Today I was chatting with Cara about HTML5 and CSS3, the new web technologies that are sweeping the web (well, okay, they’re really updates, but they feel all bright and shiny and new). I went looking for a favorite resource on the subject and found a 410 error, which is unlike a 404 error when a page is missing. In this case, a 410 means the page was purposefully removed with no intention of replacing it and all references to it should be removed.
I was disappointed, but hopefully wondered if such an important resource had been mirrored somewhere else. A little more digging, or in this case, googling, and I found that the author had wiped himself from the internet, utterly, just a few weeks ago. Suddenly, I went from a search for geeky information to something more like a spiritual inquiry into the meaning of life, or at least the online version of it.
Mark Pilgrim is someone who makes his living doing technology ‘stuff’. He works for Google, and worked for IBM before that. For him to not just close down his site, but also delete his email, Twitter, etc, accounts seems like a dramatic gesture. For a time, the web community was concerned for his safety, but word got back that he was fine and even annoyed that the police were sent around to make sure he was alive and okay.
The intriguing part of this puzzle is that he chose to not pass on all the information he had written for the community to someone else to foster. He did not abandon it to obscurity and obsolescence. He actively removed it all.
Debate within the web developer community has flourished in the aftermath. Was his intent to actually remove any reference to his work from the web, was he truly trying to completely obliterate himself? Did he intend that no one else use his work either and thereby making all of the mirrors of his sites that have popped up anathema to his desires? Or did the Creative Commons and GNU licenses he placed on his work separate the two and that information now belongs to the community?
There is even speculation that this was a purposeful experiment to see what would happen if someone of a fairly high profile were to do such a thing. Would the work live on without the originator and what forms would this afterlife take on?
I know I’m asking more questions than answering here, but the idea intrigues me and for every answer in a situation like this, there tends to be more questions. As I turn this over in my head, I find myself shifting to the more philosophical and spiritual questions in such an act.
Some worried for Mark’s health and mental stability. Was this ‘infosuicide’ a prelude to its real-life counterpart? Or was this more of a hari kari, a decision made with intent and not committed with the weight of emotional instability?
We then have to look at why we’re asking the question in the first place. Why does it matter if someone decides to unplug? Of course I do not know this man and I have no real stake in whether he ‘unjacks’ or not. In reality, it effects me only in the loss of the information I needed for understanding a technological tool (or almost loss, I found a mirror here). On an emotional level, though, I admit it makes me take a look at my own online presence.
I have no delusions that I could ever delete myself completely from the internet. There will always be bits of me floating among the sea of ones and zeroes we’ve all created together. I do, however, have a choice in how much I want and need to participate in it all, how fully I want to engage this experience and at what costs the time spent here effects time spent in other pursuits.
I love the internet, I have no intention of leaving. What Mark’s dramatic unplugging does is to make me assess what I am doing here, what my intentions are, and why I’m engaged at all. It also makes me think about what I’m contributing to the community and the world with my online interactions and it also makes me consider how many threads I have out there, tendrils of myself spread all over and how little control I have over any of it.
In the end, we’ll probably never know what is really going on in Mark’s head and why he made the choice he did. All we can take from the fallout of his choice is an opportunity to look at what we are all doing here and make sure that we do all of this with some intention and awareness of how publicly connected we all are, even if that intention is just to have some fun and the awareness is of how simple and silly it all is in the end.
But let us also not make the mistake of disregarding our experiences here and how they effect others. Anyone who has been in a flame war knows how emotional an interaction online be and how the hurt can be as lasting as any argument we have in ‘meat space’. The same goes for those truly happy moments we share giggling over an LOL Cat.
We all just need to remember that online life is just as real to those we chat with as it is for us, that there is another person on the other end of that tweet. So take care, post wisely, and be good to one another.