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

March 30, 2002*: A life (sort of) lived.

Each new technology brings with it new opportunities for scams. Tom Standage, in his fascinating 1998 book on the influence of the telegraph on life in the 19th century informs us that there were more than enough con-artists waiting to take advantage of that new invention. Though I'm not sure of the precise details, among other scams people telegraphed the results of horse races immediately upon their conclusion to people out of town who were still able to bet on the "awaited" results. Without a doubt even earlier technologies brought their own possibilities of scams, and there's no reason to be surprised that today's internet is full both with updated and with original scams.

But though there may be nothing new about the fact that the internet offers new opportunities for old scams, sometimes it seems to offer more original possibilities as well. Among these the possibility of fictional life stories stands out, and among these, the Story of Kaycee Nicole Swenson is the best known.

Kaycee Nicole Swenson was (or at least was supposed to be) a 17 year old Oklahoma high school student dying of leukemia. Actually, she was a fictional character created by another high schooler, Kelli Swenson. Kelli and her friends set up a web site about Kaycee. At this particular point in her development, Kaycee was a very regular sort of girl. However, Kelli's mother, Debbie Swenson, found out about Kaycee and "adopted" her, contributing leukemia to her persona, and participating in her name in various online forums. Kaycee's plight, as described by Debbie, garnered interest and sympathy. One reader set up a web log for Kaycee, unaware that the person writing was actually Debbie. For over two years readers were touched by Kaycee's story, sending cards and gifts. Only after Debbie Swenson (who in the meantime not only continued to write Kaycee's blog but also wrote one about her own experiences as a mother of a dying child) "killed off" Kaycee did people start to investigate, ultimately discovering that the entire story was a hoax.

The Kaycee Swenson affair become the focus of media attention (both within and beyond the internet) for a few weeks in May of 2001, until receding into memory like countless other one-time burning and popular issues. Still, the affair, perhaps more than any other of its kind, came to symbolize a very problematic aspect of internet identity.

More than anything else, the aspect of this affair that seemed to cause the most interest, and discomfort, was the feeling among many readers that they'd been emotionally duped. For months people had come to know Kaycee and her mother. They felt for them and their plight. As noted, many sent personal letters and gifts. And then they discovered that it was all a fiction. People responded that "I really cared about this person, and now you tell me it's all a hoax". There was anger and resentment, and a feeling of vulnerability. Of course reality TV, and films like The Blair Witch Project play on the same chords, but we seem to feel less vulnerable toward them. Apparently we have different expectations of these (film and television are, perhaps, lies from the start), and thus are sucked in less.

Perhaps it's more a question of degree. After all, the vast majority (if not all) of us present ourselves through various filters - both online and off. And it's not just that our online lives are different than our more traditional ones. We present ourselves differently wherever we go. (Yes, I readily admit that I've covered some of this ground before.) In order to learn about various sociological issues students are sometimes temporarily required to take particular (and different) persona upon themselves. If they do so convincingly they may actually cause some emotional consternation among their "victims". This, however, is rather easily excused as "research".Candid Camera-type programs play this same sort of game, but the television audience seems not only to excuse this, but even encourage it. I can't help but turn, once again, to Oscar Wilde, who well before the internet understood how our personae are constantly changing.

Vast amounts of information pass by us every day. We usually filter out most of it, choosing what we're willing to invest our time in. I wouldn't be at all surprised if some of the stories I've encountered through my years of web surfing were highly exaggerated, if not totally untrue. I don't know, and frankly ... (it's a Gone With the Wind sort of thing). Maybe we should be surprised that hoaxes of this don't occur more often. Maybe they do, and they simply haven't been exposed. Maybe they occur frequently in our offline lives without our knowing. The Kaycee Swenson story caused quite a furor when it was first exposed, but I tend the think that the more interesting aspect of the case is the fact that it faded as quickly as it did. In the long run, someone making up a life simply wasn't that interesting.

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

Jay Hurvitz

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