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August 16th, 2006 James Boyda | Featured Stories
 

Ghosts In The Machine

A look at MyDeathSpace.com asks, "Where do our online profiles go to die?"

     
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Dead bodies are easy to manage. Before long, they must be burned or buried or wrapped in flags and tossed in the sea.

The worldly traces of a life are the trickier residues to resolve. Photographs, sweatshirts and old receipts will collect nostalgia and dust unless we sort them, box them up, and drive 'em to the Goodwill. But in an age when many of us practically live and love online, there are remains of a digital life that also require our attention and grief.

Launched in January 2006 by Mike Patterson, a 25-year-old from San Francisco, MyDeathSpace.com is a unique site salvaging the breadcrumbs of our online lives—those that cannot simply be swept away. "MDS [MyDeathSpace] is an archival site that links profiles of deceased MySpace users to articles related to their deaths," he explained to WW in a recent email interview. "There is a forum section where viewers of the site can sign up and discuss the latest deaths."

Patterson is having trouble keeping up with the mounting body count. Of the 400-plus profiles listed on the site since January (seven total from Oregon), 30 deaths have posted just since Aug. 1. Any registered MDS member can "announce" the death of a MySpacer. MDS will verify and publish all the details of the death, those both gory and mundane, along with a link to the dead's MySpace page. The causes of death listed—so far—range from the routine (car crash, overdose, drowning) to the salacious (merry-go-round accident, execution, lightning strike). Unlike a newspaper that employs a staff of obit writers, Patterson has hundreds of backlogged emails—death notices—that await his personal review and verification.

But even more troubling than the body count is the disproportionate number of young people listed on the site. Due to the demographics of MySpace users themselves, roughly 70 percent of the MDS dead are aged 21 and under; 90 percent are 25 and under. In contrast, the youngest person of the 33 obits listed in the Friday, Aug. 11, Oregonian was 41 years old. Consequently, the site raises an important question: How do we grieve for the unspeakable—youth interrupted?

Typically, newsprint obituaries focus on either the work, legacies or life stories of aged adults. MDS commemorates young people by making visible the evidence of their culture and consumption. Youth on the site is canonized, not by accomplishments or retrospection, but through the exploration of online networks of friends, photographs and cultural tastes (music, movies, and Quicktime clips of drunken falling down). It's not such an odd idea, really: According to psych journal Death Studies, attaining clarification of the life and times of the dead is one of the fundamental steps in the grieving process.

The bereaved have also harnessed MDS's wide-open platform as a channel for quick information exchange—a post 9/11 strategy. This was particularly so in the case Portland's Marissa Manwarren (Death No. 314, June 14, 2006), adopted granddaughter of state Sen. Margaret Carter, whose body was found near Beverly Beach in Newport. She died from a bullet to the head. Several weeks after Manwarren's death, users were still on the MDS bulletin board "talking" and posting information on the latest developments that have now tied Manwarren's case to other local murders. MySpace cause célèbre Anna Svidersky (Death No. 112), a 17-year-old Vancouver teen who was stabbed to death on April 20, 2006, while working a shift at McDonald's, garnered similar MDS attention.

But more often, MDS's utopian possibilities give way to fannish impulses and chat-room banter about the deceased. If discretion, good taste and good storytelling are de rigueur for professional death workers (coroners, undertakers, obit writers), MDS is more cultish in flavor. Like an eerie Virtual Pet Cemetery shining through the online ether, profiles may come to rest here, but in repose they take on an entirely new life. Owing to lax moderation, cultural rubberneckers can plunder the profiles in order to act out a lust for gore, guts and toilet talk.

From: Suicide #52: [Young Man] Jumped Through 8th Floor Window

Trinket: "Poor guy....My thoughts are with his family."

BMW: "Little does his family know, that in those final moments before he took the plunge, he was texting a friend: LOL KATLYN, HEY IM GONNA GO FLY...He will be missed. Especially by those walls...[no]one had ever banged them so well."

Ashley: "BMW—May you contract ovarian cancer the day before you find lumps in both breasts and a blood clot in your pea brain. You are a flat out disgusting excuse for a human being. Please stop breathing. Soon. Do it."

If the ghoulish and the gross abound, let us not forget that pundits come here, too. The page for Madras, Ore., native Private Thomas Tucker (Death No. 317, June 16, 2006) who died in an ambush at an Iraqi traffic checkpoint, has spawned almost a summer's worth of message activity. Zealous anti-Bushites and pro-Iraq devotees have taken up a war of words on Tucker's page, a polemic that all but ignores his individual tragedy.

The spectacle of Tucker's death, his body desecrated and booby-trapped, has been editorialized by posters as evidence enough against the war ("That's what happens when you participate in the imperalistic war of America...Good riddance, you murderer.") as well as in support of it ("Unfortunately, in times of war, a certain number of casualties are to be expected...Bless our troops and Bless our Nation.").

That MDS has sparked controversy over its purported exploitation of the dead's misfortune is no surprise. The site's burlesque dance between legitimate utility and profane entertainment has led The New York Times to call the site "glib...and macabre"; the USA Today slammed it as "rude and insensitive, occasionally brutal." This criticism is to be expected. The site, after all, markets itself with black irony: cartoon skulls on lapel pins and shot glasses.

Patterson, however, is quite clear that he is not running a memorial site. He's running a business and making himself famous as a purveyor of Internet taste and fandom. "I love the publicity MyDeathSpace has received," he wrote. The site now maintains an entire forum devoted to MDS hate mail. Predictably, new sites like MyCrimeSpace.com and MyWhoreSpace.com have sprung up and are cashing in on MDS's brand of controversial popularity. And MySpace, which reserves the right to remove any user's page, has not been quick to purge the blogs of dead teens featured on MDS—yet.

The rumpus over MDS cannot alone be attributed to the vulgar attitudes of a few malcontents. True, the exhibition of dead young people on the site vexes us and gives us the creeps. But why?

Media critics have long said that emerging technologies have typically been met with both suspicion and hope—the ideas that these new forms of communication could connect the living to the dead.

Spiritualist Christians of the late 19th century thought wireless telegraphs could send messages to the other side; radio and Orson Welles brought the threat of aliens into homes in 1938 and caused national panic; and TV has been signified as a portal between the living and the beyond. Think of that scary little girl in Poltergeist or that other scary little girl in The Ring.

The Internet is the latest technology to tap into metaphors of the occult. If sites like MySpace allow us to communicate with people and places all over the world, we do so by leaving our bodies behind. We interface with the world through a screen. Digital pictures, MP3s, wires and codes replace flesh and the voice. Communication through the Internet is by definition disembodied. Living Internet users are already ghosts in the machine. And, ultimately, profiles of the dead on MDS haunt and hoodoo us (the living) because they are at once active and stagnant, simultaneously alive and dead.

In this digital age when public community is being replaced by private sessions behind a keyboard, it is no surprise that people are turning to Internet sites like MDS. Why make an embarrassing scene at a funeral when you can simply pour your heart out online? Why carry a photograph of a dead loved one in a wallet when you can (re)experience the breadth of their life digitally?

In memoriam, MyDeathSpace poses more questions than it offers answers. Its tongue-and-cheek treatment of young people's final days only reminds us of the unfair odds of life and death. The real dead, online or off, do not really listen. They weren't even "there" in the first place.

 
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