Death and MetaFilter

I told the MetaFilter community today that another one of us had died. James Bickers, jbickers on the site, a member of ten years and a consistently welcome presence on the site. He was a public radio host. He liked playing the board game Diplomacy. He was 45.

When I took this job — when I started working as a moderator at MetaFilter, just part time at first, back in 2007, moonlighting from my day job at an insurance company with its surprisingly lightly-filtered internet connection — there were things I knew I knew about the job, things that were part of going in with eyes wide open to what is in ways a deeply idiosyncratic gig. I knew I’d be wrestling daily with argumentative internet people. I knew I’d be getting the occasional blast of hot-tempered abuse, even the rare post-banning threat or death-wish. I knew that I’d have to be patient about stuff that it’d feel far, far more gratifying in the short term to publicly lose my patience about.

I knew I’d be dealing with ten thousand people living their internet lives, basically, and I was prepared for that. Even on a site like MetaFilter where people tend to be a few standard deviations more decent to one another than the typical internet comments section dumpster fire, people have bad days, bad moods, bad instincts. It’s a job where you have to put up with people living through their worst moments and taking it out on you. I was ready. I knew this.

But I didn’t know I’d be dealing with people dying.

And, yes, of course I knew, in a factual sense, that people die. I knew that people on MetaFilter had died, that more people would die, that one day I would die and you will die and death is inevitable and thus and therefore. But I hadn’t really dealt with it. I hadn’t embraced it, accepted it. For a while I didn’t really have to.

For one thing: the MetaFilter crowd was fairly young. Is fairly young still. Not universally, we have folks on the site who are middle-aged and on as well, 60s, 70s, at least one nigh-on 90-year-old member who manages to make his decades-honed mark at least weekly on conversations on the site, and that’s a diversity of age that I’m thankful for. But it’s still a young-ish crowd on average, the 20-somethings that joined in the earliest days in their 30s and 40s now, many younger folks filling in the ranks since then. And the young don’t die as often, for sheerly logistical reasons.

For another: it wasn’t my responsibility. Not at first, for sure; I came on as a part time helper moderator, following eagerly but respectfully in the outsized footsteps of site founder Matt Haughey and the inimitable Vermonter librarian Jessamyn West and learning from them but letting them take the lead for those first few years. If someone died, that was news I’d hear before a lot of people but not news I was really responsible for handling. I was there, but it didn’t come down to me.

But time has worn on. And now I’m nine years older than I was when I was hired, fifteen years older than I was when I started hanging out on MetaFilter in the first place. We’re all older, the folks I recognize from back in the day and, day by day, the newer members who have signed up since. Life carries on over those years, getting better for many folks, getting worse for others. And sometimes worse than worse. Sometimes sickness, cancer, the progression of a life-long illness. Sometimes suicide.

Often young enough and with little enough warning or specificity about the circumstances that we’re left to quietly wonder. The young don’t die as often; not by accident.

But whatever happened, we’ll get a letter. An email, really, but the sort of thing that would be on paper if putting it on paper made any sense for an international web community. Wanted to let you know. Please let the community know. Please pass on the news.

Please, my husband, my wife, my son always talked about your website and I found this in their email and I wanted you to know.

And, now, it is my responsibility. Matt’s gone on to work elsewhere; Jessamyn as well. I’ve gone from being the junior hand helping out part time to being the person in charge of making the big calls and making sure everyone else gets paid each month and has life insurance. It’s not just my responsibility — we have a small moderation team made up of wonderful people who all help carry the load — but it’s not something I can dodge these days, treat as someone else’s problem, stand back and nod meaningfully along with as others do what needs doing.

I didn’t know, the way I know now, that this would be one of the hardest parts of the job.

Harder still for the nature of the internet; the MetaFilter community is unusually close-knit for its size, and filled to the brim with generally warm, wonderful, thoughtful people, but it’s not immune to the problems of trust inevitable in any community or to those particular to a place where identity is pointedly protected and communication happens almost entirely via text on the screen.

Several years ago, a user faked his death, fairly elaborately; he contacted MetaFilter’s staff posing as his own distraught wife, and she didn’t just convey to us the fact of his supposed death but engaged, on a genuinely personal level, about her grief and her confusion and her understanding of how the site had been important to him. She asked for help telling the community; she asked for advice on how to proceed. And she wrote a long, loving post about him, and followed up in the comments with anecdotes and thanks and joyful/tearful stories about his life and about his relationship with MetaFilter. She prompted, and thankfully accepted, an outpouring of love and support from folks who had grappled with loss, with suicide, with the struggle to move on without self-blame after something as terrible as having a loved one take their own life.

Fake, all of it. A none-the-wiser friend tagged him in a facebook post a week or two later after a round of golf, making what had already looked a little hinky look instead genuinely fucked and justifying definitively one of the worst feelings of uncertainty we’d ever had as a moderation team. We banned him, and I wrote a long post about it to the community to let them know what happened. And I was furious.

Because of how hard this is. Because of how real it is, the death of people who are part of the space we all share on MetaFilter. Because there’s enough death as a matter of course without inventing more just for shock value.

But more than just because of the fakery itself, I was furious because of the damage it did to the trust involved in this already difficult thing. The way it put the members of our loving, trusting community in the position of looking with distrust and cynicism at something already almost too heavy and too difficult to contemplate. And the way it left our small moderation team with the burden of being the cynics, of having to proceed diplomatically with any future bad news, having to ask ourselves: where is the obituary? Where is the death announcement? Where are the memorials? And can those be trusted?

That was years ago now, and the wound of that overwhelming violation of trust has healed significantly; it’s left a scar, but we’ve since found a balance between the trust that we fundamentally aim for as a moderation team whenever possible and the vein of pragmatism required to proceed with a little bit of caution, for the sake of the MetaFilter community at large, until we can verify things independently. It’s unlikely anyone will try to pull such a bullshit stunt again on the site, and it’s unlikely we’ll be caught off guard as easily even if they do, and mostly I try these days to not let that be the thing on my mind when someone’s loved one or someone’s social media friend writes us that difficult letter saying please. But I’ll never not think about that a little, and I’ll never not resent being made to be so cynical, even if only briefly and in private.

In the end, I’d be glad if struggling with that cynicism were the hardest part, though.

The hardest part is still death itself, the real fact of losing members of our community, of knowing that someone who was once a presence on the site — usually a welcome one, often a vibrant or joyful one, sometimes maybe actually kind of an asshole but human nonetheless and part of the history of MetaFilter— is gone now, and gone for good, and won’t be coming around anymore with a joke or an insight or an answer to someone’s question. The reminder, not too often but still far too often, that for all the seemingly everlasting legacy of writing we each leave in this community and elsewhere on the internet we’re still flesh and blood, still mortal, still bound to live only so long and less still than that if we’re unlucky with our physical or mental health.

Death as a fact terrifies me; I cope mostly by not thinking about it any more than I have to, and am still young enough and generally lucky enough to be able to put it out of my mind quickly most days if I think about it at all. But there are days when death is the subject, when the passing of a member of the MetaFilter community puts it in front of me in a way that needs addressing, sharing, recognizing.

And the size of this community, our ten thousand or so members at any given time, guarantees that it will come up regularly. And that has in some ways gotten more difficult for me over time even as I’ve gotten more used to, more skilled at, dealing with the process of receiving and vetting and broadcasting the news of one or another member’s death. It’s a weight that accumulates.

What I am thankful for is that the size of the MetaFilter community also means that there are ten thousand other people out there to help carry the load, to tell stories and to offer hugs and if nothing else to lay down a solitary period in a comment — the lone . mark our small token of remembrance on the site — and to be the broad, durable net that catches the heavy grief of death when it falls on us again. I’m thankful for the moderation team who help me manage the process of breaking these worst bits of news to the community. And in the end I’m thankful every day that I work for and with a community so full of people I am lucky to spend time with, people who without the internet I would never have had the chance to meet and to know and, when the worst happens, to grieve.

I didn’t understand that I’d have all that to count on, either.