Shiny Happy Internet

This morning I noticed an emotional thread on Reddit, a popular, user-generated, social news site. The thread began as an IamA/AMA (“I Am a [blank], ask me anything…”) where a pseudonymous poster (‘lucidendings’) described having only 51 hours to live due to a long battle with cancer and having chosen to die under Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act. While reading through the comments, it was difficult not to get caught up in the emotion around this post and the outpouring of (mostly) kindness toward this person. I’m a sucker for these kinds of stories, the #ShinyHappyInternet as my friend Jen often jests, and I regularly use such examples in my presentations (e.g., Help Me Fix My Last Picture of Mom, Kathleen Gets a Toy Shopping Spree).

If you follow the story through the thread, you will see remarkable things. For instance, the thread itself (at the time of writing) has over 6500 comments, the majority being kind & generous. There’s the user-generated map featuring warm, heart-felt messages from across the globe. There’s the touching but short-video from a Youtuber featuring a star-balloon as it rises to the sky (wait for the smile at the end). Then there’s the flurry of people attempting to stream the sun rising in Key West as it was identified by lucidending’s as a favorite moment in life.

Yet, the entire time I read through these threads and viewed the kindness of strangers, I thought to myself, what if this person is lying? It happens (thanks Chris). In this case, we may never know for sure. But how demoralizing could this be for a community (online or not)?

But maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe the humanity that emerges here in times like this is enough for us to be optimistic. Jen notes,”That whole thing is a good example of an occasion where it doesn’t matter if the original post is authentic.”


In digging deeper into the original thread, I find this gem. One Redditer, in critiquing the outpouring writes:

…another bandwagon to jump on. Just like the TSA and Wikileaks, reddits short attention span settles on the death of a complete stranger.

Countless people around the world are going to die today. Almost none of them are going to make that choice, almost none of them are going to choose to die today.

Lucid got to choose when to die. He gets to prepare. Not one tear for all the other deaths, but a thread of people bitching about onions for this guy.

He deserves the attention he’s getting. What he’s gone though, and what he will do through in the next few days… well, none of us could ever comprehend it.

And this is countered with the following …

I think you fundamentally misunderstand the outpouring of emotion for Lucidending. The outpouring of emotion is for all those faceless and nameless deaths, for our own deaths, and all the ones before and since. The outpouring of emotion is a small window into our own mortality and humanity, and with it the pain, love, joy, and despair of them all.

Lucidendings, if your destiny is as you describe, I feel nothing but warm thoughts for you and I wish you all the best on your journey. In any case, your post has inspired others to be generous, caring, and inspiring to others. I can still believe that the Internet, and of course the world that it reflects, is a (mostly) shiny, happy place.

So what are your thoughts on all of this?

Update: As was somewhat suspected, lucidending’s story may have been a hoax. Gawker’s Adrian Chen has taken responsibility for the hoax, although that story is also being disputed.

16 thoughts on “Shiny Happy Internet

  1. I read through most of the thread last night, and decided that I didn’t care if it was a hoax or not. If it was, it was extremely well crafted, right down to the brief and autocorrect-goofed entries expected from a new iPad user.

    But, even if it turns out to be some idiot trolling Reddit, it doesn’t really matter. It made me think about my own mortality, and about what I’d do if I ever have to deal with a similar situation. Scary stuff, and stuff that I wouldn’t otherwise spend much time thinking about. Dignity, mortality, coming to terms, and owning your own choices. All powerful things to contemplate. If it turns out to be trollbait for lulz, so be it.

    • Speaking of dignity, you may have seen lucidending’s response about his last meal and how it was going to be jello and why. That made me think a lot about dignity, and something that made me feel that this was all authentic.

  2. Wow! Just a few years ago sharing experiences like this was few and far between, isolating for individuals and their families. The power and ability we have to connect with others is truly amazing.

    • It really is quite something – there is a distinct change. Things like sharing the sunset at Key West – it just seems such an easy thing to pull off these days, at least for you and me. But you have to sit back once in a while and go … woah, that’s pretty amazing.

  3. I think it all boils down to community. The tool is insignificant, people need to be connected. The internet is a powerful tool that allows us to build a community chosen from a wider population and really connect over things that we feel passionate over. I know excellent educators that are incredibly connected to their community, and ensure that students make these connections as well. They do this without the internet and it works wonderfully for them. I personally struggle to imagine being able to do that, but it boils down to the connections and community I think. There was a girl in the news a few months back in Ontario that was busted for faking cancer. Many people gave her money. In person. Just like the tools for building a community are insignificant, as are the tools for ruining the trust in a community.
    To me the internet is definitely a shiny happy place. And so is my small town when I walk downtown. And my small high school when I walk through the halls. Community in general makes me happy. There are always those who struggle to see this importance, and can test our strength as a community, but as long as we are thinking critically – like questioning this post and pondering…. shiny. happy.

    • Totally agree. I’m pretty community-minded, although I’d say I live a stronger online community component in some respects. But you’re right – at the end of the day – thinking critically about these things is crucial. And I too prefer shiny & happy. :-)

  4. I have helped people I will never meet. One was a bit of a disaster because it turned out we were dealing with someone with a personality disorder. People gave her money, and I came to regret it. She thankfully was finally able to move herself and her pets from a dangerous situation, so it ended well in that sense. Was she telling the truth? Very likely. But seeing her unopen to options made things gut wrenching to say the least.

    I helped a man “get out of a foxhole,” in a horrible nursing home situation he was in. Sadly he never recovered enough to return home, but at least he and his SO were able to move him closer before he did die. Long and short is that he was stuck by son in a psych ward, and because he and SO were not married, she didn’t have any say for a while. I researched elder law attorneys for them and even interviewed a few before sending her a short list. I wish I had gotten to meet him, as he had been supportive of me. At the end I was the community’s connection to him and to his SO. I was the one who told everyone else he had died. Felt like a sacred bond there. I’m probably one of the few people who knew his real name, too. And probably one of the few who had ever spoken to him on the phone. His request “help me get out of this foxhole,” will haunt me the rest of my life. Was his reference to his service in Korea which caused him to suffer greatly from PTSD.

    We assume that connection to strangers over the internet is not as real as saying hello to people across the street. I have stronger bonds with people from online than I do with people across the street. Only time we ever talk is when there is a power outage.

    Have I been taken in by people online? At least once that I know of. Being online makes it easier for people to be pathalogical liars. But overall I’d rather help than not. It is difficult because I do tend to take people at face value. The one person emailed me an apology, but once that trust is broken it is hard to regain. However that is true with real life people as well.

    There are always risks with any relationship. I prefer to trust. Sometimes that means I get hurt, but so be it.

    • Woah, the foxhole story would haunt me as well. It’s great that you are doing these things and putting trust first. I guess that’s all we can really do – have a bias for trust before mistrust. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

      • If you have had interactions with someone, it makes it much easier to tell if someone is telling the truth. I do sometimes try to ask questions to ensure that I am not being taken in, but one can never be entirely certain. You always here, “You think you know a person,” or, “I knew him all my life.”

        My friend’s ex is a sociopath. Last time I saw him he smiled so charmingly that I started to smile back. I had to remind myself of what kind of person I was dealing with. I have no doubt he has fooled a lot of people online and off.

        All you can do is trust you gut after examining big picture. Do certain things seem consistent? I did what I did for my friend ’cause he had been there for me, and there were no holes in his story. He was always authentic with me and with others.

  5. How we feel about a given situation is the only authenticity. The person writing it has emotional attachment whether fact or fiction, the reader has an emotional response based on personal experience and those that follow do so based on their own emotional clock. Regardless of the intent our emotions are our compass to the world, our connection to the living be it human, animal or plant.

    We should never regret something that made us feel for that’s what makes us human.

    • Great way of putting it, Tammy. One of the best things that often come out of these stories are the personal pieces people add and share in these threads. It’s emotional but grounding to read the stories of loss and sadness. The underlying human spirit binds us in these cases, and gives us something all to hope for … to strive for.

  6. Thanks for sharing Alec.

    I think the beauty of stories like this does not necessarily lay in the thread, but in the by products. The 2.0ness of the emotions you described. I love our ability to uncover something inherently human and tender in a thread on Reddit and turn it into film or art. I love the feeling of passing our humanity through the filter of our humanity and seeing what comes out.

  7. I agree with the countering comment above. The story itself gave people the opportunity to be at their best, their most compassionate. Surely that would improve their own lives, to know that they can care in that way.

  8. Years ago (before the posted date on the link) I read this and then blogged about it… it stayed on my mind for a long time and came racing back to me as I read your post.

    The community we build online is real. The connections we make are real. The concern we have for others, for their lives, for their stories… real.

    The only sad thing is that if this is a true story, the thread will likely be the end of the story, whereas if it proves to be fake there will be a backlash of upset and loathing. These fraudulent reports make us doubters and skeptics that often add a bit of bitterness to our ‘Shiny Happy Internet’.

    I’d rather think this a wonderful story, and then just let it be. Thanks for sharing Alec!

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