Google, the verb

Dying online

What happens when you die online? At last week’s SXSW Interactive Festival, there was a really super discussion of this. They were discussing the phenomenon of people who, after years of being active in an online community, die. How do their virtual friends deal with it? What’s the connection between people who only know each other from computer screens?

Blogger extraordinaire Heath Row took excellent notes on this panel, which was organized by Dana Robinson. Robinson works for Starbright, a group that hooks up terminally sick kids online, and she’s been doing research into this question: How do people grieve online?

In doing my research I’ve found that online communities in a couple of different ways. They may keep the account up so nobody else can use that ID. And if there are profiles, they may keep the profile available, maybe marking it with a RIP and the years they were alive. They might also set up memorial pages, living obituaries that talk about what they did, how they remembered. And a lot of the gaming communities may have annual memorial events where they have their own little events where they have a memorial avatar. They put down their weapons, come to a central meeting place, and mourn the loss of one of their users.

Other folks had some interesting stuff to add. A few of my favorite comments:

Cory Doctorow: When Google wrote its algorithm for what comes up when you type suicide, they put a lot of thought into it. Right now, the top results are suicide hotlines. But sometimes, when the algorithms aren’t working right, it’s pages of people telling each other how to kill themselves.

Brad Fitzpatrick: Whenever someone dies on LiveJournal, and it’s happened maybe a dozen times now, the last post will get hundreds of comments.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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