Deconstructing Kaycee

By John M. Grohol, Psy.D.
May, 2001


If you're not familiar with the story, you probably should make yourself familiar by reading or browsing the The Kaycee Nicole (Swensen) FAQ. You should also take a look at this article.

Everyone enjoys a good mystery.

Online, everyone enjoys a good mystery crying out to be solved.

The mystery or story of Kaycee is one that has been told in the past, which has occurred in the past, both online and many times in the real world. A story is circulated about a child (usually) who has a terminal disease. Send money, send cards, send your outpourings to help!

In this instance, it all occurred online. This has happened before online, but usually on a much smaller, more intimate scale. In fact, I'd hazard to guess it happens a few times a day to individuals. Go into virtually any chat room and you'll find a lot of people pretending to be someone they're not.

"Well, that's different," you say.

How so? In this case, a daughter created an online persona that allowed her to do the type of personality exploration that millions of others have done online. Do you have a chat room or message board nickname? What made you choose that name over something more mundane like "John" or "Jane"?? That's you taking on a different persona online.

Munge a detail or two about your life in a chat? Lie about your age? Your gender?? Happens millions of times a day online.

When Experiments Go Bad

What makes this story different is that the daughter abandoned the persona (as most of us eventually do), and her mom picked it up and turned it into a creative exploration of coping with her own needs and experiences. She says she based the "dying of cancer" part on friends of hers that she lost to cancer. She used the persona to publish her poetry (apparently), and to pretend that she was a 19-year-old woman again.

One of the ramifications of taking on this persona in the way that she did is that some people (others say "a lot," but when you're dealing with an Internet universe of well over 100 million users, "a lot" would have to be one or two million or even thousand, not one or two hundred) got to know and became friends with the persona. This is, again, not unusual, as anybody who's been online for a few years is likely friends with a persona rather than an actual person. Let me say this again...

Because virtually everyone who goes online creates personas which reflect -- but are not accurate portrayals of -- their real selves, virtually everyone online knows someone who is engaging in a level of deceit or pretend.

What I should also make clear, though, is that everyone does this to one degree or another in our ordinary, face-to-face daily lives. Psychologists call these different personas we take on as "social masks." Online, we sometimes wear radically different social masks, ones that reflect very little of our usual real-world selves. That is because, as others such as Turkle have pointed out, the online world is a great place for identity exploration. For investigating traits and creativity in ways that simply cannot be done (or easily done) in the real world.

Without interviewing the mother, we'll never know her true motivations other than what others have said she said (and what she wrote in this email). But from all indications, it appears that this woman was doing what everyone else does online, except to an unhealthy extreme. She picked up her daughter's ball and went with it. Not just for a few months, but apparently for a few years. That certainly speaks to some issues going on with the mother, but what those issues are, we will likely never know. There is certainly something unhealthy about someone who not only maintains their daughter's online persona, but gives it a terminal illness, has it talk on the phone, etc. etc. This reflects shades of the upcoming movie, A.I., and its surrounding online game.

What About the Investigation?

Just as interesting as the identity exploration that went perhaps a little bit too far is the rabid fascination and investigation that followed. When your deceive a community of online users, the power of instantaneous communication online makes it very easy and efficient for them to put together the pieces of the puzzle.

Of course, one of the backlash reactions we're now seeing is, "Who cares?" Well, the people who "knew" Kaycee personally care, and then everyone who knows them cares, because they simply cannot believe someone could take a hoax as far as this one did. And yet, why not? Why is it so unbelievable to read the details of this incident, and then look at onself squarely in the mirror and claim we've never lied about anything online. Or in real life. To make a friend, or to make someone like us a little bit better. To get out of a speeding ticket, or get out of work a little early.

"But that's different, it doesn't affect or hurt anyone!"

The truth is, had the online community not investigated the matter as thoroughly as they did, it is unlikely anyone would have been hurt by Kaycee's "death" either, outside of the normal feelings of grief associated with loss. It is for the sheer sake of curiousity and uncovering the "truth" (as though the truth could be known or would help us understand the situation a little bit better) that the community brought the hurt upon itself.

It takes a hypocrite to sit in front of the computer and deride the insensitivity and brashness of the mother to do the things that she did. The real truth of the matter is simple and yet just as painful -- open yourself up to others and you may get hurt by them. Online or off, it doesn't matter. Online, one could argue it's easier to emotionally or psychologically hurt another. Perhaps. But hurt caused by deceit in human relationships is nothing new and nothing that can be avoided entirely.

Yes, it's a shame that people were hurt by one person's exploration (exploitation?) carried past the line. But people get hurt everyday because they allow themselves to care about others. When we all stop caring, that's when this world will get very scary indeed.

Until then, incidents like this will just make people a little bit more distrusting, a little bit more skeptical, and a little bit more sensitive to the fact that sometimes people are not what they seem. Not just online, but everywhere.



Dr. John M. Grohol is an online mental health expert and long-time Internet expert in the study of online human behavior and the interface between psychology and computers. Currently a systems and network architect, he has overseen development of both large and small site infrastructures and development. Single and living in the North Shore area of Boston, Dr. Grohol has recently had published the latest edition of his reference book, The Insider's Guide to Mental Health Resources Online (Guilford, 2002).




Last updated: 4 Feb 2018
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 4 Feb 2018
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