For the Jana Pittman types among us who like nothing better than to bask in drama of the highest order, the Internet provides a global stage for Oscar-worthy performances.
Web-based histrionics can take many forms; the highly amusing Encyclopedia Dramatica -- which chronicles outbreaks of online drama and profiles the perpetrators -- is bursting with tales of victimisation, threats, cyber bullying and vicious rejections from elitist blog communities.
Perhaps the most dramatic of all dramatics is the faking of one's own death online. While we've all received versions of the old "I will be dying shortly, but am feeling inexplicably benevolent; please forward your bank details immediately so that I may siphon my funds into your account, you beautiful stranger" e-mail, there are a disturbing number of people who take their false claims several steps further.
Online death-fakers orchestrate their demise via their personal blog or a discussion forum. Having established a formidable Web personality, interacted with other users and developed friendships, they suddenly start referring to a rapidly developing illness that ultimately claims their life.
News of the death will usually be communicated by a "friend" or "relative" who just happens to be privy to the deceased's username and password, and whose first priority following the tragic demise of their loved one is to log on to a forum or blog community to tell a bunch of strangers the sad story. This will often be followed by pleas to "never forget [insert name here]", and a plan to establish a memorial Web site in their honour.
It's all pretty disturbing stuff. So why do people do it? The main reason is a desperate need for attention. In his article Munchausen by Internet: Faking Illness Online, Marc Feldman makes reference to Munchausen syndrome, a condition in which perfectly healthy people "wilfully fake or produce illness to command attention, obtain lenience, act out anger, or control others". "Munchausen by Internet", he contends, merely transposes the fakery from the hospital room to the online forum or blog community.
This makes a lot of sense. In moments of teenage petulance, surely many of us have responded in our heads to irritating parents/friends/paramours with "Yeah well...what if I died? Then you'd all be sorry!". Faking a death online is the ultimate extension of that thought process. It's a heady ego-feed, because it allows the apparently deceased to witness the emotional aftermath of their own demise.
Another reason for staging a shuffle off this mortal coil is the evasion of looming debt or responsibilities. In March of 2005, a girl known as "Lara*Jane" faked her own death on the hugely popular Vogue Australia forum by posting as her sister and claiming she had succumbed to meningococcal disease. In her grovelling apology, posted after a savvy forum member pieced the clues together and threatened police involvement, Lara*Jane wrote of how she owed so much money and goods to fellow Vogue forum members that a fake death was the only way out:
Over my year on the forum ive had a great time, made new friendships (which have now been broken) and developed an insatiable habit of buying clothes, which I simply cannot pay for, thus my departure from vogue
Members who had been duped were, on the whole, underwhelmed by Lara*Jane's pleas for understanding. They were also mightily unimpressed by her choice of fatal disease, as the member "MsShopAlot" wrote:
But like.. why not a less *WOAH PUBLIC ALERT DISEASE WARNING WARNING AROOOOGA AROOOOOGA CHANNEL 10 NEWS UPDATE* sort of disease??
It seems the awareness of online death faking is on the increase, however. The LiveJournal community "Fake LJ deaths" has been established with this mission statement: "This community was created to "out" those who fake their deaths/illness on Live Journal". The community maintains a list of Live Journal members who have bounced back from the grave, including one man who was falsely reported to have died in the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001.
So there you have it: if you accidentally register the highest bid for a piece of toast resembling the Virgin Mary on eBay, don't think you can get out of it by playing dead. You may be named and shamed.