EMMANUEL DZOTSI: Hey, folks. Just a warning before we get started: In part of today’s story, we talk about depression and suicidal ideation. If you’re feeling depressed or just want to talk to someone, know that if you’re in the US...one resource you can call is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Once again, that’s 1-800-273-8255. We’ll put that information, as well as some other resources for people in other parts of the world, in our show notes.
Also, if these subjects are hard for you to listen to, you might want to skip this one.
Okay, here’s the show.
EMMANUEL: From Gimlet, this is Reply All. I’m Emmanuel Dzotsi.
There’s this storyline in the TV show Lost that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. If for some reason you haven’t seen Lost in, I don’t know, the 11 years since it ended, I promise I am only gonna spoil, no lie, just one part of one storyline from one episode for you.
Anyways, Lost is the story of what happens after a bunch of plane crash survivors find themselves stranded on a tropical island. But this island turns out to be full of all kinds of supernatural, incredibly strange things. And one of the bizarre, like, hard to explain events that happens on this show, and there are many, is that one day, the survivors of the plane crash discover this hatch buried deep underground in the middle of the island.
And it turns out that in that hatch, there is a man. Like, there’s a man living down there, this lovable Scottish dude named Desmond. He's been down there for years, all alone, pushing a button every day in order to reset a clock that keeps counting down, because he thinks that if he doesn't push the button and the countdown gets to zero, he’ll cause, like, this global catastrophe. He doesn’t actually know this, but he won’t take the risk, so he’s just kind of stuck. He’s a prisoner in this kind of weird private hell where he does the same thing every day to the tune of Cass Elliot’s song “Make Your Own Kind of Music.”
He pushes the button on blind faith alone, just kind of hoping and believing it has meaning—that the misery he’s subjecting himself to is worth it. I’ve always found the whole storyline pretty depressing. Desmond is constantly doubted. Other characters on the show think he’s the victim of a cruel joke, that he’s been tricked. And in a way, he has.
He’s walked into a situation, experienced personal losses that nobody truly prepared him for, and he’s completely alone with this responsibility.
I’ve been thinking about this storyline and about Lost because recently, I came across somebody who, at the beginning of this pandemic, recreated a low stakes version of Desmond’s horrible situation… like, on purpose. They thought it might be fun. But instead, it brought them face to face with the darkest parts of our society.
EMMANUEL: So, we're not gonna be using your real name.
EMMANUEL: Yeah. Um, and I figured we would just end up using your, like, your—I guess your screen name, FemmeAndroid.
FEMMEANDROID: Yeah, that works.
EMMANUEL: Okay, cool, cool, cool.
The person you’re hearing is not FemmeAndroid. It's an actor that we've hired, on FemmeAndroid’s request, to copy her voice as closely as possible. And the reason you’re not hearing FemmeAndroid’s real voice or name is because she’s a trans woman who transitioned during the pandemic, and the timing has meant she just isn’t out at work yet.
FEMMEANDROID: Where I'm working, just because, like, nobody sees my face, it's one of these things where, like, especially in the past year and a half of working remotely, transitioning can be both effective and very stealthy when you never see anybody.
FemmeAndroid does a lot of things on the internet, but one of the things she does is make video games, just for fun. For years, she’s taken part in gamer competitions known as game jams, where you have to make a game from scratch in a limited amount of time. And last year, she entered a game jam called Ludum Dare, which is one of the biggest game jams in the world.
EMMANUEL: Is this basically just like, the big holiday, like, hang out for game developers and wannabe game developers around the world?
FEMMEANDROID: Yeah, I guess in part, yes.
FEMMEANDROID: Uh, it is a holiday for indie game devs where we all come and do a thing, but we do a thing in the antisocial way that we would, which is making a game by ourselves.
The way Ludum Dare works: right before the competition opens, you’re given a theme, and then you have just 48 hours to make a game based on that theme. And in the super panicked, frantic time that people have to make a game, they tend to come up with some pretty creative stuff.
Like, at one of the last Ludum Dare game jams, the theme was “two incompatible genres.” And somebody created a game called 00boyfriend that I really love, where you run around kicking ass like James Bond, while keeping small talk going with someone you presumably just met on a dating app.
FemmeAndroid loves this kind of competition. So, in April of 2020, on a Friday night — while a lot of us turned to Tiger King and Zoom happy hours — FemmeAndroid was looking forward to a weekend of Ludum Dare. So she got ready and settled in to find out what the theme would be.
FEMMEANDROID: I sat down at my computer. I watched as the timer clock on the Ludum Dare website clock ticked down to zero seconds. And so, I just— I waited and I refreshed, and I saw: ‘Keep It Alive.’
EMMANUEL: Keep It Alive?
FEMMEANDROID: That was the theme.
Given what was happening in the world, the pandemic now raging, Keep It Alive was a bit of a loaded choice for a theme. But FemmeAndroid decided to give it a go. She had 48 hours to make a game, and it seemed like a good challenge.
FEMMEANDROID: I mean, keeping yourself alive? That is the main theme of most video games to begin with.
EMMANUEL: I guess so.
FEMMEANDROID: Like, you can recontextualize it just to mean, like, keeping something else alive?
FEMMEANDROID: And so, I started thinking about like, well, what's going on right now? Like, we're all locked inside.
She figured it would be cool to have people work together to keep something alive, maybe in a kind of multiplayer game or something, but that would take too much time to build.
And this is when FemmeAndroid came up with a kernel of an idea that would grow way beyond the confines of Ludum Dare. In fact, it wouldn't actually be a game at all.
FEMMEANDROID: I was like, I know how to make a website. Uh, and then I thought to myself, you know, I know how to make a website that breaks.
FEMMEANDROID: I do that a lot.
I can make a website die, FemmeAndroid thought. Maybe a website can be the thing that people are trying to keep alive.
So, she got to work, and after six hours, she was done. She’d made a website. A website with a beige background and a message that’s tilted to the left just a few degrees, just enough to make it feel like a handwritten note that’s laying on a table or something.
And the message read:
‘Hi, I'm a website. I'll be gone soon, and that's okay. You can send me messages using the form below. If I go 24 hours without receiving a message, I'll permanently self-destruct and everything will be wiped from my database. That's okay, though. Until then, let me know how you're doing. Other people will be able to read what you write, but your name or identity won't be attached to anything. So, feel free to say what's on your mind. It's been a rough few months. With love, thiswebsitewillselfdestruct.com.’
Under the welcome letter, there was a message box with the words “Dear Website” to get you started. You could write your message in there, click send, and then it would just disappear into the void. When somebody sent a message to the site, a giant timer at the top of the page counting down the number of seconds in a day would reset. And if nobody wrote to the site in 24 hours, it would delete itself. The entire database of messages would be destroyed.
There was also a button on the page that you could press in order to read other people’s messages, and the website would let you click through as many of them as you wanted, one at a time, in a completely random order.
Everything about the website is fleeting. Like, FemmeAndroid thinks the website might self-destruct before the judging for the Ludum Dare game jam even ends.
But the next morning, when she wakes up and checks the site, what she sees surprises her.
FEMMEANDROID: From the start, there were, like, people writing personal messages for the most part.
EMMANUEL: Do you remember what some of those messages were? Or like, the tone, like, the gist of them?
FEMMEANDROID: There was one about, like, an upcoming test where somebody was anxious about the results. There was one that was pretty revealing about somebody’s, like, sexual desires in a way that felt, like, not provocative, but, like, uncomfortably honest.
FEMMEANDROID: And so, at that point, I was just like, well, people are using this. And that was really just where it was like, well, I think this might last a little bit.
FemmeAndroid’s excited to be getting messages. She keeps checking her phone, watching them roll in. At this point, there’s maybe 100, but the number’s growing. And then, two days in, she gets a notification from her website server.
FEMMEANDROID: I think I was probably downstairs in my house, just probably watching television or something.
FEMMEANDROID: And I think I actually got, like, a message to my phone that said it was taking more than 30 seconds to respond to requests.
EMMANUEL: Oh, like the, the website was having trouble, like, functioning.
FEMMEANDROID: Exactly. And I was just like, oh, this is interesting. I ran upstairs to see what was going on. And I just pulled up the, kind of like my diagnostics, metrics pages and saw like, oh, there's a lot of traffic coming through here.
Turns out, the website, which FemmeAndroid built using, you know, a basic free server, is blowing up on the subreddit “Internet is Beautiful”... and is being absolutely besieged by messages.
FEMMEANDROID: I was getting, like, hundreds to thousands of posts per second of like—
EMMANUEL: Wait. Thousands of posts per second?
FEMMEANDROID: Thousands of posts of, like, spam messages.
EMMANUEL: Jesus. Whoa.
FEMMEANDROID: So, like, people had realized that, like, this is a forum on the Internet that doesn't have any authentication and doesn't require you to log in or anything. We can just post whatever we want.
FemmeAndroid’s website is basically a troll’s paradise, right? Like, you don’t need an account to use it. There’s no button someone can press to report you. You’re completely anonymous and untraceable, and there’s a website full of earnest people posting heartfelt, sincere messages you can ruin an experience for.
It’s like FemmeAndroid just threw a juicy steak into a tank full of piranhas. The trolls can’t help themselves. It’s a feeding frenzy.
They start with some tried and true trolling moves — rickrolling people, posting the script of the animated film of the Bee Movie in the message box over and over again. But then the spam becomes pretty sinister.
FEMMEANDROID: There was a mix of— like, it was like, racist neo-Nazi stuff, for the most part.
EMMANUEL: Oh, wow.
FEMMEANDROID: Yeah. There were some people who had, like, gone and started researching who I was a bit and got into, like, transphobic stuff and stuff particularly targeting me.
EMMANUEL: Oh. Oh, I'm sorry.
FEMMEANDROID: That wasn't great, yeah.
EMMANUEL: Yeah. That's really awful.
FEMMEANDROID: And so, I really was working on, like, getting all that off as soon as possible.
Most people using the site at this moment are seeing these hateful messages in a random, occasional way as they click through. But FemmeAndroid, she has a behind-the-scenes view and can see the last 100 posts on the site at any given time. And she’s watching them all pile up one by one.
The sorts of websites getting tons of vile content like this—say, Facebook—has teams of moderators flagging content and removing it. But FemmeAndroid doesn’t have any of it. It’s just her.
She tries to block the hate messages by creating filters for certain vile words, banning all the awful, terrible slurs she can think of, but no sooner does FemmeAndroid block a slur then the trolls post the same banned slur with slightly different spelling, doing things like swapping out S’s for 5s and E’s for 3s.
EMMANUEL: It just feels like you're trying to, like, chop off a million heads that are sprouting everywhere.
FEMMEANDROID: Yeah, that pretty much sums it up. I would say to myself at like 10:00, okay, I can go to sleep, like, once I do this one thing. And then a new thing would come up, and a new thing would come up. And the morning of the second day, I remember just looking at my wife and saying, like, 'I need to go to sleep, because I have not slept in a very long time.'
These hateful, very personal transphobic messages flowing in are really getting to FemmeAndroid. As she’s transitioned, her friends and family have been really supportive and wonderful, but these messages are making her feel suddenly insecure about some of the interactions and conversations she has to have with people in her life.
FEMMEANDROID: I think by reading all of that, um, I then—I imagine that coming from people I care about. To me, that is the weight of those messages. It isn’t in the seeing them, in the moment. Uh, it is when, on reflection, I say, I need to talk to my friends, who I have a board game night with, about, uh, this change in my life.
FEMMEANDROID: And then I think to myself, what will their response be? And then those messages that I read or, like, those ideas, I imagine them coming out of friends who are not like that and have not been like that’s mouth, just because I’m trying to imagine the worst case scenario and if I can handle it.
FemmeAndroid starts to get some of the spam under control. But within a few days, she finds herself facing what seems to be a full-blown emergency—the sort of scenario she never could have anticipated.
FEMMEANDROID: Somebody DM’d me with a link to this screenshot of This Website Will Self-Destruct, and the message was: ‘8 AM, April 30th, Charlottesville Fashion Square. Watch the news. I have a surprise.’
EMMANUEL. Wait, wait, wait, wait. So, someone wrote on your website: ‘8 AM, April 30th, Charlottesville Fashion Square—as in like, Charlottesville, like, Virginia?
FEMMEANDROID: Yes. Uh, Charlottesville Fashion Square, I have learned since, is a mall, or like a mall complex. Um, ‘Watch the news. I have a surprise.’ So it sounds like a threat.
Someone seems to be using This Website Will Self-Destruct to threaten a mall in Charlottesville, Virginia. FemmeAndroid reads the post in horror.
FEMMEANDROID: I, I was just like, well, like, I have enabled this. And the fact that it's called This Website Will Self-Destruct, like, if you're seeing just a screenshot of the site that says, “This website will self-destruct” and a threat, like, the optics of that—like, the people coming that are seeing this do not know what This Website Will Self-Destruct is.
EMMANUEL: Oh, so there were all these people out there who are probably potentially seeing, like, this website and thinking—
FEMMEANDROID: Yeah, like, “This is where people post threats.”
FEMMEANDROID: So, I decided, you know, I'm gonna call the police.
EMMANUEL: I mean, back up even a second. Like, what do you say?
FEMMEANDROID: So, I, I first said just like, “There was a potential threat made on a website,” and they were like, “Yeah, we've heard about it.”
EMMANUEL: Oh. So they’re just thinking, oh, another person calling to, like, give me, like, a tip.
FEMMEANDROID: Yeah. And I was just like, I created the website.
EMMANUEL: Following this new detail, FemmeAndroid’s phone number then gets passed over to somebody in the cyber crimes unit.
FEMMEANDROID: And so, then he called me up and then he had the reaction of like, “Wait, you made the website. Oh, wait, what? Who are you? Can I—”...
FEMMEANDROID: And then he wants my information. So I gave him all the information I had. I kind of walked him through the—it was a screenshot of my website that was posted to Reddit. For a while, he thought that I ran Reddit.
EMMANUEL: Oh my God.
FEMMEANDROID: I felt like, I need to explain to you what Reddit is, what this is, and how I can't do anything about it, and how I came to be here, in less than five minutes.
FEMMEANDROID: And so, I explained that I do not run Reddit, but I do run a website that doesn't store any personal information.
Fortunately, FemmeAndroid says the officer from cyber crimes eventually understands what’s going on. He tells her not to worry.
FEMMEANDROID: He kind of just said, “Listen, we see a lot of things like this online.” Not like, a lot, a lot. But he was just like, “This could mean anything. It doesn't look like what I would describe as a real, actionable threat. And the mall is closed at the moment.” And so, he was just like, “We'll see what happens. But we appreciate you calling. Uh, thanks.”
Turns out, the threat might not have been so threatening after all. The presumed mall attack never came to pass. My producer, Hannah, reached out to the police about this incident, and they told her they’d taken it really seriously—actually sent officers to patrol the area and make sure everything was okay. I will say, when Hannah asked whether the cyber crimes officer thought FemmeAndroid ran Reddit, the police couldn’t confirm.
FemmeAndroid felt relieved. But also, the whole experience left her wondering whether she should just, like, end the site. It had been a really harrowing couple of weeks for her. And a lot of people in her position would’ve given up and focused on other stuff... especially since for her, barring these events and the pandemic, 2020 was going pretty well.
She and her wife were expecting a child. She was transitioning. And because of that, was feeling more comfortable as herself than ever before.
But on ThisWebsiteWillSelfDestruct.com, something was happening that would make FemmeAndroid unable to walk back the site she’d created.
We’ll get into that after the break.
EMMANUEL: Welcome back to the show.
Following FemmeAndroid’s scare in Charlottesville, the trolls that had haunted thiswebsitewillselfdestruct.com seem to get bored, and they just move on to their next meal.
And as time passes in 2020, what FemmeAndroid sees, instead of trolls slinging awful insults, are, you know, the people she made the site for coming to the site, seeing its directive, “Let me know how you’re doing,” and responding.
And maybe some of them are skeptical. I know I often am with these kinds of "post secret"-type websites. My reaction is usually, like, what a bunch of corny rubbish. But i have to say, as someone who is normally pretty skeptical towards these sorts of things, it does feel like something different has developed on FemmeAndroid’s now much safer website.
The messages that come up are completely random—random in when they were originally posted, and random in terms of emotion. Reading through them, you’re constantly being jerked from one perspective to another. One minute, you're plunged back into the world of high school stress and anxiety.
READER: Dear Website, I have a crush on someone, a really big crush on someone.
READER: Dear Website, I got accepted into a big prestigious college. I should be excited, but I’m terrified and don’t think I will do well. I think they made a mistake.
Another minute, you’re reading posts from people who’ve read those messages from the high schoolers, copy-and-pasting those posts into their own messages, and responding.
READER: They did not make a mistake, and you are gonna do amazing. Keep up the good work.
Another click, and you feel like you’ve been transported into the quiet moments in someone’s house after their kids have gone to bed.
READER: My kids are little, and even though I get tired and frustrated, I will never have a chance like this again to spend this kind of time with them.
You’re reading in Portuguese, in French…
[PEOPLE SPEAKING IN MULTIPLE LANGUAGES]
...in a lot of different languages, from people all over the world who keep coming every day to this site, giving a little bit of themselves and receiving a little bit of something—a little bit of hope, a little bit of sadness…
...actually, a lot—like, I mean a lot—of sadness.
Some of those sadder messages are hard to read and to process. The anonymity of the website means that you’ll never really know much about the people writing the saddest messages on the site.
I’ve often found myself wanting to respond to stuff, but I don’t, because what I really want to do is reach through my computer and give that person a hug, which obviously, I can’t do, and that upsets me. But the other day, via Twitter, I did manage to find someone who’s used the website to process some of their own struggles. He was really eager to talk to me about the site.
SHAMUS: Gosh dang it, I just love this website, dude. [EMMANUEL LAUGHS] I’m so glad you guys asked me about this!
That’s Shamus. He’s in his 20s, lives in Tennessee, and works in a warehouse. And early last year, he was looking forward to moving out of his parents’ home and kickstarting his life.
SHAMUS: Things felt like they were starting to take shape, like I might have some good direction going. Then the pandemic hit. Then I was worried about losing my job. And my girlfriend broke up with me right at the start of the pandemic, in March.
EMMANUEL: Oh, man. I’m sorry.
SHAMUS: And I completely felt unsure and not confident anymore. [LAUGHS]
Around this time, Shamus made the website an integral part of his daily ritual. Made it his homepage. Shamus said he’s written quite a few entries about his depression, where he’s talked about how awful his day was. He actually started using it like a makeshift therapist, saying the sorts of things people often only say in therapy.
SHAMUS: I think something about anonymity, like, it makes you want to open up a little bit more when you know there's no repercussions.
EMMANUEL: Is there stuff that, um, you, like, thought about writing on the site but haven't?
SHAMUS: Yeah. Definitely on, like, particularly bad days—
SHAMUS: ...um, I've thought about getting a little too honest [laughs] about where I was at.
EMMANUEL: Like, in what kind of way?
SHAMUS: Suicide. [LAUGHS]
EMMANUEL: I'm sorry.
SHAMUS: It's all, it’s all right. Um, but, you know, ‘cause, like, I, I seek things out to help me. And, you know, I've been to, like, you know, subReddits and chatrooms of people venting about that. And I know that, like, to an extent, that can— there can be a nice, helpful, like, okay, other people are going through this. But beyond a point, I think it can be a little, um, a little cyclical — where like, seeking it out reinforces those feelings. And so, I kind of felt obligated to not send that out, and that there's enough of that.
SHAMUS: And I should try to tip the scale positive, a little bit. And even if I wasn't feeling good, I would, I would tell somebody what I wanted to hear in that moment, is the best way I can put it.
SHAMUS: Like, what I'd like to hear someone tell me, I'll throw that out there so someone else can have it.
Shamus eventually realized that what he was experiencing was serious, and he’s since started seeing a professional therapist. He says he’s doing much better.
At a certain point, FemmeAndroid — in response to these kinds of posts — added a Feeling Down button, just to point people towards helplines and resources if they need support. But those messages are still a pretty big fixture of the site. And the timelessness of them, the fact that what you’re reading may have been posted a year ago or five minutes ago, makes it so you have no idea, right, if people are getting sadder as the pandemic’s gone on, or if people are always just kind of sad, and that this is a place those people can finally express some of that.
It’s the sort of thing I think we’ve all been wondering lately, which is, has it always been this bad? Are my kids actually really unengaged in school always? Am I sick of my job, or do I just hate the idea of work?
There’s a way in which the pandemic has just made everything feel more present and more real. And one person who’s seen a lot of that real is FemmeAndroid.
When I asked her what she’s made of all of these messages, the answer she gave really surprised me. She told me that the day-to-day experience of running the site has actually made her more hopeful about things.
FEMMEANDROID: Frankly, like, the amount of kindness kind of overwhelmed me.
EMMANUEL: Oh, really?
FEMMEANDROID: Yeah. And it’s very infrequent that you get to see just like—like, I had a page up that just had the last hundred posts. And just like, a recent one from the past 20 minutes or something. “I don't know, I just wanted to write you. I hope you'll never be forgotten. We all deserve a chance.”
And like, somebody took their time to write that and think that. And just, like, I think that's a good thing. Just like, we all deserve a chance. Like, I believe that. But like, there aren’t a lot of opportunities where I can articulate that to anybody, right? Like, maybe I'll get that when my son is older, where like, these just human beliefs and like, things that are foundational and maybe, like, I think to myself or tell myself. It's not something that I write down or articulate.
Back in 2020, some people across the UK actually started tweeting about Desmond from Lost, sharing a scene of him going about his daily routine. They felt connected to his situation. They were isolated, quarantining, and they’d been told that by doing so, they were saving the world.
Back then, we were all making decisions that felt like referendums on what sort of person we were and who we cared about, what we were willing to do for others. And yet, here we are, over a year later, and millions of people have died around the world.
I’m the sort of person who likes to think that things happen for a reason. I’m inclined to think this year was a year in which, you know, me and a lot of people I know went through some terrible things and grew from them. But it’s pretty impossible to find any meaning in all of that death. The only real thing to say is that we failed all those people and the people that love them, and we’re still failing.
I think about that a lot. But I haven’t really been able to feel it or process it, which makes me feel angry at myself. I don’t know.
In, in a year that feels so hard to make meaning out of things, maybe the only thing you’re left with is just a simple list of stuff you’ve done. It might not mean anything, but at least you know you existed.
And what FemmeAndroid and the many people who use the site have done is commit to a website, and each other, every day.
That’s not nothing.
EMMANUEL: Femme Android is the creator of ThisWebsiteWillSelfDestruct.com, and the sci-fi webcomic Bodies.
Given the content of today’s show, I wanted to again mention some resources for folks that are struggling. If you’re in the US...one resource you can call is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Once again, that’s 1-800-273-8255. We’ll have more resources for people outside the US in our show notes.
I also wanted to mention the Trans Lifeline —which you can access via translifeline.org — it’s a peer support and crisis hotline run and operated by trans people. Once again, that’s trans lifeline dot org.
HANNAH CHINN: This episode of Reply All was produced by Phia Bennin, Anna Foley, and me, Hannah Chinn. It was edited by Tim Howard. Additional help from the rest of the Reply All crew: Damiano Marchetti, Lisa Wang, Jessica Yung, and Noor Gill.
We’re hosted by Emmanuel Dzotsi and Alex Goldman. This episode was mixed by Rick Kwan, with fact checking by Isabel Cristo.
Music in this episode is from Breakmaster Cylinder and Marianna Romano.
The actor who voiced FemmeAndroid in this episode is Joanie Drago. She’s a writer and comedian based in Brooklyn — you can find her on Twitter or on Instagram @ joaniedrago.
Special thanks to Connie Walker, Julie Olive, and Persephone Rose.
Also thanks to: Caitlyn Homol, Patrick Agonito, Katherine Brewer, Gabby Bulgarelli, Nabeel Chollampat, Ali Dougherty, Sarah Joyce, Jorge Just, Matt Kelley, Bobby Lord, Dalton Main, Shaila Murdock, Jack Murphy, Navani Otero, Ayodele Oti, Sarah Platt, Mathilde Urfalino, Sami Weathersby, and Matt Yacavone.
Finally… we’re hiring! We’re looking for a reporter and an editor to join our show. So if you’d like to apply, or just read more about those jobs, go to replyallshow.com/jobs.
Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you in two weeks.