Here’s my December column for AVENUE magazine, the last for a while whilst AVENUE takes a break to consider a change of format.
There ought to be a word for when a comment left in response to a Facebook friend’s post piques your curiosity enough that you click on the commenter’s name to see what other sorts of thing they’ve written elsewhere (I make no apology for this snooping; I’m endlessly interested in how people express themselves online)… and a resulting chain of profile hopping ensues as you move from comment to profile to comment to profile, a sometimes hour-long exploration of random people you’ve never met connected only by the thread of your happenstance curiosity. ‘Browsing’ doesn’t quite capture it for me, somehow. ‘Browsing’ implies you’re waiting to find something of interest, whereas this little bounce from personality to personality reveals new fascinations with every single step.
One such carefree hop and skip across Second Life® Facebook profiles a few months ago led me to a comment about a man who was described as having died in RL some time ago, only to return in SL about a year later. I’ve heard about this sort of thing before, but never actually met someone who did it. Also, I was under the impression that people who ‘came back’ tended to do so in a new account so that they didn’t get found out (although, of course, they usually did get found out because they just couldn’t resist getting in touch with old friends in their new persona and giving themselves away through their textual mannerisms; it would be nice to think that the number of people who use ‘u’ instead of ‘you’ in SL do so only to distract from signature phrase slippage and that it hurts their soul to do this just as much as it does mine to read it). I did a web search on this returned avatar’s name and found several posts across various forums about his RL death, plus a couple of later – less than complimentary – confirmations that he was, in fact, alive. I looked up his profile inworld and saw that he is indeed currently active. He made no comment there about his earlier ‘death’, but there was a mention of sending those who didn’t “understand” him to a dark and fiery place.
Why would someone do such a thing? Just to be clear here, I’m not talking about people who tell everyone they’re leaving SL and then later return – we all have a right to change our minds: what I’m interested in are cases where a person goes out of their way to give people the impression that they’ve died in real life. I don’t know how this was achieved in this case, but a number of potential methods come to mind. One could log in as an alt, for example, and pretend to be an RL friend of the deceased; one could send emails as a family member according to your ‘dying wishes’.
It turns out that faking your own death on the internet is sufficiently significant and old a phenomenon that it’s been researched. As an example of ‘Munchausen by Internet’, a term coined by Dr Marc Feldman (thanks to Mistletoe Ethaniel’s very informative blog post on the topic for pointing me to this), the prevailing hypothesis on faked internet death appears to be that the main motive for doing this is to inflict emotional pain on people, perhaps some sort of revenge for actions they have previously taken or as a gauge by which to assess how much you were loved. I’ve personally never heard of such a thing actually happening within my own SL, although I’ve certainly seen emotional blackmail used in spades – including someone hinting about considering killing themselves in RL in response to the actions of SL others. Hinting is a long way from actually doing, of course, but then – well – so is pretend doing.
Dare I say it, but could another rationale be to get out of an unwanted relationship? We can criticise such a strategy for being cowardly, but we’ve all been in a situation where the noble, the sensible, the intelligent thing to do feels either completely impossible or – frankly – too much bother. Breaking up with someone because they’re insecure and needy, for example, is an insanely hard thing to do without a) leaving them feeling criticised and worthless, and/or b) becoming a cold, uncaring bastard. How much more easy must it be to simply die, terminating the relationship and leaving the ex-partner grief-stricken, but with their self-esteem and the memories of their love intact? If you’re really into the rationalisation of being a total shit, you could even argue that the bereaved might end up this way with a better sense of perspective: it’s the win-win approach to breaking someone’s heart.
Perhaps the reason for faking one’s death in SL that I have the most empathy with, however – and I should probably add at this point that I’m not considering this as an option; if you should hear that Huck’s driver has completed his mortal doings, you can be relatively certain that this is genuinely the case (although if I was planning to fake my death I suppose I would say that) – is the possibility this offers for witnessing the reaction to your demise. Perhaps ‘empathy’ is the wrong word; what I mean is that I can understand the curiosity people might have about the esteem in which others actually hold them. After all, how often do we actually tell people whilst they’re still alive what they mean to us? However many irritating Facebook memes on floral backgrounds we see telling us to do this, it’s just not a thing we’re comfortable with; we save our best, our most comprehensive praise for people until after they’re gone.
I should point out that I see a clear distinction between this reason and the Munchausen by Internet motive outlined earlier: were I to contemplate such I thing (I’m really not, ok?), it wouldn’t be to measure my worth by the size of others’ pain; it would be out of a genuine curiosity to know what people thought of me. I have no idea what impact I’ve had on others as Huck. I have a few friends who I’m reasonably certain like me more than they dislike me, but beyond that I really don’t have much of a clue. And what about my novels? Would they receive some sort of posthumous recognition denied me denied me during life? I can’t deny that makes me curious.
Of course, one of the reasons why we don’t hand out praise whilst people are still alive is that no person comes in a package of good qualities only. Whilst someone’s still alive, their negative attributes are often just as visible as all the positives. Whilst positive attributes such as notable achievements or generosity continue to be true after death, however, negative issues pretty much cease to be a concern. If I’m considered to be impulsive, temperamental and unpredictable whilst alive, for example, my capacity to shock and upset pretty much stops the instant I pass away. That truth becomes less meaningful posthumously than the truth of my achievements. To put it another way, how we think about people is different after they’ve died than whilst they’re still alive; it’s not necessarily the case that people are withholding what they think of you whilst you’re still around.
So what I hear people say of me at my virtual memorial might not be what they think of me whilst I’m still alive; that doesn’t mean to say, of course, that I’m still not curious as to what it might be. And this is where an RL faked death really comes into its own in SL, for where else on the internet could you find an actual gathering of people collected for the sole purpose of paying tributes to a deceased friend? Comments on a discussion forum is one thing, but an event held in your honour at a place and a time is where SL claims the trophy on online remembrance.
But a note of warning for anyone who mistakes this piece as an instructional article: be careful what you wish for; people don’t always celebrate the deceased. You might put on your very best alt and very best suit and very best black tie and turn up to your virtual memorial to find yourself the only person there. You might even discover that no-one was especially moved to hold one. Don’t be too surprised to discover that you have no friends if they meant so little to you in that first place that you were prepared to let them think you’d died.
Huckleberry Hax was the author of ‘AFK’ and other novels set in Second Life®. He passed away after an aggrieved reader dropped a 1000m x 1000m x 1000m megaprim on his head for daring to suggest that the possibility that her ex-lover’s death was faked as a result of him being unable to tolerate her constantly referring to him as her ‘hubby’.