A number of years ago, I participated in a large community weblog called MetaFilter. Back in 2000 and 2001 (I had to go and check the dates: it really has been a while), many members there were following the story of a young woman named Kaycee Nicole. She was suffering from some form of cancer, and her incredible spirit in the face of terminal disease was an inspiration to many people. When she finally succumbed, people were devastated.
Except, she didn't. She didn't exist, so she couldn't have an incredible spirit and she couldn't ultimately succumb. When someone first suggested that she hadn't existed, there were angry responses: she must have existed because her story was so detailed; she must have existed because no one would fake such a thing; she must have existed because I felt so sorry for her; she must have existed and to suggest that she didn't is a horrible, horrible thing, and you are a horrible, horrible person.
But finally, the truth came out, and people were devastated all over again because while Kaycee hadn't died, they'd lost something more precious to them: their naivete.
Hoaxes, of course, predate the Internet. Often they're mostly harmless; sometimes, they're not. But while hoaxes have been around forever, it does seem that they propagate more quickly on the Internet. Sometimes, they unravel more quickly, too. A lot of them are similar in a lot of ways to the Kaycee Nicole incident.
I hadn't followed the blog purportedly written by Kaycee Nicole, but I did follow the reaction to its debunking. Here's what I wrote back then*:
I'm not aware of, nor do I care about, the particulars of this case, but I hope that people will learn something from it; namely, that it pays to have a healthy skepticism about anything you see on the web.
The very nature of the Internet encourages this type of deception because accountability is severely limited where it exists at all. And because the medium is anonymous and impersonal. People put on faces every day. They show you the part of themselves that they want you to see. If you're dealing with the person face to face, you may still be taken in, but you have a lot more information to use to determine the person's veracity. And you have immediate feedback. On the net, people can show you a very limited piece of themselves, and they have plenty of time to refine what they say to make it credible. The net is supposed to bring people together, but that works only at a superficial level. I think it actually discourages a lot of people from forming more meaningful relationships.
I talk with people on the Internet all the time, but I try to take the interaction for what it is: words on the screen. If it's a person who's local and who I think would make a good friend, then I try to meet him, because to me, he's not a real person until I do meet him. Or at least not a complete person. When you mix the real and the unreal, you get trouble. Reading someone's page and having compassion is fine, but then crossing the line and sending real stuff to an assumed real person is asking for trouble.
I sympathize with what everyone is saying, but some of it strikes me as disingenuous. Saying things like "I'm 100% certain" that so-and-so was/wasn't involved is misguided. You can't even be 100% certain that you're going to wake up tomorrow. "It doesn't make sense that..." is not much better. People on the web do things that don't make sense all the time. I'm not saying that you're wrong, only that your certainty is illusory.
I'm sorry, but saying that it doesn't matter whether it was real or not is ludicrous. All that compassion you felt was felt for something unreal. Until you knew that this person wasn't real, you'd have said that the compassion was largely for her benefit. Now that she's not real, suddenly it was for your benefit? Compassion is not a physical entity. If you put more of it out in the atmosphere, it's not suddenly available for people who need it to take. The likely result of this incident is that people will feel less compassion for people who genuinely need it, and that's not good.
Skepticism is not the same thing as cynicism. I am not a cynical person. And I think I'm a fairly compassionate person. But it makes more sense for the actions based on that compassion to benefit people I know. Or if it's people I don't know, it makes more sense to do it through a legitimate charity.
The other thing is that the web is a public medium, similar to the legitimate press but without the controls. Anything you put out here is subject to public scrutiny. It doesn't matter whether people have a right to know: they have the ability and the opportunity to investigate, and no one else has a right to stop them.
Does honesty on the web really matter? I think it does. Fiction is fine, but don't mix fiction with real life. At some point, you will be deceiving other people who will get hurt when they find out you aren't who you say you are. And you're making the Internet, and the world, a slightly less reliable place with each falsehood. And, usually, you're doing it for your own benefit: to drive up your hit count or to garner praise from your commenters. In short, to get attention.
But skepticism matters, too. I might be dismayed when someone turns out to have been telling tales and channeling multiple personalities onto multiple blogs, but the person who's doing it is usually some wounded soul who deserves to be ostracized but also deserves at least a bit of pity. But I'm more dismayed that everyone accepts such information blindly. Even, often, after compelling evidence comes to light that someone isn't being forthright.
We are a gullible people and a gullible nation, and it gets us into a lot of trouble. Not having a healthy skepticism about what people tell you might only lead you to believe some joker on the Internet, but it might also lead you to support a war that shouldn't be fought or to vote for an administration that doesn't deserve a first or second term. The scope of the problems is, obviously, vastly different, but the causes -- a lack of critical thinking, an unwillingness to ask hard questions, and a refusal to see that people will lie to you if it will benefit them -- of all those problems are the same.
In case any of you don't know what I'm talking about, I'm talking about this. I didn't read about it there first: I can't read Durban Bud at work. I read about it first on the blog of the accused, and, at first, I thought that TJ might be mistaken, and I left a kind, albeit vague, comment on the accused's blog. Having read various posts from both the blogs in question and the people who were calling them out, and, more importantly, having recalled some of my earlier qualms about some of the blogs in question, I came to believe that TJ (and others) were correct.
I'm not going to go into specifics: I'm merely stating my reasoned opinion. In my opinion, one person is claiming to be several different bloggers. In part to get more attention and in part to bolster his own credibility. If you look at some of the posts from today, you will see not only internal inconsistencies, but the spectacle of one person pretending to be two bloggers, playing good cop/bad cop with himself.
Your opinion may be different. You may think I'm being a jerk, but then I may think you're being gullible. And you may think that it just doesn't matter whether it's true or not, but I think that pretending to be a dying person in order to get attention is sad. And cruel. And that it matters.
(*Full disclosure: I wrote that under a different nickname than the one I use here. I have two blogs, and I use that other nickname for the other blog. It is a cooking blog. I used to use that nickname when I commented on gay blogs, but then people from, say, I Probably Hate You would find their way to my cooking blog and leave filthy -- and badly misspelled -- comments, which I had to delete [filthy comments are encouraged here, but do your best on the spelling, please]. Also, I couldn't really talk about the buttsex on my cooking blog, so I started this one. I still post recipes on the other one every couple of weeks, and if you really want to read it, e-mail me, and I'll give you the URL. It would be easier to just ask for a recipe, though.)