Monday, June 01, 2009

Death and the Internet

Please forgive my slight departure from my usual posts on software development, Agile, patterns and so on. But I’ve had cause in the last month to think hard about what the internet means to us all.

I’m probably one of the last generation of Europeans to remember life without the internet. My first contact with e-mail was about 25 years ago when a friend and me looked after the school computers and got access to the first inter school e-mail system - The Times Network for Schools.

(Access didn’t last long once the school saw the phone bill. Just long enough for us to discover that none of the other local schools had not changed their default password.)

As my professional career has developed so has the internet. But I can remember time before the internet so I know the world could survive without it again. A different world yes but it would survive.

Last month the internet took on a dark side and my relationship with it changed. Death came to cyberspace.

I’ve been following the blog of that old school friend for a few years. Nothing that interesting but it felt like I was in contact with him. Then in late April his post read like this: “I am an alcoholic, I have been for nearly 10 years. At the weekend I attempted suicide. The police broke into my flat and saved me because someone saw my update on Facebook.” Presumably his Facebook updated read like “Dave is ... attempting suicide with pills and beer.” Since then he’s been blogging every few days about his attempt to give up drink.

Think about that. A suicide attempt on Facebook. A confession of alcoholism in a blog. A public dairy of a recover attempt.

Sure you could say it was a very big plea for help. Publicity for himself yes, and maybe it was self indulgent but it also a sign of how we live out lives.

Then yesterday, a Facebook message from someone I didn’t know. I though it was spam and almost ignored it but I didn’t. It was that friend’s sister. She wanted to tell me he’d died.

I’ve long thought e-mail was the worst possible way to give people bad news but I was thinking of news like “Your project is late” this is an order of magnitude more.

Facebook was probably the only way she had of finding me quickly and I’m glad she did. But that changes Facebook for me. Until last month Facebook was about friends, pictures, smiles and so on. Its now changed.

I guess its like the telegrams we used to get: “Regret to inform you Bill Smith passed away STOP.”

And what is the protocol here? Do I go and delete him from my friends list? Or do I leave him there Zombie like? How long do I leave his blog on my reader?

Who tells Facebook to remove his account? Do they need to see a death certificate?
How long does Blogger leave his blog there before it is deleted by some robot?

Web-Archive will always have his posts and the websites he created.

Gradually he’ll be removed from friends lists, links to his blog will be dropped and the great garbage collector in the sky will remove his cyber-soul.

For now Dave still lives in cyberspace, he just hasn’t posted for a few days. Soon it will be a week, then a month, then a year. He’s already left more of a life history than most people who have ever lived, and its far more accessible. In 500 year historians will have a better understanding of everyday life because of the likes of him.