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Big Mouth: Dead reckoning

This article first appeared in issue 234 of .net magazine – the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.

Ever faked your own death? I’m willing to wager that you haven’t, but that you’ve probably thought about it, at least in passing. It’s the damp cloth on the whiteboard of life, wiping away years of doubts and debts and dead-end jobs: the ultimate reboot of your entire existence.

Not only that, but you get to see who turns up to your funeral. Wouldn’t that be fantastic?

At last, you’d know the truth about your friends, colleagues and family. You’d discover who cared about you more than you realised, who cared about you considerably less than you thought, and who’d be first to try and make a move on your girlfriend, boyfriend, husband or wife. Then, you’d jump out from behind a tree, give a few cads and rotters some minor heart attacks and teach everybody some valuable life lessons.

Is that just me? I’m fascinated by the idea, and it turns out that you can experience something very similar online without having to do the whole fake-death thing: all you need is a reasonably serious health scare.

I had one of those this month, with shadows on a lung X-ray suggesting that stopping smoking doesn’t magically erase the ill effects caused by decades of enthusiastic overindulgence. It was a false alarm, fortunately, but one that took several weeks, a couple of hospital visits and a lot of red wine before it was quelled.

Some people handle life’s big events with quiet dignity. I’m not one of those people, so I promptly went online in a blatant attempt to get some sympathy. As I discovered, the Like button becomes a very odd thing when you’re talking about anything serious.

I wasn’t expecting dancing in the streets – because after all there’s not anything wrong with me – but I was hoping to get a few virtual hugs. In the right hands, the Like button can deliver that: a friend clicking it next to your news is a wonderful thing, a gentle shoulder charge that reminds you of the real affection you have for people you don’t see as often as you’d like to.

Unless, that is, the Like they click isn’t on your post.

Something curious happens when you post something serious and people ignore it: you become obsessed with what they’re doing. Every new photograph of a fish, status update about snacks or Likes on other people’s minor news becomes a personal slight, and you find yourself increasingly convinced that their online traffic is strictly one way: they want you to see what they’re doing, but they couldn’t care less about you. Who the hell do they think they are?

Before very long you’ve created a new list called ‘Bastards’, added them to it and clicked the ‘don’t even tell me if they’re being torn apart by wolves’ button.

That would probably be a mistake, because it’s probably not their fault: chances are, they simply didn’t see it. I’ve been in that position, missing much more serious news than anything I’ve posted. It’s not that your friends are bastards; it’s that social sites aren’t very good at separating what matters from Words With Friends.

Photography: Iain MacLean

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