Kaycee Nicole would be 29 today...if she had ever actually existed
May 19, 2011 7:47 PM   Subscribe

On May 20th, 2001, Kaycee Nicole's blog was updated with a confession by her "mother," Debbie Swenson: Kaycee had never existed. Debbie had made her up. Metafilter was part of the reason she was forced to do that.

Kaycee Nicole was supposed to be a 19-year old college student. She volunteered with then-popular website CollegeClub.com (now offline). She played basketball on her school's team.

And she was dying of leukemia.

Kaycee Nicole had a blog called Living Colours (now so offline that even the wayback machine can't help), on which she chronicled her struggles against cancer. Readers supported her every step of the way, calling her, sending her cards and gifts, and spreading the word about the beautiful young girl who was fighting the good fight.

And then it was over.

On May 16th, 2001, Kaycee's blog was updated with the following: "Thank you for the love, the joy, the laughter and the tears. We shall love you always and forever. Kaycee Nicole passed away May 14, 2001, at the age of 19." Kaycee was dead, during a trip to see the ocean before she died. The administrator of her blog (a Mefite; if he would like to identify himself in this thread he's welcome to, but I hesitate to do it for him), who had been planning a trip to Kansas to meet her, was left stunned and mourning - as were Kaycee's readers.

And then something happened. The day after Kaycee's death was announced, a satirical blog post went up on Saundra Mitchell's blog: "Your Guide to Faking a Life and Death Online". It didn't mention Kaycee by name, but many of the "tips" the post provided aligned with things in Kaycee's story. The day after, Mitchell made another post spelling it out: yes, she had been talking about Kaycee Nicole. In the second post, Mitchell listed things she had researched in an attempt to either verify or disprove Kaycee's story: she'd researched newspaper obituaries both local and non-local to where Kaycee was said to live. She called the local paper in Peabody, Kansas to double-check; the editor there said if any teenaged girl in his area had been dying of leukemia, the paper would have written about it well before it became obituary time. Mitchell suspected that the administrator of Kaycee's blog was in on the hoax due to timestamps and source code found on the blog.

That's where Metafilter came in. In perhaps our first "collective detective" moment, members of the site jumped off from Saundra Mitchell's blog posts and began digging. They turned out a house of cards. Posters discovered that "no one, not even those who spoke to Kaycee frequently by phone, had ever met her in person." Photos of Kaycee were badly photoshopped. All references to Kaycee receiving cards and gifts had been removed from her blog. There were false leads, but evidence continued to mount.

Soon, even her supporters were doubting. And then Debbie confessed. Because Kaycee's blog is offline and inaccessible by Wayback, all that remains are quoted segments of the confession in posts made by other people. "while debbie has admitted to writing the blogs as an amalgam of three people whom she loved who all suffered from various forms cancer, she told me that the stories told in the blogs are real. they happened to these people." "My intentions were good, but that does not begin to excuse me for what I have done. My only desire was to share their triumphs and tragedies in a way that showed their strength, the strength of their families. Those were not false. What they went through was real, I felt a great need to tell the stories of three courageous people who wanted nothing but to be well and live happily into their prime."

Anger was swift, and the news media took notice. The New York Times. The Guardian. An FAQ. A yahoo group so that Metafilter members could continue following the story. Debbie Swenson was investigated by the FBI, which declined to pursue the matter because it hadn't involved sufficient financial losses.

Ten years later, little is available in the news media about Debbie Swenson or the victims of the Kaycee Nicole hoax. What effect has the hoax had?

Well, there's a name for what Debbie did now: Münchausen by Internet. It's happened since; Kaycee Nicole is no longer a unique case. But she's still one of the first.
posted by badgermushroomSNAKE (27 comments total)

This post was deleted for the following reason: Heya, you clearly put a bunch of work into rounding this up but I have to agree with the sentiment that since there's not really apparently anything new in all this it feels kind of out of place as a "ten years ago to do in (sort of) Metafilter history..." kind of thing. -- cortex

This is my first FPP; I hope I haven't stepped on any toes by doing it on a subject so intertwined with the history of the Mefi community. In addition, I was involved in the writing of the Wikipedia article on Kaycee Nicole; mods, if that's the slightest bit un-kosher, please feel free to remove that link from the post.
posted by badgermushroomSNAKE at 7:49 PM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Apparently, MetaFilter's use of a period in obituary posts to designate a respectful moment of silence also originated in a Kaycee Nicole thread.
posted by infinitywaltz at 7:55 PM on May 19, 2011

It might count as a double, since all of this has been discussed on the front page before. Anyway, it seems a little too self-referential.
posted by JHarris at 7:55 PM on May 19, 2011

Oh, those where the days. Well worth retelling for the new kids, though who weren't here then. But perhaps on the gray not the blue.
posted by John Kenneth Fisher at 7:57 PM on May 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

Yeah, feels a bit self-linky and self-referential to me.
posted by unSane at 7:59 PM on May 19, 2011

I think that's the first time I heard of MetaFilter.
posted by klangklangston at 7:59 PM on May 19, 2011 [4 favorites]

Now, you can get sued for things like this.
posted by timsteil at 8:02 PM on May 19, 2011

What a strange and deeply sad story. Thanks for putting this post together, badgermushroomSNAKE.
posted by byanyothername at 8:03 PM on May 19, 2011

other than saying "interesting", I'm not sure what the discussion is here.

But, that was a nice job of putting the post together.
posted by tomswift at 8:03 PM on May 19, 2011

It is kind of a "best of the web", though.
posted by neuromodulator at 8:03 PM on May 19, 2011 [10 favorites]

I remember watching this happen and going from belief to disbelief, and then feeling that, ok, the internet is here now and if someone wants to know every detail about me, they will be able to.
posted by nile_red at 8:04 PM on May 19, 2011

Apparently, MetaFilter's use of a period in obituary posts to designate a respectful moment of silence also originated in a Kaycee Nicole thread.

Interesting. The Wiki doesn't know this. (The thread actually contained several blank posts, as well as ::: notations.) It's months prior to 9/11, which I'm sure we would prefer be the origin.
posted by dhartung at 8:04 PM on May 19, 2011

Well worth retelling for the new kids

I wasn't here then (didn't start seriously lurking until 2004 and only recently joined), but the Kaycee Nicole story has been part of my conception of what Metafilter is for awhile now. Same with the 9/11 thread. The fact that Metafilter has a cultural memory which developed over time around events like this, and is strong enough to be passed on to someone like me who wasn't there, is one of the most amazing things about this site in my opinion.
posted by postel's law at 8:14 PM on May 19, 2011 [6 favorites]

I think that's the first time I heard of MetaFilter.

posted by milarepa at 8:16 PM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm glad to learn of this, being one of the new people. I'd heard of the story of course, but not the mefi involvement. I do think that all front page posts should contain some bit of new information however. Other then that I think you have the makings of an excellent FPP writer, something that I've not even contemplated.
posted by Canageek at 8:16 PM on May 19, 2011

I wrote the original posts that kicked it all off, after a friend asked me to look at Kaycee's death posts. I'd never followed the blog, and Becky just had a gut feeling something was up. After I read them, and poked around a little, I agreed, and wrote my first post on the subject.

Shortly thereafter, Acridrabbit sent me an e-mail, asking me if if it was okay for her to link that entry from Metafilter. "It's kinda big," she said. "You might get a lot of traffic."

By a lot of traffic, I figured a hundred hits or something. I genuinely thought this was a small, online journaler scandal. I had absolutely no idea how big or how wide or how deep this all went.

It's hard for me to believe it was ten years ago. When I do interviews and talks about my (fiction) books... I still get asked about Kaycee Nicole. And my username here is the same name as my online journal where I posted. I joined Metafilter to comment on some of the discussion and to clarify some things I'd said.

Wow, seriously, ten years. Doesn't seem like it at all.
posted by headspace at 8:24 PM on May 19, 2011 [21 favorites]

the case was turned into a law and order: criminal intent episode: http://lawandorder.wikia.com/wiki/Faith

No mention if metafilter on the show :(
posted by askmehow at 8:26 PM on May 19, 2011

I'm fascinated by this: I wasn't a member then, although I have a faint memory of the hoax, and I was probably reading Mefi at the time, along with Boing Boing and other such sites.

For someone who wasn't around at the time, this is a fascinating post, and a good illustration of the depth of this community.
posted by jrochest at 8:27 PM on May 19, 2011

IIRC, back even before that, there was someone on alt.callahans who did that. I forget if they actually "died", but many of the same sorts of strung-together stories and deceits.
posted by rmd1023 at 8:30 PM on May 19, 2011

Man, I loves me some smug 20-20 hindsight.

"Do I think Kaycee is real? YES. I have read her blogs many a time, and they are too emotional, too touching, and too compelling NOT to be real."

"STOP! STOP!! STOP!!! this is deplorable. it's making me sick to my stomach! i have spoken to kaycee on the phone, as well as her mother, numerous times. i can assure you kaycee was quite real."

"Let me first say that I'm 99.9% sure this is not a hoax at all (like I'm 99.9% sure that gravity pulls things down towards earth)."

"I have worked in ER and critical care for a long time, and have an ER/critical care nurse's highly suspicious nature and and an intensely sensitive BS detector. I don't think I can be fooled very easily over a long period of time. "

And the bending over backwards to rationalise it all:

"Does any of the above conversation dim the light she brought into my life? No."

"More than anything, I feel surrounded by love. Take Kaycee out of the equation: You have a community of people who loved together, hurt together, learned together and consoled each other. "

And the flashbacks! Matrix quotes. Steven Den Beste! Ah, good times.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 8:32 PM on May 19, 2011 [7 favorites]

In perhaps our first "collective detective" moment --- I'm pretty sure I coined that phrase.
posted by crunchland at 8:33 PM on May 19, 2011

er. maybe not. "© The Collective Detective, 1996-2011"
posted by crunchland at 8:36 PM on May 19, 2011

I'm pretty sure the Law and Order episode was actually based on the Anthony Godby Johnson incident which was also the basis for Armistead Maupin's The Night Listener.

On a related note, I was rather obsessed with the same case, which is why, as an outsider, the whole Kaycee thing always seemed obvious to me for what it was when it initially unravelled (while I understood that those who were really interacting with the site differently at the time reacted differently)
posted by MCMikeNamara at 8:36 PM on May 19, 2011

Yeah, this is an internet story, not just a Metafilter story. I wasn't around yet (my five-year anniversary is in a few weeks, and I didn't lurk for long before joining) but I've heard about it for so long that I'm glad to have a comprehensive history. Good post.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:37 PM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm actually very grateful to badgermushroomSNAKE for putting this all together. I have a cursory knowledge of the whole situation, but I've always meant to go and really dig into what is clearly a fascinating story, and I've now been provided with a thoughtful and well-organized timeline with links and context. There's an immense amount to be learned from the whole tale, about humans and the internet and how deeply serious it is to lie to a entire community of people.
posted by ORthey at 8:50 PM on May 19, 2011

oh hello there Carnival Of Sadness.
posted by The Whelk at 8:50 PM on May 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

And no one believed anything on the internet ever again.
posted by The Devil Tesla at 8:52 PM on May 19, 2011 [8 favorites]

« Older Ebooks overtake print books in Amazon sales   |   Video of the first woman in a human powered... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments