From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

May 23, 1997*Virtual Show and Tell

It seems to me that one of the major arguments against the ascetic life is that all too often people who go off to live by themselves come back later to tell us about it. If people are satisfied living all alone in the middle of the desert, why don't they stay there instead of returning to this world and writing a book about the experience. This seems to me to be one of the proofs that we're social animals and that the desire for interaction is a central part of our nature.

It's not just in kindergarten and in elementary school that we love "show and tell". We love it as adults as well. The problem is that while as kids we like both the showing and telling, and the being shown and being told, as adults we're fearful that other adults don't want to see and hear what we want to show and tell, and this fear leads us to develop inhibitions that keep us from exhibiting this behavior too frequently in public. Grandmothers are, of course, permitted to exclaim "my purse is so heavy with the new photographs of my grandchildren", but nobody would let me get away with that.

Which brings us to one of the wonders of the web. The web is the ultimate stage for showing and telling without feeling that we're forcing ourselves on other people. They no longer have to politely look at the new photographs of our grandchildren (or children) and then find some way of excusing themselves from our company. Show and tell via the web satisfies our need to tell, without coercing anyone else to listen. It should come as no surprise that many people take the opportunity offered by the web to tell. Perhaps it's more surprising that many people actually want to listen.

I've more or less made it my business to seek out what sorts of information "normal" people put on the web about themselves. I've tried to examine part of the phenomenon of home pages in a previous edition of the Boidem, but the emphasis of that column was on how the building of a home page reflects and builds our identities. This time the question seems like a simpler one - what do people choose to tell about; but on close examination seems pretty problematic - why do people flood the web with "information" that seems, on examination, to be purely of personal interest.

I have personal reasons for this examination. Because I spend a very large percentage of my waking/working hours online, when my daughter was born it was only logical that I'd prepare a web page (or a group of pages) devoted to her and to the occasion. If other people aren't embarrassed by doing this, why should I be? And anyway, how many people are going to see those pages? But of course I then had to ask myself for whom was I writing those pages? If it was only for myself, then why was I posting it to the web? If it was for others, were these "others" a known entity, or an amorphous, ill-defined presence? Of course I like to think that my personal involvements somehow reflect other people's thoughts and feelings, but after an in depth exploration of "personal" information on the web, I have to admit that I'm far from sure that others don't see me in the same light that I see them. This column grew out of those thoughts. As to the directions it took ... let's just say it sort of grew on its own.

Before continuing: a short confession and perhaps an apology:

Is any of this coherent?

Births and deaths are, I suppose by definition, transitional events in our lives, and they cause people to want to report on them. Among the numerous services offered by is a section devoted to birth stories. On the main page of this section is a list of approximately 150 stories that mothers have sent in. Some of these stories are only a few paragraphs long, others substantially longer. The majority of them seem to report a wide range of difficulties encountered during birth. Perhaps the sheer bulk of so many reports cause each individual report to lose whatever effect reading it may have had on us. The mothers who write have no claims toward being authors (and apparently few of the necessary qualifications as well), and all too often the effect of reading these reports is a numbing of our sense of empathy rather than an enhancement of it.

The World Wide Cemetery is perhaps the best known of a number of examples of a "virtual cemetery". The idea is very simple, and at the same time very convincing. Friends and relatives of someone who has died submit a short memorial to their loved one which gets prepared as a web page. What follows is an explanation of the basic idea, taken from the memorial page for the person behind the establishing of the World Wide Cemetery:

It's worth noting that the description of the original idea describes a son visiting his father's "grave" even though he's geographically far away. Surely this is a logical use of the World Wide Cemetery. But my guess is that family and friends don't need these memorials for themselves - they will remember their loved ones without a web site. They want these memorials because they hope that others will visit them and be touched by what they perceive as the specialness of their loved ones. The World Wide Cemetery has about 100 entries, and it's satisfying, perhaps even relieving, that often the writing is good, and we're actually touched by people's lives.

But on the web, one successful and well thought out realization of a good idea usually means that there are quite a few realizations that are severely lacking, and virtual cemeteries are a good example of this. Numerous companies have established virtual cemeteries, though it's far from clear that anyone I know would feel honored to be interred in any of them. A North Carolina Company, Cire Computer Productions, has created Eternal Memories. They write:

which seems to suggest that, if nothing else, they seems to grasp quite well that a web page is for web surfers who somehow find the memorials rather than for friends and family.

Finding a memorial page is something that can be done by chance or by mistake, but rarely purposefully. You have to know what you're looking for. So perhaps it's fair to say that your "web page can be viewed by millions of people", but it's certainly not accurate. It can be, but rest assured that it won't be. What's perhaps even more distressing is that the $35 fee buys you a standardized web page, or part of one, that, judging from the examples so far at this site, tells the visitor close to nothing about the deceased loved one.

That''s the case with Eternally Remembered - Virtual Cemetery as well. This is a site established by a Spanish company, which I suppose means that it's improper to make fun of the English, but sometimes it's hard to resist:

Is it surprising that after an introduction such as this, Eternally Remembered has about five people listed in its Virtual Cemetery, and that what's written there is little more than name, rank and seiral number. The bulk of the site seems to be devoted to an explanation of how to pay the $25 per page required.

World Gardens lets us know a bit more about those "buried" there. But cyberspace can be as hard to come by as a real plot: When your contract with World Gardens expires, your loved one's internet page is removed and they are given a plaque in the site's "mausoleum". This service is provided at no charge.

The general lack of content of these pages, and their far from satisfying formats hardly makes your love one seem to be someone special. One particular aspect of the Eternal Memories site convinces me that this isn't the company with which to do business. One page of the site carries a memorial to the father of the family, and another page, designed in the same format, holds a memorial to the family dog. I'm well aware that pet owners have real love toward their pets, but there's something uncomfortable about giving what amounts to equal billing to your dog and to your father.

And that brings us to another topic that gets its fair share of "show and tell" - Pet Memorial Pages. Once again, there are numerous examples of this sort of page, and a number of sites that offer this sort of service. For the purposes of this column, one will be (more than?) sufficient.

Though some sites of this sort offer individual pages for each deceased pet, The Virtual Pet Cemetery strings each memorial one after the other on lengthy pages of text. About itself it states:

I can't vouch for the accuracy of the claim of thousands of visitors every day, but it may well be true. And a claim such as this once again shows that sites of this sort aren't for the personal memories of the pet owners, but are instead a way of making these personal memories public. As to the content of those memories, I can't be the judge of that, and instead offer two examples.

Of course there's no need for a page in a virtual cemetery in order to memorialize somone. Anyone who has access to a site can upload to that site whatever they choose, and examples abound of memorials for deceased friends and family members. Part of what's interesting about these sites is that instead of going to a virtual cemetery to find a memorial, you find them as an integral part of regular (normal?) web sites. Death is, after all, an inescapable aspect of life, and there's something logical and proper about our memories and our memorials being linked as integral parts of our ongoing lives instead of concentrating them in one area reserved for the dead.

Anyone who visits the Israel Yellow Pages web site, will find a link at the bottom the main page, a flame, and the inscription (in Hebrew): In Memory of Alon Cohen. People use the Yellow Pages for various tasks in their daily lives, and in the midst of those activities they're invited to visit a short and very respectfully prepared page that memorializes someone who was involved in the preparation of the Yellow Pages site. The web connects everything. It not only connects those who want to show and tell to those who are willing to be shown and told, it even connects between life and death.


That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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