Becky Williams was one of the steady contributors to FLUTE-L, a very active (40-50 posts per day) list for flute players. Some of the list members are internationally renowned musicians -- James Galway is one -- others are professional orchestral flutists and teachers. But there are amateurs on the list too -- people like Becky Williams, a high school student whose posts indicated that she was very serious about her instrument.
Becky was a frequent and enthusiastic participant on list, talking about her experiences with her teacher, technical problems, interpretations of classical repertoire, etc. Her posts were full of enthusiasm, even if they were a little shy on grammatical perfection.
So when she announced to the FLUTE-L list that she had come down with mononeucelosis, and wouldn't be able to play the flute (doctor's orders) for several months, many list-members sent their private condolences.
Then, early in January of 1997, the list received the terrible news: Becky had contracted meningitis and died. One of Becky's friends relayed the sad tale to the list.
FLUTE-L members were devastated. It was the first time that a list-subscriber had died. The thought of that young, eager voice being silenced forever sent waves of sorrow through the list for days.
Then one member proposed that, on the day of Becky's funeral, everyone would play some of Becky's favorite pieces -- her tastes were well-known because of her posts. The idea was received enthusiastically. Here was the Net at its best. Back away from the planet and look down: amidst the daily hustle and grind, there would be hundreds of flutists all over the world playing a memorial service for Becky. Becky was no head of state, no star or celebrity. But her community would honor her memory in the best way it knew how.
As plans for the idea went forward, another list member thought it would be appropriate to contact Becky's high school, her flute teacher, and her parents to let them know about the plan.
But when the high school was contacted, the caller was told that there was no student there by that name.
The flute teacher was contacted. No, he had no student by that name; but the profile fit another girl he was teaching.
Then the whole mess unraveled: Becky, and her death, were hoaxes from start to finish.
FLUTE-L members were furious -- they had been hoodwinked, and their emotions manipulated shamefully.
The list-owners were mortified and furious. They began a relentless search for the perpetrator's true name and location. In the meantime, the culprit had tried to re-subscribe to the flute list under another name. The perpetrator -- a student and friend of the real-life model for Becky -- was discovered, contacted, and confronted with the evidence of the hoax. She sent the flute list this reply (typos and misspellings in the original):
>I would like for you to know about the death "hoax" and make an apology
>for any problems that this has caused.
> > A good friend of my family has been subscribing to the flute list through
>my screen name, my old one at least, Papaya 981. She only had an account
>through school, and they didn't let her subscribe to mailing lists. Her real
>name was not Becky Williams, as mine is not either, because our parents will
>not let us use our real names on the internet. She attempted to commit
>suicide, and I got very scared for her. She told me that she doesn't think
>that anyone cared for her. I wanted to show her that they do, and I mailed
>that message to the LIST so that I could show her what a reaction would
>happen if she had really killed herself,. I didn't mean to lie, just to show
>my friend that there were people who cared about her. I am so so so sorry
>for all of the trouble that has caused the LIST, but I wanted to help my
>friend, really!! I am not a horrible person, and I do not want my name ruined
>by this. I am sorry for all the problems that this has caused, and I truly
>apologize. I woulda sk that you not relase my name to the people on the list
>because I neevr meant to hurt anyone. I am so sorry and I hope that you are
>not too upset with me. I jsut thought that it would be better for her to see
>that there were poeple who cared, then to see her dead. Thankfully, these
>messages helped her realize that she is not alone, and I want you to know
>that i am sorry for al the pain that has been caused by this hoax, and I
>truly do not want to get in trouble with AOL over this. PLease, do not carry
>this further, I jsut messed up and am sorry for it.
> XXXX (name withheld)
The list-owners were still dissatisfied, and wanted to make sure that the hoax was revealed to the perpetrator's parents so that the incident would not be repeated. Efforts to track down and contact the parents, however, proved maddeningly inconclusive. The list owners wrote to the members:
"We also received a statement claiming to be from the perpetrator's parent. The parent's statement restates the apology and assures us that the perpetrator will no longer be using the FLUTE list.
"We responded asking for a foolproof way of talking to the parent; instead we received a voice mail this morning stating that what the perpetrator did was foolish and that she won't be having any further contact with FLUTE. Further, she confirmed the explanation in the perpetrator's confession. Again, there was no real identification, and in this case, not even the perpetrator's name. We believe this was NOT done by the perpetrator and is probably from the parent."
So the chaos concludes on an unresolved chord. The most bitter stroke for list members -- and for the Net community at large -- is that what began as a noble effort to honor a fellow community member by a ceremony of love and respect degenerated into an investigation of fraud, dissimulation, and an untestable affirmation of apology.
Of course, it was not the real "Becky" who elicited the sympathy, but a fabricated figure, a textual puppet, operated by the supposedly well-meaning friend. But the issue remains: is it worth outraging the sensibilities of 600 people in order to save another human being from suicide? From simple depression?
Morality is concerned with the prevention of suffering. But how to weigh and compare different types of suffering: outrage over being hoodwinked and the dashing of a noble intention versus suicidal depression? The Net makes it possible for ordinary folks to act on a far greater stage than ever before. The cost of this opportunity for worldwide celebrations and memorials, exchange of knowledge and formation of communities, is the concomitant opportunity for deception and destruction on a global scale.
One lesson from this incident:
A technology has truly arrived when the new problems it gives rise to approach in magnitude the problems it was designed to solve.
— Arthur Chandler, 1997
Backstory to "Morality Play"
Back in the 1990s I was intrigued by the new interest groups that were coming into being on the internet. My wife and I both play the flute, so we joined a flute list, looking forward to sharing tips and anecdotes about our instrument.
Then, one day, a notice appeared on the list announcing the death of one of the popular members. But the "death" was a fiction -- or, as such fabrications are sometimes called today, Fake News. “Morality Play” tells the story of how sorrow become anger, then disintegrates into mystification as the facts of the case become — and do not become — apparent.