2036. He warned that the Y2K computer bug (an issue in which many old computer systems only allowed two characters for the year) was going to be disastrous when clocks rolled over at midnight on December 31, 1999, causing deaths by starvation and freezing, martial law, and all kinds of problems. Next, sometime in the year 2000, he appeared as a participant in the discussions on an Internet forum called the Time Travel Institute. His handle was TimeTravel_0. He (or someone else using the same name) also posted on the forums for Coast to Coast. He told how, beginning with the US Presidential election in 2004, civil war tore the nation into five regions, culminating in World War III which would not end until 2015. His many predictions included that the Large Hadron Collider, yet to be completed at the time of his posts, would produce tiny black holes. Without exception, all of his predictions failed to come true.
Titor was here on a military mission, he said. He'd been sent back from 2036 to 1975 to retrieve an IBM 5100 computer, one of the earliest suitcase-sized portable computers that boasted a monochrome 5-inch CRT display. He claimed there was a need to translate some legacy program code. While on his way through the decades, he decided to stop by 1998 and spend a few years hanging out. While here, he drove around in a 1967 Corvette Sting Ray convertible with the time machine built into it. It's noteworthy that the idea of a time machine installed in a car was not a new one, having entered pop culture many years earlier in the 1985 movie Back to the Future which featured a time traveling DeLorean. It's scarecely inconceivable that a prankster having people on with time traveling posts might well choose to insert this old device as an inside joke.
As John Titor remained active on the Internet even after his Y2K claim had been proven false, he explained it away by saying there were parallel universes, and what happens in one might not happen in another; thus events that were established history in his 2036 universe might not happen at all in the parallel times he would visit. We call this a special pleading. It is the logically invalid invocation of an untestable condition or force as support for a claim, thus making the claim immune to scrutiny.
So the skeptical mind might well slap a palm to the forehead and wonder why the John Titor story has become well known. Anyone can go onto virtually any Internet forum and say anything they like. There is no editorial review. You can say you're Mickey Mouse, you can say you're the reincarnation of Napoleon, you can say you're from the future. People also impersonate one another all the time; it's likely that more than one person who read John Titor posts decided to make their own. Any given random Internet post, that is not connected to an established body of posts from the secured account of a known individual, has no meaningful provenance. Similarly, there's no serious reason to suspect that anonymous faxes or phone calls into radio shows are not crank calls; it happens many times every day.
John Titor differed from purely unverifiable posts in that he made testable claims: future predictions. The predictions for whose time has come and gone have all been proven false, many of them absurdly so; and so his posts were indeed consistent with what we'd expect from random prank posts.
Why did the John Titor story grow legs? Why does it still exist?
One reason is that the prankster got in relatively early in the history of Internet claims, and made the wise move of promoting his story on a very popular national radio program. Coast to Coast has a reputation for promoting just about anything that's alternative or that contradicts established science. Today, now that the number of unsubstantiated claims on the Internet is somewhat larger than the factorial of the square of all the large numbers ever conceived separated by arrow notation, it would be a lot harder to achieve John Titor's celebrity.
But having said that, notice that there is some popular new meme on the Internet practically every day. The chances of any one new story becoming popular may be a lot less than they were in 1998, but every random drawing does have a winner. Every day, some story is going to be the one that wins that lottery. If we weren't talking about John Titor, we'd be talking about some other story instead. The John Titor story is popular simply because that happens to be one of the stories that became popular.
John Titor also had a number of really fashionable themes, which is an element that works in any urban legend's favor. For one, it suggested that time travel is possible. This is a superpower that everyone would love to have. I am certainly among those who would love for time travel to be possible. When someone suggests that it is, others repeat it. We all want John Titor to actually be from the future.
Another theme it embraced was government corruption: martial law, civil war, an empowered people fighting the establishment. For as long as there have been anti-government conspiracy theorists, there have been those who want to see these things happen. There seems to be a lot of crossover between conspiracy theorists and people who post a lot on Internet forums, and John Titor represents a lot of concepts popular with that culture.
On top of everything else, he had a time machine merged with a sports car. Who doesn't love that?
Well, in my mind, anyone who likes a good story shouldn't love it. The John Titor story is one that people have been emailing me about and asking me to do an episode on for a long time, and when I finally sat down to do some preliminary research to see if it was worth an episode, I was actually a little surprised at how thin the story is. Apparently a small number of people take it seriously, but the majority of Internet denizens who are familiar with the subject simply laugh it off. My job was to decide if it was worth an episode. I decided that it was, although not necessarily to explore the validity of the legend itself. Instead, the John Titor story suggested a broader and more important question: When do we know whether a paranormal claim is worthy of attention?
Strictly speaking, of course, nothing should be dismissed completely out of hand without any sort of scrutiny. However, at the same time, we all have to be functional human beings and get through our day, and it would be neither practical nor intellectually desirable to question absolutely everything. We have to draw the line somewhere. I argue that the John Titor story is past that line, and I also argue that we shouldn't spend time with subjects that are on the wrong side.
One of the great joys of researching and exploring is learning. When someone simply makes up a stupid prank Internet post — even a coordinated series of them over a stretch of several years — it simply adds no richness to the fabric of culture. There's no payoff to researching it. There is no pot of gold at the end of that rainbow, as there is with so many other mysteries that have grown from the real experiences of real people.
Some John Titor enthusiasts have taken a slightly different tack, and tried to solve the mystery of who it was that wrote the posts. In 2008, an Italian television show called Voyager hired an investigator to try and track him down; which, in my mind, was sort of a desperate spin to create a solvable mystery. The producers probably realized quite quickly that it was simply a prank and knew that searching for a real John Titor would lead to a very boring TV show, so they looked for a related mystery that might possibly be solvable.
I elected not to go that route, and I encourage everyone truly interested in learning the facts behind strange tales to avoid stories like this one, that strain all credibility and haven't the slightest evidence to indicate that they're anything but made up. There are too many real mysteries in the world, and underneath every real mystery there is a new piece of information to learn. A goofy hoax? Not so much. Don't waste your time.