A few Thursdays ago, Larry Dobie left his daughter, äRRiel, a message on her MySpace page. The note read, in part:
I’m meeting with a reporter from the Boston Phoenix today to talk about you. Hoping it will help us with your book. I love you, babe.
Dobie talks to äRRiel through MySpace. He tells her about her beloved kitty, Sophie. He briefs her on SCUL (Subversive Choppers Urban Legion), the local bicycle gang she rode with for four years under the alias PigPen. He sends updates on the book of her writing and artwork that he wants to publish, promising he’ll lay out a manuscript as soon as his tax refund affords him a copy of QuarkXPress. Above all, the soft-spoken 62-year-old reminds his only daughter that he loves her, misses her, and thinks about her regularly since she died last June from “a complicated situation.”
A 25-year-old furiously creative artist and former street punk, äRRiel Alyssum Lannen had been suffering for six years from Hepatitis C, a liver condition that kept her confined in the Somerville apartment she shared with her father and younger brother Devon. Since she’d been sick, her primary hangout was MySpace, the social-networking juggernaut that’s now owned by Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp, where she volunteered as a moderator, monitoring the site for racism, pornography, and underage kids.
“I have met people who live in Hawaii, Singapore and Kansas . . . Germany, Washington, New Jersey,” äRRiel enumerated in a MySpace blog entry dated April 4, 2005. “And . . . they are my friends. Actually, truly, my friends, and not just people I chat with in little boxes of text.” She went on: “I call them at three in the morning when I can’t sleep . . . and they actually care.”
They cared so much that since her death almost nine months ago, äRRiel’s MySpace friends, many of whom never met her in person, have left nearly 600 notes in the comments section of her profile, a feedback field where users connected as friends can post public messages. The comments range from friendly weather updates from Hawaii to “I’m addicted to talking to you” to “äRRiel is the best SQUISHY princess EVER!” (äRRiel liked the word “squishy.”)
“It does seem silly to other people, but we leave comments on it just like she could hear us,” explains Daniel Berrera (a/k/a “Random”), a California friend and fellow MySpace moderator who never met äRRiel in person. “And I think maybe she can. It’s our way of communicating with her.”
While the recent MySpace media frenzy has over and above shown that the “place for friends” can also be a purlieu for juvenile officers, nosey teachers, petrified parents, procrastinating desk-jobbers, and jailbait fishers, the site has also evolved into something else: both ongoing eulogy and virtual graveyard.
It can also offer proof of the bad news. WhenAngelika Gomez, a 23-year-old editor at the Bay Area–based youth literary journal YO! Youth Outlook Multimedia, saw her high-school friend Skyler Stewart identified as a gang-shooting victim in the local newspaper, she looked him up on MySpace for confirmation. “I can mourn him without having to go to his viewing or funeral, where I would have felt out of place as an acquaintance from high school,” she explained in a piece for Pacific New Service’s New America Media, a sister publication of YO!
The site’s role in grieving has also given birth to a kind of hydra-headed MySpace death culture, mostly colonized by complete strangers to the people who are now gone. College freshman Taylor Behl, who died last year in Virginia, has at least three MySpace memorials in her honorcreated by people she didn’t know. Orange County teenager Joshua Ballard left a suicide note last November in the form of a MySpace bulletin — the site’s equivalent of a mass mailing — and has since become Internet infamous, sparking nasty flaming wars, online harassment of his friends, and mocking spoofs. There’s even a LiveJournal community and spinoff Web site, MyDeathSpace, that compulsively aggregates links to profiles of people who have died, along with relevant news reports and cartoon icons depicting their cause of death.
A good part of many people’s lives are spent on MySpace. And so, too, are some of their deaths.