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.
When your life plays out in a series of burner accounts, it's easy to throw one of them away
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.
A more regulated social media has led to formalised online death rituals