by Mark Meadows and Peter Ludlow
Carmen Hermosillo (aka humdog, aka wolftone, aka Montserrat Snakeankle, aka Sparrowhawk Perhaps) died on the 10th of August, 2008. She was found in her Northern California apartment face down on her bed. Jack, her black Lab, was waiting at the door when she was found by the building manager. Her death certificate (Santa Cruz County, #08-07590) says that there was neither biopsy nor autopsy, but the official cause of death was cardiac arrhythmia and lupus erythematosus. Other factors were involved. For several years, because of the effects of her lupus, Carmen had been taking medication that kept her heart pumping. Once upon a time she said — as a joke, we guess — that if she ever wanted to die, she just had to stop taking her heart meds.
Was it passive suicide? The evidence is circumstantial, but compelling. Her online accounts, profiles, and avatars — at least 9 of them — had been canceled in the days before she died.
It might be clear what had happened, but the more urgent question is why it happened, and as it turns out, understanding this requires a journey into a deep rabbit hole involving over a decade of online life, virtual relationships, BDSM roleplay, and a virtual island Kingdom. And at the end of journey, one confronts a single frightening truth:
The thing that killed Carmen was the thing she spent her entire online life warning us about.
We met Carmen Hermosillo in 1993 on an electronic conferencing system called the WELL. The WELL (short for Whole Earth ‘Lectonic Link) was spawned by Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalogue and was populated by lots of granola crunching, fattie-huffing techie visionaries ranging from Howard Rheingold to Mitch Kapor to John Perry Barlow. The official dogma of the WELL was that electronic communities were supposed to move us all into a new utopia of virtual barn raisings, thoughtful online salons, and democratic town hall meetings. Or that was the dogma before Carmen appeared under the name ‘humdog’ and called BS on the whole thing.
In an essay called Pandora’s Vox, she vented:
The WELL occupies an interesting niche in the electronic-community marketplace. It markets itself as a conferencing system for the literate, bookish and creative individual. It markets itself as an agent for social change, and it is, in reality, calvinist and more than a little green. The WELL is also afflicted with an old fashioned hippie aura that lead to some remarkably touching ideas about society and culture. No one, by the way, should kid themselves that the WELL is any different than bigger services like America OnLine or Prodigy. All of these outfits are businesses and all of these services are owned by large corporations. The WELL is just, by reason of clunky interface, a little bit less obvious about it.