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Faking Your Death Online Is a Lot Harder Than It Used to Be

In the early days of social media, death’s clammy hand was never far from a user’s shoulder.

Crafting communities still remember the day Danielle Glunt died. An active member of Etsy and Ravelry (the knitting social network), her shop Mystical Creation Yarns did a booming trade until Glunt suddenly fell behind with deliveries.

Payment was accepted but nothing sent out, fueling rumours of a scam. Then customers received an email explaining the delay: Danielle had a "debilitating illness" and was taking a break. Later, a Ravelry post claimed Danielle was dying of leukemia. Finally, another email announced the terrible news: She was dead, leaving behind a devastated family. There was no mention of refunds.

Except Danielle wasn't dead. Blog posts from 2009 and 2010 detail the "epic" hoax. According to their accounts, a new shop called Visionary Yarns appeared, mysteriously stocked with the same wools Danielle had been selling. A commenter who had defended Danielle was found to have the same IP address as her old account. Then the search went offline: a user in Danielle's hometown of Edgewood, New Mexico claimed to have spotted her shopping in Walmart. Apparently her hands were stained from dyeing wool.

Though Mystical Creation Yarn has long since disappeared from the web, images of its products remain on Ravelry, remnants of a forgotten scandal.

Image: Ben Smith/Flickr

In the early days of social media, death's clammy hand was never far from a user's shoulder. Scene queens, porn stars, terminally ill teenagers and, yes, members of online knitting communities would disappear from the forums and message boards they called home, their absence often followed by an announcement from a new account claiming to be a friend, partner, or parent, confirming their death with morbid ceremony.

The death hoax, known also as "pseudocide," was a common trope of online life. Even everyone's oldest online friend, Tom from MySpace, fell victim to a hoax on occasion.

But pseudocides are rarer in recent times. "Vanishing" oneself is more difficult; the world is simply too small a place now, connected as it is by social media and the surveillance it entails.

During the MySpace era, sites like MyDeathSpace and YourDeathSpace sprung up to verify social media deaths and to memorialise profiles. Death hoaxes were endemic above all to LiveJournal, the blogging platform beloved of misunderstood late-noughties teenagers (your author among them), which today maintains a steady following in Russia. Reports made during its heyday claimed only around 10 percent of the deaths investigated by admins turned out to be real. An Encyclopedia Dramatica page exists for fake LiveJournal deaths, and a dedicated fake-hunting account was set up to track the hoaxes.

When your life plays out in a series of burner accounts, it's easy to throw one of them away

Reading old LiveJournal death blogs now is an uncomfortable experience, like trying on an old My Chemical Romance hoodie to see if it still fits. Some read like fanfiction before fanfiction was a thing. Others are sparsely written, bizarre, and unbelievable. A page belonging to death-obsessed user "Miss Graves" appears to be written as complicit fiction; her followers are in on the hoax, but revel in its sheer histrionic drama. "Ev, I miss you so much. I'm going into rehab because of you. Wish you were here to go through it with me. RIP," says one of many comments.

Niche communities were magnets for death-related drama, their members apparently more trusting, and perhaps so geographically far-flung from each other that there was little chance of discovering a hoax. Ravelry's yarn-obsessed userbase would never have expected a dramatic death story. Similarly, members of TheCatSite.com ("a community of over 70,000 cat lovers") were left reeling in 2007, first by the death of one of their number, then by further news that the death was an elaborate fiction.

Weblog Metafilter offers another example from as late as 2012: a wife's 4,000-word account of user Holdkris99's death, replete with details of sexual abuse, meth addiction, and prison time, rocked the community before he was revealed to be alive and well in pictures found by Metafilter mods.

These hoaxes left behind scars, breeding cynicism in those tricked into sympathy. But back then, online life was a disposable thing. Facebook hadn't asked for our real names yet, so most of us went by pseudonyms. When your life plays out in a series of burner accounts, it's easy to throw one of them away.

Image: Amanda Tetrault/Flickr

In the LiveJournal days, it took dedication to track those fake-dead people down. Why did users even care enough to do so? One explanation is that they were emotionally invested: communities were smaller, and identities more carefully forged. Where Facebook provides you with a cookie-cutter profile, platforms like LiveJournal demanded creativity. To build up an online life only to demolish it was an act of radical nihilism.

But the golden age of the online death hoax is over. Latter-day attempts at internet death are at best endearingly ropey and at worst criminal scams designed to exploit tragedy. The rise of social media conspires against hoaxers; users and their cameras are always watching. One example is Dianne Craven, who made headlines when she fabricated her death from a brain haemorrhage rather than break up with her boyfriend, but was found out when Facebook pictures appeared of her living in Bali. Facebook was also the source of the pictures that revealed Holdkriss99's death to be fake.

I asked Frank Ahearn, a "Digital Hitman" who offers disappearing services and skip tracing (the process of tracking down debtors and fugitives), if it's harder to fake one's death online today. Ahearn is, fittingly, the author of a book titled How to Disappear.

"Let's say you are hiding in Japan, and a tourist takes a photo where you're in the background," he told me. "The photo is uploaded to social media and a week later, a cop uploads your photo into a facial recognition site like TinEye [a reverse-image search engine]. Boom—you're busted, because TinEye will find your photo online."

Earlier hoaxes were all about control—you built up trust with followers before springing news of your death on them. But today that control is out of our hands, and in those of anyone carrying a smartphone.

A more regulated social media has led to formalised online death rituals

As Facebook lurches towards world domination it has only made Ahearn's job easier. Recently I needed to locate someone," he said. "I popped their name into Google and located a Facebook page of who I believed was the person. I scrolled through the Timeline and on February 29 everyone was wishing her a happy birthday. Same birth date as the person I was searching. On the About page, it listed the town she lived in and had a published phone number. This took a total of nine minutes."

A more regulated social media has also led to formalised online death rituals: memorialisation was introduced by Facebook in 2009, and in 2013 Google launched its charmingly-named "Inactive Account Manager" for creating a digital will. The rules are strict: Facebook and Twitter will only freeze or remove a deceased person's account if contacted by a nominated "legacy contact," and documentation proving the death must be supplied.

And yet there are still ways to fake your death online, provided you're down for some hacking.In an interview with Canada's CBC Radio earlier this year, security expert and author Chris Rock highlighted how easy it is to have the internet declare you (or your enemies) dead: you simply sign up as a doctor, or a funeral director, then fill out the "do it yourself" death registration. It's a labyrinthine, legally risky process—impersonating a doctor is illegal in the US and UK, as is funeral directing without a license—but perhaps no more convoluted than writing 4,000 words on your fictional death from the perspective of a family member.

But in the end, would killing yourself off online ever be worthwhile in 2015? Today, social media assumes a degree of maturity of users; LiveJournal was its awkward adolescence.

We've scaled back the drama, and stopped backcombing our fringes. Perhaps what we should mourn now is not the fake loss of our fake friends but the passing of a more creative form of social network—the pain was only temporary, but it seemed very real at the time.

All in Your Head is a series that takes a scientific look at all things spooky and scary. Follow along here.