This story was written by Keith Dawson for the Industry Standard's Media Grok email newsletter. It is archived here for informational purposes only because The Standard's site is no more. This material is Copyright 1999-2001 by Standard Media.

Lessons From an Imaginary Life and Death

Jun 01 2001 12:09 PM PDT

Web-loggers and the press look for lessons in the wake of the Kaycee Swenson hoax.

What can you say about an imaginary girl who died? Two weeks have passed since the "death" of the nonexistent Kaycee Nichole Swenson, and the torrent of words written about the affair has barely slowed. In recent days journalists have been finding new lessons in the aftermath of this convoluted Internet hoax.

Kaycee's tale was widely followed among Web loggers for more than a year. When her death was announced on May 15, the bloggers plunged into a frenzy of speculation and investigation. MSNBC was among the first of the mainstream outlets to recount the deception and its unraveling.

The New York Times' Katie Hafner turned in what may be the definitive account on May 29. The reporter traveled to Peabody, Kan., to interview Kaycee's creator in her home. Hafner noted that the good gray Times itself was taken in by Kaycee last year, quoting her in an article on computer use by college students. And Hafner elicited from blogger Rogers Cadenhead the perfect quote to describe the whirl of investigation following Kaycee's demise: "It was like a story being reported by locusts. They swept in and just pulled facts out of the air."

Editorializing on the site of NUA Internet Surveys, Kathy Foley drew a lesson for Internet businesses from the Kaycee hoax: "Do not pretend to would-be online customers that you are something you are not." And the Register, of all outlets, found hope among the ashes. Its Washington reporter, Thomas C. Greene, not ordinarily a sentimental sort, ended his piece this way: "Whether she was real or not seems beside the point; surely the experience of compassion and the impulse to do good ought to be relished regardless of the impetus."

The End of the Whole Mess

A Painful Affair of the Internet Heart

A Beautiful Life, an Early Death, a Fraud Exposed
New York Times (Registration required.)

FBI Drops Net Diary Hoax

Plucky Leukemia Weblog Girl 'Dies'
The Register