Kaycee Nicole was a teenage internet star living with terminal cancer. Her 2001 death was a tragedy -- until people began to suspect there was more to her story.
Hers is just one of the fraudulent deaths featured in Pseudocide, a new podcast exclusive to Spotify and produced by Alice Fiennes and Poppy Damon, who explored the ethics of true crime in Murderabilia. The nine-part series delves into the history of people who've faked their own deaths for profit, mischief and self-preservation. Cases range from the medieval Joan of Leeds, a nun who abandoned her vows for a life of "carnal lust," to Ramon Sosa, a former professional boxer who faked his death when he found out a hit man was out to get him. Many of these "deaths" were real-world hoaxes, but the Kaycee Nicole story is a reminder that a death in cyberspace can still touch people in the real world.
On the surface, Kaycee Nicole was a high school basketballer, active in online journaling communities and on CollegeClub.com, an early social media site. She was charismatic, optimistic and thoughtful. She wrote poetry and documented her day-to-day experiences with terminal leukemia on her blog, Living Colors. She also forged real connections with her readers, making phone calls and exchanging gifts with the friends she made online. When she died, they mourned. But others noticed discrepancies in her story.
The story isn't just a mystery, it's a glimpse into the culture of the internet 20 years ago. Not everything was different then -- many websites we use today, including CNET, were around at the time. But many online communities were smaller and more fragmented. The internet opened doors for writers, giving them opportunities to find audiences and hone their craft. But it was also seen as a kind of Wild West where there was no guarantee a person was who he or she claimed to be.
Author Saundra Mitchell was one of the first to question the discrepancies in Nicole's story. In the podcast episode on Nicole, she discusses the delicate balance of trust and suspicion online. The emotional bonds were real, but meeting up with someone you'd become acquainted with online was considered a risky step.
"It's ax murderers all the way down," jokes Mitchell on the podcast. But the anonymity didn't stop people from making real connections -- Mitchell met her wife on a newsgroup dedicated to vampires.
In that environment, where emotions ran high but uncertainty was the norm, questioning the facts of a recent tragedy was explosive. And suggesting that the death of a teenager might not've happened at all was controversial. As people began to dig into the truth about Nicole's life and death, the resulting scandal broke onto MetaFilter before making headlines in The New York Times, The Guardian and beyond. (Don't click those links if you don't want to know all the twists and turns of the story.)
Fiennes and Damon are the award-nominated producers of Murderabilia, a podcast series about the lucrative market in serial killers' possessions and other grisly collectibles. In an email interview, they discussed the process of making Pseudocide and what these stories can teach us about the changing internet landscape. Their answers below have been lightly edited for clarity.
Q: Your series covers nine cases of fraudulent death, going all the way back to the Middle Ages. What interested you in the subject, and how did you choose which stories to explore?
Damon: I was working in the BBC radio newsroom in May 2018 when Arkady Babchenko, the Russian journalist, announced to a press conference that he had faked his own death. It instantly sparked curiosity in my mind. What does announcing to the world that you are dead and seeing obituaries spring up about your life feel like? And I was desperate to know: Did he feel guilty about telling a lie? Alice and I are always interested in covering subterfuge and trickery, so the idea of faking your death seemed like a good area to explore. When we found out there was a word for it -- well, we knew we were onto something!
Fiennes: Faking your own death is such an extreme thing to do. We wondered what might drive someone to erase their whole life. Poppy and I are also always keen to find different takes on true crime. Lots of true crime takes the approach of trying to solve a mystery. Stories of pseudocide are about transgression and wrongdoing, but these aren't whodunit cases, and the missing person has been found. We were interested in asking broader questions, like what might an act of transgression reveal about social values at a given moment in history? For example, we looked at the case of Grace Oakeshott, who faked her own death in 1907 to avoid the shame of divorce in Edwardian England.
Episode 2 is the story of Kaycee Nicole, a teenage blogger who was said to have died of leukemia. As you mention in the episode, there's no shortage of people faking their deaths online. What was it about the Nicole story that drew you in?
Fiennes: This story hasn't been reexamined much since 2001, and we were intrigued by the idea of looking at it through the lens of the present. Kaycee Nicole tells us about early days of the internet. Back then, lots of people saw it as mysterious and a new frontier. Now everyone has the internet in their pockets. Some aspects of internet culture are completely different today, but some have stayed the same.
Damon: It's easy to feel like the internet as it is now is how it always was. That is not the case. Kaycee Nicole's story takes us into the world of the late '90s blogging scene. We loved hearing about the way people once used the internet and the mistrust from others who weren't online. This was a time when people thought it was totally mad to meet up with a friend from the internet. It's fascinating to go back and remember what the promise of the internet was for so many people. To many it seemed like a chance to be anyone, to live beyond race and gender and exist in a digital utopia. I find mapping how it got so far away from that promise really fascinating, almost like a Garden of Eden story.
Nicole's story is already well documented on the internet. Did you learn anything new while investigating it?
Damon and Fiennes: Although Kaycee's story has been told in short form, no one has previously pieced together all these original entries while reexamining the perspectives of the people who were there at the time. We think there is something really valuable to retelling this story exactly 20 years on. How do they look back on this watershed moment?
One thing that stands out in the Nicole story is the depth of emotion Kaycee's online community felt for her. How did people feel about helping retell the story and revisiting those memories?
Damon: Betrayal is a very complicated emotion. When you have been misled there is a shame attached to accepting it. There is a sense that you will look foolish by acknowledging that you were taken in by someone. I think even 20 years on there is a persistent disappointment that people still feel when thinking back to Kaycee's story. But what I would say is, we spoke to the most amazing people who lived through this experience, early users of the internet who thought profoundly about what it all meant. So despite there being some sadness attached to this story, it actually taught me more about human connection and friendship and resilience.
Fiennes: Our four contributors -- Saundra Mitchell, Patrick Cleary, online influencer Halcyon and metafilter user acridrabbit -- are all brilliant storytellers. We went through some of their old blog posts with them, and they were really open about the ways in which their perspectives had changed, and how they saw their younger selves. We feel very lucky that they were so candid and generous with their experiences.
We often say "the internet is forever" to remind ourselves to think before we post. But is it true? Did you run into any roadblocks researching an event that mostly happened online 20 years ago?
Damon: The internet from 20 years ago is a bit like a buried city: It's still there, but you need to dig down to find it. We relied upon digital archive the Wayback Machine to help us revisit snapshots of now deleted websites. I don't think all parts of the internet are "forever," but I don't think we have control over what's deleted and what isn't.
Fiennes: In terms of roadblocks, Kaycee Nicole's original blog, Living Colors, is no longer online, and there's no record of it on the WayBack Machine. We had to piece her journal together from reposts on other websites and forums. Fortunately, there is still lots of discussion out there about Kaycee, dating back to 2000-2001. You just have to dig in the right places.
Nicole's story took place in 2001, on social network CollegeClub.com and in the blogosphere. You describe the early internet as a kind of Wild West. How would you say it's changed in the years since?
Damon: We have seen the increasing corporatization of the internet. Most websites exist for profit. They exist to sell you something, or to sell your data to a third party. The power over the internet no longer rests in the hands of nerds, creatives and outsiders but has transferred to multinationals and states. The internet used to be a place where people escaped to, but now I think more and more people want to escape from it. I think this is a shame and I definitely romanticize the Wild West days. Of course like anyone, I am grateful for all the internet gives us and its continued evolution, but my radical side wishes we could push back just a little bit on how it operates and who owns it.
Fiennes: A few of the people that we spoke to for this story described how, back then, they saw the internet as a kind of artistic tool for connectivity -- they thought it would "heal" humanity. The internet has certainly made communication easier for some, but constant notifications and social media can also make people feel lonely. I think that, overall, people are more skeptical and cynical about the internet today than they were 20 years ago.
You also cover the case of musician Clayton Counts, whom friends describe as a prankster. Was it difficult to sort the truth from fiction when your subject was known for his tall tales?
Damon: Clayton's was definitely the trickiest story to tell, although reports from the Austin Police Department helped us build a fuller picture. In the end, it seemed to us that Clayton was more rabble-rouser than bullshitter. I'm glad that this is the case.
Fiennes: When it comes to Clayton Counts, sorting fact from fiction can be difficult. His friends were open with us about the fact that performance was a big part of his personality. We leant into this, and chose to make it part of the story.
Counts was involved in the mid-'00s mashup scene, and his Beatles/Beach Boys mashup led to a cease and desist letter and legal action from EMI. Did these battles over piracy play a part in shaping the internet as we know it today?
Damon: The internet sparked philosophical debates about ownership and copyright. Intellectual property was taken for granted for centuries, but the internet meant its regulation was suddenly up for grabs. Should art be free to all? Should information be free to all? These questions have now largely gone away, and the focus is more on the best models for creators. Piracy still exists, but the ease of using streaming services makes these platforms the preferred choice for millions of people. I don't think we would have these services had these early battles not happened.
Fiennes: Counts was making his mashups in the age of Napster and Limewire. His musical style evokes a zeitgeist and particular ways of thinking about music ownership and file sharing. These sites have now had their heyday, but debates around the ownership and remuneration of digital artwork are still with us today. Nonfungible tokens (NFTs) would seem to be the latest chapter in that story.
Were there any other famous online pseudocides you considered investigating? Any details you discovered that you wish you could've included?
Fiennes: This isn't a really well-known case, but last year a scandal unfolded with a Twitter personality called @Sciencing_Bi and a fake COVID death. We think that this would be really interesting to investigate.
Damon: Many people in the UK may expect to hear the story of John Darwin on this series, a man who faked his own death in a canoeing accident so he could claim his own life insurance policy. We didn't get to his story this season, but stay tuned for season 2! There are also other pseudocides that have taken place online, and certainly if you are looking at more modern cases, the existence of social media can be the downfall of people who are exposed. Alice and I often discuss the fact that the most successful pseudocides are the ones no one knows have happened!