Dead famous: microblogging and morbidity

Paul Raven @ 20-08-2009

Another thought-provoking post from Joanne McNeil of Tomorrow Museum sees her musing on the way Twitter, the 24-hour news cycle and citizen journalism have escalated the death of minor celebrities to the status of the fashionable small-talk of the digerati:

Every day on Twitter, news of another death. Les Paul, John Hughes, Farrah Fawcett, those big names, but also the editor at this publication, the founder of this startup, the people who we might not all know, but someone you know knew them and they are using the space to remember them.

Sure, Maria Shriver’s euology made me sit up straighter and think I want to be like that. But, I mean, was I supposed to be shocked that Eunice Kennedy passed on? I guess it’s small talk of a darker sort. You could talk about the weather or whose heart stopped.

Sometimes I feel like I don’t want to sign on Twitter, precisely for that reason. What if David Cronenberg died? Or Bill Callahan? Sophia Coppola, Rachel Maddow, Tilda Swinton, anyone I like.


I still think the web has the capacity to bring out the best and the worst in us. We’re going to look back at the spectacle of Jade Goody’s wedding earlier this year and think how innocent it was, how damn near respectful people were to her and her family. It’s all downhill from here. Death is just something you think about until the next 140 character tweet appears.

I don’t think it’s going to get all that much worse – and if it does, we won’t be appalled by it, because the frog will be boiled slowly – but I’ve long been fascinated by the visceral sense of Zeitgeist that working all day on the web has given me, and there’s definitely a change in my attitudes to different sorts of news. (That said, my complete disinterest in manufactured minor celebrities remains strong, which I’m quite pleased about.)

It’s almost as if dying is the best way to get the whole world to take notice of you these days. But how much harder is it to disappear from view completely? In another of Wired’s more interesting journalistic projects of late, they’re sending off Evan Ratliff with instructions to drop “off the grid” for thirty days, and offering a prize of $5,000 to anyone who finds him using the publically available data trail that he’ll generate. I’ll not be surprised if someone snags him pretty quick  (unless he has some sort of ace in the hole for staying incognito), but the story promises to be interesting whatever the outcome, especially in light of other recent disappearances, successful, deliberate or otherwise.

Pseuicide – faking your death on the internet

Paul Raven @ 11-06-2009

fake death?Via Chairman Bruce comes a great article at Wired UK about the phenomenon of Munchausen By Internet – members of online communities who fake serious illness or death for a variety of reasons, be it to dig themselves out of their other untruths or because they enjoy being the focus of mass sympathy:

In his 2004 book Playing Sick, Dr Marc Feldman, a clinical psychiatrist at the University of Alabama, offers the first published investigation into a disorder he refers to as “Munchausen by internet”, or MBI, which introduces an online element to the symptoms of Munchausen syndrome, the condition whose sufferers fake sickness and may demand medical treatment for a illness they do not really possess.

“The easy and ready access to the internet propagates MBI,” said Feldman in a recent email. “In fact, I believe that MBI is more common than MS in ‘real life’. The reason is that it is so easy to use the net to research medical conditions, post fallacious materials, and engage others without the need to literally enact an ilness. Many of these people seem to be very lonely, and the internet offers a readily and continually-available source of unconditional support.”

In one startling case, a woman from New Zealand named “Sara” approached Feldman with an 8,000-word confession of her own Munchausen by internet, a story of vast complexity and novelistic detail in which she created more than eight online aliases, constructed intricate relationships between them, and killed at least five.

It’s grimly fascinating to see how the internet is amplifying some of the weirder parts of human psychology. I can’t help but wonder whether or not this might become some sort of performance artform, though; one of the earliest examples of a faked death online was a guy on USENET:

In 1999, when online interaction was still in its relative infancy, a prominent poster on the popular usenet group alt.religion.kibology perpetrated one of the earliest fake deaths, partly as a way “to be a fly on the wall at my own funeral” but also purportedly as part of an investigation into the nature of online relationships. A long-time and regular poster named M Otis Beard suddenly became unusually argumentative with fellow contributors over a brief period, before one of Beard’s friends, who had met him in real life, posted a muted and thoroughly credible notice that Beard had killed himself.


Some days later, Beard himself resurfaced with a message that, while overbearingly smug in tone, is underpinned by what he claimed was an intellectual motive. After a gleeful pronouncement that “rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated”, Beard announced that his “little escapade” had been a method of testing the sense of community in the group and had been designed to offer a perverse sense of catharsis when the deception was revealed.

“You thought you had irretrievably lost something; that something is now returned to you,” he wrote. “If I hadn’t made you sad by pretending to be dead, I wouldn’t have been able to make you happy (well, OK, angry and THEN happy) by jumping out of my coffin, whole and hale. Forgive me for putting you through the emotional roller coaster ride, which I hope was a healthily cathartic experience for all of you.”

That sounds exactly like the sort of stunt that the 4chan/Anonymous massive might come up with, keen as they are to shatter expectations, wind up the over-emotional and disrupt internet communities using the very tools used to construct them. I can easily imagine some sort of annual awards for the most convincing, most audacious or most ridiculous faked deaths… and increased awareness of the phenomenon will only make it seem more of a challenge. [image by aliscarpulla]

Teenager granted the right to “die with dignity”

Paul Raven @ 12-11-2008

Over here in the UK the current big front-page story is Hannah Jones, a thirteen-year-old girl who has a hole in her heart as a result of childhood leukaemia medication. The actual news is the about-face made by her local healthcare authority, which was planning to force her to have a heart transplant against her own wishes; intervention by a child protection officer encouraged them to drop their court case and let Hannah stay with her family as she wished.

The “right to die” is still a very contentious issue (and will doubtless remain one for some time to come) but Hannah’s case is complicated by her age; I think it’s a safe assumption that had her parents not agreed with her decision, things might have gone very differently. Which brings us to the perennial question – at what age should the law permit you to make life-changing decisions like this for yourself? And to what degree should the religious beliefs of your family be taken into account, if at all?

RIP Michael Crichton

Tom James @ 06-11-2008

Author of Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain, and the eco-terrorist thriller State of Fear Michael Crichton died two days ago of cancer.

I enjoyed Jurassic Park, and whatever you thought of the controversy surrounding the opinions on global warming expressed in State of Fear he was a decent writer.

REAL DEATH by Terry Hayman

Jeremy Lyon @ 01-06-2005

[ This story has been removed from Futurismic‘s archives by the author’s request, in line with the contractual agreement under which it was purchased. Sorry to disappoint! Maybe you’d like to take a look at our other fiction? ]

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