Snippets From SXSW Interactive 2003

User Not Found: Dealing With the Death of Online Friends

Saturday, March 8, 3:30-4:30pm
Death is not new to avid bloggers and others active in Internet communities. Whether it's "killing" off an online persona, an online friend inexplicably dropping offline, "killing" an opponent in a gaming community, or literally dying, death can be as bewildering or heartbreaking as death in the "real world." However, there's no Kubler-Ross manual for online communities, so Dana Robinson, community manager of a site for chronically ill children, set out to explore the subject. She launched in January of this year, sharing her research and inviting comments from those who've experienced the death of online friends. Her impetus was not entirely objective. An online friend she knew was chronically ill suddenly stopped communicating. Was he tired of communicating or worse?

So far, Robinson's discovered several important things. The protocol for handling the death of users, even large user sites like Yahoo!Mail and AOL Online, are as varied as the number of ways to die. Small niche communities may not have even broached the subject, while others have borrowed from traditional methods.

"In some gaming communities, I've seen that they've scheduled mourning events, kind of like online funerals," Robinson says. "I think it's really interesting that groups 'at war' with each other will put down their weapons to come together to memorialize."

Other communities deal with a death by keeping the account of the deceased "alive" with a "rest in peace" message, while others provide mourning pages where other community members can post their thoughts.

"The worst thing is to have no action, as if [the death] didn't happen," Robinson says.

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