Saturday, 24 March 2012


(originally posted on Retrograde magazine's website)

The internet is full of ghosts. From the deepest, darkest, dustiest corners of the World Wide Web to the welcoming home page of your browser, the internet is the ultimate haunting ground if you’re willing to suspend your hard-earned belief that ghosts only exist in horror films. These ghosts aren’t caricatures, like Casper and his merry band of followers. They’re not even really paranormal, in that sense that there are no reports of online poltergeists or heavy demands for browser-exorcisms. This is haunting of a different nature, and the ghosts are of a different nature. Because, after all, what do we really mean when we use the term ‘haunted’? These days, it’s obvious that it has evolved into something less to do with the paranormal and more to do with human nature. We are haunted by death every day but not because we have a direct hotline that links us to ghosts and ghouls and all things terrifying - instead we are haunted in ways that, to those who have not yet become part of the club, seem to be almost imperceptible.
One of the strongest examples of this daily haunting comes in the form of the internet. If you are reading this, if you are browsing the internet right now, then you are probably a member of some kind of social networking site. If you are a member of a social networking site (be it Facebook, Myspace, or even Bebo – but if it is Bebo, then ouch) then you will have friends on that site. If your number of friends on that site equals or betters the number of friends of the average user, then I can guarantee that you are being haunted.

It might take you a while to notice it. You might come across it firstly in the form of a status update about someone’s granddad, someone’s dog, a friend of a friend, which you scroll past too quickly. This kind of ghost is easy to ignore. Then, slowly, it starts inching closer. An acquaintance from school invites you to a memorial group for a mutual friend. Facebook pages dedicated to those who have died in tragic accidents are mentioned in the local newspaper, alongside an obituary. When you google the names of local deaths out of morbid curiousity, you come across blogspot posts, livejournal entries, tumblogs, and tweets before any definitive news articles appear. You’re surrounded by ghosts.

Many people believe that this modernisation of grief is due to the iron grip technology has on the world, and proof that even the starkest human emotions are not immune to it. Borne from this belief is also the opinion that, because they are expressed online in a public setting, these feelings of grief are not completely natural and instead are somewhat doctored and dramatised for their online audience. To assume this is not only incorrect but also dangerous, and I think that to reduce online memorials to this is doing the movement (and I believe it definitely is a movement, for better or worse) a great disservice. I do not believe that online memorials have been created as a means of competition, of showing who is ‘grieving the hardest’. I do not believe that they have become popularised purely due to morbid curiosity, although it definitely is a huge factor. I do not believe that a person creates an online memorial simply because the internet is there and we have all become slaves to the proverbial machine. I do not believe that grief which is shared via a social networking site is any less real or deeply felt than grief which is internalised and hidden away (the ‘stiff upper lip’ school of thought) - in fact, I think that one of the main reasons young people in particular turn to the internet when grieving is that it allows them the chance to take hold of it and manage it in a way that is comfortable and familiar to them. I believe that online memorials are simply a modernisation of the ultimate ghost, the thing that haunts every one of us on a daily basis – our fear of death, and our ultimately futile attempts to control it.

When discussing death and the internet, it is impossible not to mention the behemoth of online memorials, In the same way that many people can recall exactly where they were during Princess Diana’s death, or the falling of the twin towers, I can remember exactly where I was when I discovered mydeathspace. I was eighteen years old, fresh out of state school, in my first year of university. I was living behind a book shop on Gower Street and it was the beginning of a new year. I was sitting at my tiny desk, with the Ethernet cable carefully balanced between the wall and my laptop. I can’t remember what exactly I was doing, but I know I’d been reading about the Columbine shootings when the now-familiar skull banner appeared on my screen. I clicked it and my life changed. is a website and forum dedicated to chronicling and discussing death. In the archive section, you’ll find a depressingly endless list of people who have died in specific ways. They each have their own page, listing at minimum their name, age, date of birth, and a link to their social networking site (hence the name mydeathspace). If you head over to the forum, you will find thread after thread discussing the saddest and strangest deaths.

My discovery of mydeathspace hit me like a ton of bricks. I’d never been so aware and terrified of my own mortality. The majority of people listed on mydeathspace were my age or younger, and having the links to their social networking sites provided for me meant that I couldn’t ignore them or write them off as another teen tragedy. Mydeathspace offers a level of intimacy that no either grieving process can provide – social networking sites are often no-holds-barred, and comments from friends and family provide another dimension to the deceased that an obituary in a newspaper never will. This is part of the popularity of mydeathspace, and is also where the controversy lies.
It’s no coincidence that mydeathspace has a Hate Mail section, and a brief glance through the forum only confirms that some people are not very happy at all with the existence of such a website. Mixed in with discussions between users and comments hoping that the deceased will rest in peace are angry postings from family members, friends, and locals, defending the deceased and demanding that the website be taken immediately. There are outcries of offense, of not wanting to read ‘that’ about their child/friend/brother/sister written by a stranger on the internet. This is where part of the main controversy lies – in the idea that by modernising death, by archiving pages after pages of dead youth’s facebooks, mydeathspace is somehow trivialising what happened to them. It’s easy to understand the parents’ point of view – some tragic deaths are horribly exploited on the internet, as in the case of Nikki Catsouras. There are websites that sadly do exist in order to trivialise death and jeer at people who have died and their families, but mydeathspace is not one of them. Instead, I believe that this initial shock and disgust at finding a friend or family member resting within mydeathspace’s archive is linked into our basic human fear of death. With websites like mydeathspace, we are confronted with death head on. It’s lined up and packaged neatly in front of us, archived in black and white. It reinforces the everyday brutality of death, contrasted harshly against the fragility of life. It’s hard to bear. Seeing passport sized photographs of people who could have been so much more, row after row after row of them, is hard to bear. But death exists. It is an absolutely certainty in life. What happens when we choose to ignore it, when we choose to x out and close the page? What kind of memorial are we leaving behind then?

The other aspect of controversy that mydeathspace brings is not just the general nature of the website, but the specific content. Most people think that sex is the last taboo, but I disagree. It’s death. In this society, it would be pointless to argue against the fact that some deaths are seen as being more desirable and socially acceptable than others. Natural deaths, for example, are acceptable – they are almost comforting, as they seem to suggest that it was the deceased’s ‘time to go’. They fit in with the ideas we have of the world as being just and right. Noble deaths are also acceptable – if someone dies for their country, or whilst saving a life or helping others, the taboo of death is automatically lifted. It’s okay to talk about these deaths, because they are a representation of how good and kind the deceased was. They emphasise their best qualities, and leave a positive memory for those who knew him or her.
Other deaths, however, remain taboo because they are still not seen as socially acceptable. Deaths from drug use or overdose are often not talked about, as society still seems to have the underlying view that if someone is suffering from a drug problem or takes drugs recreationally then they are bad and wrong and therefore their death is not as much of a tragedy. Their death is unnatural and therefore undesirable, but it is not unexpected. Many of the angry comments posted by family members that I mentioned earlier appear in threads regarding a child who died through illicit drug use or overdose – it’s sad but true that many families still cover up drug-related deaths and therefore do not want this news to be readily available. There is the fear that their child will be dirtied, viewed as less valuable, and that they will be remembered as something undesirable, such as a drug addict. What these family memories (perhaps understandably) don’t realise is that mydeathspace is not passing judgement on the way in which any of these people have died. Instead, it is a place where forum members can discuss the death and try and discover what the deceased was like, via their social networking page. Mydeathspace is trying to get us to talk about death, to inform us that no death should be hidden away and viewed as shameful. Only by discussing death and the deceased can we attempt to face our fear of death.

Suicide is perhaps the most taboo death of all. Although suicide has become more widespread in the news, this does not mean that it has been accepted by society. In fact, suicide is viewed as being perhaps the most undesirable, unacceptable death of all. For most people, it goes directly against their views that life is sacred, and should be lived to the full. Society celebrates life, and it celebrates wanting to live. It sounds hyperbolic, but it is fair to say that everything that exists in our society is an attempt to preserve life, extend life, and give us a better quality of life. This is why suicide cannot be accepted. It is perhaps the saddest, hardest death to come to terms with, not only because mental illness is still so misunderstood. Depression is still seen as shameful and more of a state of mind than an illness – we are taught by society that the acceptable way to respond to depression and mental health issues is to work our way through them and ‘be strong’, which sadly reinforces the idea that depression can be beaten this way by everyone. Once again, mydeathspace does not want us to be shamed into hiding or covering up mental illness, and any death that is a result of it. By offering a forum to discuss suicides, and by linking to the social networking pages of those who have committed suicide, mydeathspace is normalising it and allowing us to see the differences between each suicide, and to understand that anyone can suffer from mental illness. Suicide needs to be more publicised in this way, a way that does not demonise or glamorise it, so that the taboo attached to it is finally removed.

Mydeathspace ultimately exists because humanity has an almost animalistic desire to control what it is scared of. Death is the final end, the giant full stop. What is said about us in death reflects who we are as people just as much as what is said about us during life does. Online memorials do not trivialise us or make us one dimensional – instead, they capture us as we were in a certain moment and they make us human. I still remember the first mydeathspace article I read. It was for a young girl, Californian, who died when she was 15 years old. Her name was Kate Persten and for days I read her myspace, her last blog entry, and comments from her friends and family. I was immersed in her life, and her myspace made me feel like I knew her, if only for a moment. It offered me a glimpse into her life, the kind of person she was, and the way she interacted with people around her. It made the loss all the more extreme.

When we read obituaries, it is often hard for us to fully connect with them and feel the impact of each death personally. Perhaps this is a good thing. Most obituaries focus on how good the deceased was, how loving, how kind. I do not doubt that any of this is true. Mydeathspace, however, focuses on more than just the words of others when offering a memorial – it allows us to briefly enter the deceased’s life, to get to know them for an hour or so. In doing this, we come to view them as more than just a collection of adjectives. We don’t view them by their full stop. We see their flaws, their bad grammar, their posed pictures and the youtube video they posted the night before it happened. We see them as human, as they were in life rather than death. What could be better than this? With a social network memorial, friends are constantly posting memories, family members are tagging baby pictures, and comments from acquaintances fill up the page on public holidays. They don’t wither like flowers at a grave. I don’t want a tombstone for these years, a sentence supposed to define me that ultimately says nothing about me. I’d rather have a Myspace.

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