This essay originally appeared in the Privacy & Perception Issue of Vice Magazine, created in collaboration with Broadly. You can read more stories from the issue here.
My father was an early adopter of the internet—he made airline reservations online in the 1990s and showed me how to create buddy lists on AOL Instant Messenger before any of my actual buddies had dialup. While others were catching up, my dad (screen name: mbai001) and I (gsbwriter, which lives on as my handle on Instagram) resorted to messaging each other, sometimes from across the room, sometimes from across the country.
In technology, my dad—a boomer who was building simple computers from his Bronx bedroom while still in junior high—saw imperfect instruments of progress. He took to the internet with the ease of a digital native, even though he was more than three decades too old to be one. There was no waving the mouse around aimlessly looking for the goddamn cursor, and there were no conspiratorial “Fwd: Fwd: Fwd…” emails. He just got it.
But he never lived to see what the internet would become for better (community building, crowdfunding, Netflix) and for worse (cyberbullying, 4chan, subverting democracy), because he died on February 16, 2004, just 12 days after Mark Zuckerberg launched the website that would become Facebook from his college dorm room. YouTube was still a year out. It was two years before Twitter and three years before the iPhone heralded the era of pervasive pocket internet. There were no emojis or podcasts to speak of, and firstname.lastname email conventions had not yet become standard. My dad left this world when the internet was an awkward teenager, circa IE6 and Palm Pilots and narrow, crowded homepages with multiple flashing elements.
My father never really got to know the internet all grown up, and the internet never really got to know my father—except as a murder victim. Twelve days after the launch of what was then called “The Facebook,” my dad, Larry, and my stepmother, Ruth, were killed inside their unassuming split-level Sedona, Arizona, home. And in the words of the court, it was done in an “especially, heinous, cruel or depraved manner.” My dad was 54; my stepmother was 55.
I was 24 and single at the time, about two and a half years out of college, and working at my first newspaper job—as an obituary writer. You can’t make this stuff up. Death had been my living, but it hadn’t, up to that point, been part of my life in any visceral way.
My dad and stepmom had only recently moved to Sedona from a Los Angeles suburb. That was the beauty of digital communications, my dad had explained: They could just pick up and move their environmental health and safety consulting practice to the most beautiful place in America.
The murderer was a 28-year-old methamphetamine addict with a long rap sheet. He entered the house with a BB gun that looked like a firearm, intending to rob them and drive away with their car. What happened next (as a quick Google search could tell you) was so much darker—and sensationally so. The ensuing press accounts of the crime soon became what you saw first (and second, third, fourth, and fifth) when you typed their names into a search engine.
Fourteen years on, my dad and stepmom’s company website is long gone, and their contact information has been scraped from online phonebooks. My dad’s web presence is mostly just linked to crime (“Double homicide in Sedona”) and punishment (“Oak Creek man gets 2 life terms for double murder”) and a few early memorial efforts, including the creation of awards and scholarships. Beyond that, it’s pretty esoteric: a preview of a 1998 Occupational Hazards magazine feature in which my dad was named among the “Ten Most Influential Industrial Hygienists,” a couple of journal articles about workplace safety, and a letter to the editor of the Red Rock News about proposed roadwork. “We are making real progress on visioning a road that we can all be proud of and that will keep Sedona beautiful,” read the letter, published two weeks before the murders.
I’ve done a little to make him more searchable, too. I am a journalist and the co-founder of Modern Loss, a content platform about living with loss, and I have occasionally written about my dad and my grief. Two years ago, on Father’s Day, I published “20 Things You Probably Don’t Know About My Dead Dad.” (No. 8: He made me a Halley’s Comet–themed seventh birthday party. The invitation, created on our first-generation Macintosh, read “Comet over to Gabi’s house…”)
Despite the mostly sad and static nature of my dad’s digital footprint, I still google him a lot.
In the process, I’ve learned a lot about his Googleganger—an engineer, proficient in Excel, as conservative as my dad was liberal, a man with a penchant for memes like “Remember bell bottom jeans? Share if you do” and “Share if you ever saw or had a $2 bill.”
I’ve also scoured Archive.org for the remains of their company’s defunct website, and have pored over every page and iteration thereof. I return again and again to the vision statement on the homepage: “To sustain economic productivity in balance with human health and environmental protection.” I hear in that sentence my dad’s actual voice. (According to Archive.org, that URL was also briefly used in 2013 and 2014 to hawkdietary fiber supplements to Japanese speakers.)
I’ve taken virtual tours, courtesy of Zillow, of their Sedona home, which our family had the insane task of preparing for sale after the crime-scene cleanup crew had finished its work.
I search for my dad, imagining his college newspaper, where he was a columnist, putting its archives online. Imagining a fiery speech he gave at an anti–Vietnam War rally or a subdued speech he gave at a professional conference, surfacing on YouTube. Imagining having access to more information from which to learn and infer. Imagining having easy access to the sound of his voice, his visage, and mannerisms. I search for him 14 years and many web generations on knowing well what I’m going to find, but hoping—always hoping—for more data.