It began in the summer, three years ago, with idle chat. A conversation between myself and my friend Jared, four hundred miles away in Scotland, reached a question: Is Margaret Thatcher dead yet? Neither of us knew. We could, of course, find out quite readily; Wikipedia is always just there, but we realised that the internet was missing something, and that we could do something about that.
Two pages of HTML, one stylesheet, a Facebook fan page, a Twitter account, a little Google Analytics and a link to a Spotify playlist later, and we had a thing. A thing that would stand on the web — pretty much invisibly — for nearly six months. Parked at the freshly registered IsThatcherDeadYet.co.uk was a white page bearing an answer to that question in bold capitals — “NOT YET.” It would gather less than a dozen hits a day, aside from sporadic bursts of traffic from a celebrity’s tweet or some post in a busy forum. It was there, but nobody cared about it.
It wasn’t until October of 2010 that the site garnered the attention of the b3ta “digital arts” community, who posted the URL in their notorious weekly newsletter; propelling it into the realm of memes. Soon after, Metafilter picked it up — and promptly dropped it again with a curt “This is pretty damn grim.”
Perhaps because of its divisive nature, the web site continued to attract attention over the coming days until, on a Monday morning, my doorbell rang and a man in a navy suit, claiming to be a reporter from the Daily Mail, said that he would like to talk to me about my web site. In my house.
“No.” I said, “You can buy me lunch. I’ll meet you at the pub.”
We spent just short of an hour alternating between awkward chit chat, openly biased questioning and mouthfuls of chunky chips, and then he was gone, along with his teenage work experience intern, who had overseen proceedings doubtless baffled that this man’s job was to dig up the home addresses of potential leads from the Electoral Register and rattle their doors for a story.
Later that day, after the Daily Mail posted their piece (their web edition, the Mail Online is alleged to be the world’s most popular news site), IsThatcherDeadYet’s hits doubled, and would never again dip below hundreds per day. I took calls from BBC radio stations across the North of England, and was invited to participate in live television debates with experienced politicians. I declined. “I’m actually just a musician that makes web sites!” I said. The broadcasters were disappointed.
Ours wasn’t the first single-serving site by a long, long way; even before the likes of IsKanyeWestADouchebag.com or IsLostARepeat.com, back in 1997 there was The Last Page on the Internet. But our site appeared to attract more than just a giggle. As the fan counter on the Facebook Like button rattled upwards, commenters on our posts there became incensed; sometimes even violent or vicious. Arguments raged between hard-left anti-Thatcherites harbouring a decades-old disdain for the Iron Lady, and those who — like the Conservative Party’s official spokesperson — thought us “vulgar.” The site tapped into feelings that hadn't before been expressed, in public, on the internet.
So its popularity continued to grow, unmanned; the social sharing tools that we’d implemented gave anyone who happened across the page the facility with which to distribute it to all of their friends (likeminded or no), instantly. The simplicity of the message too, I’m certain, helped perpetuate the meme.
There were the hoaxes; some mornings where half a dozen of my friends would message me within an hour with the scoop that Maggie had died in the night. None were ever substantiated. But then there were the threats of violence, towards both myself and Jared — sometimes on Twitter, sometime via email — but, fortunately, like the hoaxes, they all came to nothing.
As the site grew more popular, we considered mobile apps, push notifications, SMS alerts and merchandise — but never for profit. We talked about finding a charity willing to accept money from a site like ours and donate it to them (if we ever made any), but all of that seemed to overcomplicate the idea. It did its job; you went to the URL and found out the answer. Living or dead. That was it.
And then, finally, yesterday, almost three years after we originally registered the domain, we were flooded by a very sudden and very certain torrent of texts and Facebook messages, emails and Twitter replies. She is dead, they all said. In a panic, I forgot the site’s password, and then put up the wrong page for a few seconds, by accident. Jared did the same.
Then it was done. The question remained the same, but the answer now read: “Yes. Margaret Thatcher is dead.” In the ensuing few hours, the then ninety-thousand Facebook Likes shot up to over two-hundred and twenty-thousand. The Daily Mail rang me again. ITV wanted me to go on television and I said no, again. And then the death threats, again.
But now we’re left with a tenement: A flat, white obelisk in the memory of a weird, spent, nerdy in-joke that sort of got out of hand. It doesn’t really do anything any more, aside from (owing to some lazy use of the shift key on my part) confuse fans of Cher and Teri Hatcher, I’m told. We’re seeing bandwagoning, which I realise was inevitable; IsDavidCameronDeadYet.com has ‘borrowed’ our code wholesale, and an apparel company in Bristol appears to have borrowed our tagline — “This lady’s not returning” — and I guess that’s fine.
It all feels somehow anticlimactic, now, but that’s the way that is with this type of thing, and death in general, I suppose. Like Thatcher herself, in her last days, the site is now redundant – a static testament to something formerly relevant, now set, simply, to live out the rest of its time becoming no more useful and no less ridiculous until its own, inevitable, end.