Why the Craigslist Killer matters
Last night, a bewildering number of people tweeted about and tuned in to Lifetime's Craigslist Killer movie, which tells the story of murderous med school student Philip Markoff and Megan McAllister, his unsuspecting fiancee. Why was this story so gripping?
Maybe it was the passing of an era. The Craigslist killings, even though they occurred in 2009, seem to be the last hurrah of a bygone epoch online.
In Web 1.0, to a large extent, everyone's life online was a secret life. You could hide behind screen names, chat anonymously, converse with strangers halfway across the globe who shared your interests from behind the secure mask of an impersonal handle. Part of the lure of the early Internet was the limitless possibilities it held out to become someone else. It's the lure of Hyde calling out to Jekyll.
Craigslist is squarely Web 1.0. It's anonymous, with a simple interface. It doesn't do dramatic and exciting real-time things or have a cute, bird-based logo.
But it bridges the gap. Unlike other anonymous web forums, it creates the expectation that the anonymous online contact will translate, at some point, into a personal encounter -- whether it be to buy a couch or to experience some sort of face-to-face contact with the Cute Blonde at Kingstowne Wal-Mart. Usually in Web 1.0, this does not happen. I assume that the people who run the JohnHeartPaul Beatles Fanfiction community are not expecting to meet up later and do whatever people who like to visualize the two essential Beatles taking possession of each other in an erotic manner do. (Ritually destroy pictures of Yoko Ono?) But maybe I'm wrong.
Everyone has at some point trolled Craigslist, looking for something. There's housing, sales, freebies, event gigs. So far, I haven't been able to find anything that matches the skills I have to offer, since this ad would probably run somewhere along the lines of, "Need a person who is not a good bartender or dancer to show up somewhere and stand there smiling vaguely, for money." There's the missed connections page, where you can hunt in vain for your general demographic description after spending hours gazing meaningfully at people on the Red Line.
And there's the oddly impersonal personals.
In some nooks and crannies, the old anonymous Web culture still thrives. But it's increasingly clashing with the demands of the Online Presence. And the idea that you'd be able to hide behind an online identity -- even one as transparent as Philip Markoff's -- is evaporating.
You can tell from the shift in values. Facebook? Fifty billion dollars. AOL, which used to be where everyone was? A scant $3 billion. The non-anonymous Internet is taking over.
AOL used to be where everyone was. And, true, some people had the personal e-mails from the get-go, but there was also the period where the Internet meant you could be anyone you wanted. You were WhoStoleMyDonut8, or JudasTheHammacherSchlemmerOfTheMaccabees9 (probably exceeding the character limit), or ClevelandMortThePirateHunter7. Now when I get an e-mail from someone with a handle like that, I just assume he's an itinerant flute player, or someone else without gainful employment. If you have a real job or are a real person, you have to put ParisTheMythAnswerer back in the drawer.
But something gets lost there. And Craigslist killer Philip Markoff embodied this transition. Online, he was one thing -- SexAddict5385, trolling for anonymous encounters. Offline, he was Philip Markoff, slightly awkward, nerdy med school student, engaged to be married to Megan McAllister. For some people, the ability to apparently disappear into the online world, take on another identity altogether, is merely intriguing. But Philip's was a textbook case of the double life. Dr. Jekyll, medical man, interested in saving lives, meet Hyde, the lurking killer. Oscar Wilde described the peculiar allure of a secret life as feasting with tigers. The danger is part of its appeal.
These were murders made possible by the Internet. For some people, like Philip Markoff, the online identity is the real one, fantasy hijacking reality with deadly consequences.
But what will happen to this sort of thing? Although this anonymous component remains firmly embedded in some niches of the online culture, the Internet is increasingly a place where friends connect with friends, rather than a place where masked strangers meet. Is it worth having a secret corner of your life, online-only content?
Social networking makes secret lives more difficult, if not impossible. Suddenly, your online identities merge. Your ill-advised college self has to apply to jobs. After learning that a wise and noteworthy professor is following you on Twitter, you begin to worry about your tendency to deluge followers with puns. What becomes of SexAddict5385?
For now, forget Hyde. With the rise of social media, only Jekyll can get a Facebook profile.
| January 4, 2011; 11:55 AM ET
Categories: Only on the Internet, Petri | Tags: online comments, scary, technology
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