When 46-year-old David Foster Wallace hanged himself in 2008, he was still grinding away on The Pale King, a semiautobiographical novel that had occupied him for more than a decade. In April 2011, Michael Pietsch, his editor and the publisher at Little, Brown & Co., released a book distilled from Wallace’s copious raw materials: a duffel bag and two grocery sacks stuffed full of computer disks, printed papers, and handwritten notes. The resulting 547-page tome is now, for better or worse, considered the author’s final work—as if some zombie version of Wallace had completed it from the crypt, pecking away on a MacBook with crumbling, bony fingers.
Pietsch justifies his posthumous assembling of The Pale King by noting that Wallace left a 250-page section of the book squarely on his desk, to be found soon after his lifeless body. “To me, the fact that he left those pages on his work table is proof he wanted the book published,” Pietsch told The New York Times. He didn’t say, however, whether the famously prolific Wallace placed a Post-it on top of those pages with the words, “Finish this.”
Given that, consider this: Everyone using the Internet is going to die, some of us sooner than others. And when we die, we’ll have something in common with David Foster Wallace. With every Facebook status update, Tumblr post, and Flickr photo we upload, we’re writing our own semiautobiographical story that we will likely leave unfinished, even though we certainly intended to finish it. If we don’t write our final chapter, someone else could.
I say “semiautobiographical” because what most of us choose to share online is often carefully scripted or edited: cute photos of our kids, highlights and lowlights of our social lives, descriptions of what we had for lunch and felt guilty about, and pictures of ourselves doing impressive or stupid (but almost never boring) things. Most of us have a sizable audience for our adventures, including people whom we “see” or “know” exclusively online. Sometimes this is by design—some Internet users maintain a wholly separate digital identity, for example—but more often it’s simply a matter of geographical distance and the passage of time. This is one of the wonderful things about social media: It allows us to stay close to friends and loved ones whom we rarely, if ever, see in the flesh. This intimacy is real, and when we die, it demands to be reciprocated.
Death on the Internet is a trending topic, from the “digital suicides” of those who want to step away from electronic communication and get back to so-called “real” life to the paranoia of those who want to erase themselves from the network’s myriad databases. But actual death—the clinical, drawer-in-a-morgue kind—is the wave of the future. In the past few years, startups focused on electronic death management have blossomed. They recognize the aging of the Internet generation and the virtual grocery sacks full of electronic stuff we all leave behind (bank accounts, photo albums, Minecraft pickaxes). Corporate sites such as Legacylocker.com and Entrustet.com offer to hand the “keys to your digital legacy” to heirs, while Deathswitch.com, a possibly tongue-in-cheek sideline of neuroscientist David Eagleman, regularly checks to see whether you’re still alive via email; if you fail to answer, the service announces your demise to preselected friends and loved ones.
And what happens if we die without bequeathing our online lockbox, whether we forget or simply don’t want to? On the Internet, immortality is the default setting: On Facebook, you are frozen in time, posthumously accumulating friends’ status updates and Farmville accomplishments in perpetuity (or until the company goes belly-up, a la Friendster). If you kept a standalone blog for personal or professional reasons, then you’re at the mercy of the Internet community at large. Commenters may speculate about your whereabouts early on, but after a while, spam will take root, hawking gray-market athletic shoes in broken, SEO-tinged English, like weeds choking the grass above your cemetery plot. Eventually, your site will be consumed, sinking farther and farther into the depths of Google’s rankings, obscured but never truly gone until your domain-name registration expires.
Social-media companies have been quietly rolling out death policies, loathe to mess with the Internet’s bulletproof brand as the Machinery of Now. Facebook, with nearly 700 million members, adopted a one-size-fits-all solution in 2009, allowing friends and family (armed with a death certificate) to “memorialize” a dead member’s personal page, adding their remembrances while disabling features such as friend requests and status updates, which might creep others out if sent from the grave. To date, relatively few Facebook user pages have been turned into memorials, and no one at the company knows how many of its members are Internet zombies. One study pegs the number of Facebookers who die every year at a whopping 375,000—equivalent to the population of Honolulu.
Yet, we don’t have to be remembered by our friends and someday-adult children as archived profiles that list Ron Paul and Rusted Root as our heroes. Our final words don’t have to be a Chaucer-esque chronicle of a weekend pub crawl, or a blurry iPhone photo of a stellar bowl of chicken pho, or a concrete-poetry ad for generic Viagra. We can all make the final chapter of our cyberspace novel sync up with the end of our meatspace lives by planning ahead.
“Dying well” on the Web is in its infancy. Like all Internet innovations, the pioneers are early adopters, in this case people with robust online presences who are dying before their time. After 37-year-old Canadian technical writer Derek K. Miller discovered he had colorectal cancer in early 2007, he brought up the subject on his personal blog Penmachine.com only occasionally, when a treatment milestone was reached or a new diagnosis confirmed. But as the years went on and his cancer spread and monopolized his daily routines, Penmachine.com became what Miller had long resisted: a sickness blog, a category of online narrative that chronicles the crushing daily grind of someone who knows his days are numbered and the devastating effects on those around him. Read individually, the posts are achingly sad, but taken as a whole, Penmachine.com is a robust account of a life lived well—and a life story told well.
Rather than winking out, Miller plotted the final chapter of his epic drama. He crafted a final post, to be uploaded after he died. As with any good epilogue, it sums up his story’s message, tells us what became of the main characters, and gives his audience closure. In Miller’s case, readers are encompassed in his belief that there is no life after death. “Here it is. I’m dead, and this is my last post to my blog,” he writes. “As soon as my body stopped functioning and the neurons in my brain ceased firing, I made a remarkable transformation: from a living organism to a corpse, like a flower or a mouse that didn’t make it through a particularly frosty night.”
Of course, Miller had the dubious advantage of knowing his end was nigh; nothing spurs a writer into action like a deadline. For many of us, death will come as a surprise. When that moment arrives, those of us who haven’t taken the time to script our own final chapter in advance still have hope for an institutional safety net. A road map for a better large-scale approach to death on the Web can be glimpsed in the experiments of small-scale Internet communities. MetaFilter.com, a link-sharing and discussion site that has some 50,000 active members, takes a personal approach to its dead. This is made feasible by the site’s pragmatic treatment of that accidental (and archaic) civil right of the Internet, anonymity. Although most MetaFilter members use pseudonyms, the site’s administrators have a pretty good idea of who everyone is. Full membership requires a $5 PayPal fee, providing another piece of identifying data beyond an IP address.
When an active MetaFilter member stops contributing to the site, other users typically notice. Eventually, one of the site’s staff moderators joins the discussion with news of the member’s whereabouts—or demise. In the latter case, an online memorial ensues: A moderator marks the user’s page with the word “deceased,” and users contribute links to online obituaries or other pages of interest. “Depending on the user, how well-known they were, and how much their loss resonates with the community, sometimes there is something else that happens,” says Jessamyn C. West, a MetaFilter moderator. “For example, with Bill Zeller’s suicide, we created the ThereIsHelp wiki page.”
William Zeller was a computer programmer, Ph.D. candidate, and active MetaFilter user (under the pseudonym “null_terminated”) who in the early hours of January 2, 2011, posted a 4,000-word suicide note that eloquently and comprehensively revealed years of secret childhood sexual and psychological abuse at the hands of a family member. Then, Zeller erased his Facebook profile and replaced it with the note, which he also emailed to friends. And then he hanged himself. “Desperate people everywhere tried to contact him to save him,” West recalls. “[It was] truly sad and upsetting.”
From a dying-well standpoint, however, Zeller did everything right. He scripted the final chapter to his online novel, a bombshell of a big reveal that literally erased everything that came before, negating it as fiction that hid a devastating truth. He placed his pages in plain sight—depositing them into in-boxes and posting them online for everyone to see. Anticipating its re-publication, Zeller specifically requested that his essay-length suicide note be reprinted in full, never excerpted. (The entire note can be found at http://www.archive.org/stream/BillZellersSuicideNote/note.txt)
But the Internet was not done with him yet. If Zeller’s suicide was his final chapter, then MetaFilter’s ThereIsHelp page is the afterword the Web has written for him. ThereIsHelp is a wonky but supremely useful online list of worldwide suicide hotlines and counseling services. Crowd-sourced, intensely personal, and completely public at the same time, it’s something new: a wiki memorial that complements Zeller’s online novel and is a more fitting tribute than either a granite headstone or an arms-length list of online remembrances. (There are a half-dozen Bill Zeller tribute sites on Facebook, but none appears to be an official, memorialized version of his own page.)
As social media becomes one of our core daily routines—and a need for privacy is inexorably bred out of us as a species—our online lives and our offline ones can only become more intertwined. But synchronizing our actual and virtual deaths requires that we take one long step beyond, merging our digital and physical selves into a whole being, perhaps with the aid of communities in which we participate. Whether it can work on a global scale remains to be seen. But in the exurbs of the Internet, it’s starting to take. “Grieving for someone you’d never met in person is very real and also unreal in its own weird way,” MetaFilter’s West says. “I feel fortunate to belong to a community where people I know from online are so very real to me.”