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Helen Popkin
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msnbc.com
updated 8/6/2007 5:50:22 PM ET 2007-08-06T21:50:22

On December 8, 2005 at 8:40 p.m., artist Cory Arcangel performed “Friendster Suicide.” It was part of The Believer magazine launch at the P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in New York City. Somewhere between 50 and 100 audience members witnessed the act, which was prefaced in Arcangel’s blog: “Dear Internet, I am writing this to announced that I am going to commit “Friendster Suicide” on Thursday, --- > aka. delete my Friendster account. Yep, I just can’t take it anymore …

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It wasn’t the first time someone ended an Internet life, nor was it the most dramatic. Five years earlier, the suicide of Sheyla Morrison, a beloved 19-year-old EverQuest guide, rocked the online multiplayer game’s virtual community — especially when it turned out the young single mother never existed. But this and similar scams remain the attention-getting gambits of unbalanced online community members. Arcangel’s piece, performed post-broadband boom when Friendster was all the rage, heralded social networking to come.

Tongue-in-cheek like many of Arcangel’s work (which includes Super Mario video game hacks and glockenspiels), “Friendster Suicide,” nonetheless grew solemn as the artist approached the final command. He paused unrehearsed before hitting the key that completely and irretrievably deleted his Friendster account — the impressive friend count, the testimonials, the e-mail exchanges, everything. It was an intimate act, funny, graceful and sincere — nothing like the ugly grief exploitation of faked gamer deaths ... or the latest Internet atrocity dealing with real death, MyDeathSpace.com .

Still, stand back far enough, and you get a pretty interesting picture of how we Americans handle death on the Internet — just like IRL (in real life), not very well.

Founded by 26-year-old paralegal Mike Patterson, MyDeathSpace.com posts the MySpace profiles of the dead — mostly teenagers and 20-somethings. Any connected news stories are featured, as well as forums where site members discuss the deceased, his or her MySpace profile, and the manner of death. Oddly, several news gathering agencies (apparently without Internet access) write about the site as a place where youths can grieve, express their feelings, get support and hugs and flowers and teddy bears and God and the Bible and blah blah blah. It is not.

MyDeathSpace.com, with its amateur HTML, cartoon skull graphics and pop-up and banner ads, is a parasitic business that exists solely to exploit another business (that would be MySpace) — and Death. Not to worry – MySpace and Death can take it. Now let’s talk about grieving family and friends who, via Google happen upon MyDeathSpace.com forum exchanges in which a loved one’s death receives the same vitriolic snark Television Without Pity members might use to shred a particularly awful episode of “The O.C.”

In an adept Salon.com story about the site, Jamie Pietras includes an anecdote about woman who identified herself as the mother and grandmother of the murder victims discussed in a MyDeathSpace.com forum. When she dared to criticize the cruel conversation, she received this tender response: “I am sorry about your loss, but this is AMERICA, land of the free …” 

OK, yeah, let’s all never take for granted the First Amendment right that allows Patterson to operate such a site, even as he paves his way to Hell. And yeah, we’ve all heard his tired-ass offender’s refrain about how if we don’t like it, don’t look at it. (FYI: It ain’t so easy looking away when it’s about someone you love.) But maybe it wouldn’t be quite as rotten if Patterson stopped crowing to reporters that he built MyDeathSpace.com as a warning to kids about how they can die horrible deaths if they’re not careful. Because it’s A) a load of crap and B) if he’s such a genius of the human condition, then he’d know that kids will always die horrible, tragic, stupid deaths. If anything, MyDeathSpace.com risks contagion, inspiring kids to try the tragic, stupid things celebrated on the site.

Like CourtTV.com and its sister sites, Crime Library and The Smoking Gun, MyDeathSpace.com is about morbid curiosity. As someone who hits those first three sites every day before breakfast, I’m all for that — so long as you’re not a jerk about it. Black humor is a vital coping mechanism, whether you’re an outsider shaken by the evening news or someone struggling with a loved one’s death. Even the darkest stuff can be okay to laugh at.

For example, the 2006 World of Warcraft funeral massacre: A player passed away IRL (for real this time) and her team organized (and publicized) an in-game memorial for her character. While there are battle-free areas within the game’s environment, the memorial took place in a war zone. You don’t need the History Channel to guess what happened next. In a classic “fish in a barrel” maneuver, enemy fighters descended on the unarmed mourners, pretty much wiping them out. A video of the onslaught popped up all over the Internet (as these things do) and while many in the WoW community were offended, others, along with non-gamers found it hilarious. And while the late gamer's family may have been hurt, the so-called attack was not personal.

World of Warcraft, as the name implies, is about war. That’s what happens in war. Plus, it’s a game. You wouldn’t hold a funeral on an active paintball field ... though if you did, guaranteed hilarity would ensue. Less funny are the implications of a memorial for a real person held in all sincerity within the confines of an online fantasy game. As the line between real and virtual life continues to blur, it’s no wonder some of us are forgetting how to behave.

Like I said, we Americans aren’t very good with death in the first place. Better hooked up to a thousand tubes in a hospital than acknowledge that this all inevitably ends. But in the pre-Internet world, most adequately socialized people knew how to utilize black humor appropriately.

It’s okay to riff on someone’s Darwin Awards manner of death in the comfort of your living room, but you wouldn’t write ROTFLOL in the funeral guest book. That’s what the jerkwads over at the MyDeathSpace.com forums don’t get. It’s also the InterWeb paradox we continue to wrestle.

© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints

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