kottke.org posts about Munchausen

Munchausen by Internet

posted by Aaron Cohen   Jun 07, 2012

Munchausen by Internet is the act of inventing a malady or serious disease to generate online attention. The disorder, originally called ‘virtual factitious disorder,’ was first described in 1998 by psychiatrist Marc Feldman.

This Gawker piece documents a perfect example of Munchausen by Internet, an 11 year saga involving a young child with cancer and spanning across many early social platforms. The scam, which seems to have been started by an 11 year old girl, does not appear motivated by money (all donation requests were directed to a legitimate non-profit). Basically, this girl was playing real-life Sim City.

Huge swaths of the Dirrs social circle began disappearing, too. Gone were the Facebook profiles of J.S.’s hard-partying best friend, Mitchy Aaron, who would sometimes tag J.S. in party pics. Mitchy’s wife, who had only recently thanked the Dirrs on Facebook for taking care of their kids after Mitchy was in a motorcycle accident, disappeared, too. Dozens of J.S.’s ex-girlfriends, who sometimes sent Facebook friend requests to the real people J.S. knew online, much to J.S.’s annoyance, locked their profiles down. A small town’s worth of people—at least 71, according to Wright—had apparently been invented to support the Dirr fantasy, using hundreds of stolen pictures to create the appearance of a vibrant social life.

This 1998 NY Times article describes some early cases of Munchausen by Internet, including the case of an early-Internet version of Marla Singer.

Chased out of the eating-disorder chat room, the woman turned up in others, including one for sexual-abuse survivors. She was found out and banished from that one, too, then joined another group. When last heard from, she was dying of AIDS.

Lastly, here’s a Details story on Munchausen in the workplace, a behavior first identified by a Georgia Tech business school professor in 2007. Incidentally, that’s my friend Ben in the picture accompanying the article.