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Delving into the (online) disappearance of programmer Mark Pilgrim

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Mark Pilgrim says he’s just fine.

There’s no need to call the police. No need to send a car to his house. No need to launch a Twitter manhunt.

All he did, after all, was delete his entire online presence. Is that so bizarre?

The 38-year-old programmer and Google developer advocate -- most famous for his two instructional books, Dive into Python and Dive Into HTML5 -- disappeared from the Web Tuesday. He scrubbed everything: his personal website, his Twitter account, even his acclaimed, open-source books. All gone.

The Internet launched a manhunt for him. Big names in tech, from Gina Trapani to Eric Meyer to Mathew Ingram, took to Twitter to spread the word. Tech historian Jason Scott even called the police.

But why?

Ten years ago cutting yourself off from the Web might have seemed a little peculiar but understandable. Now, however, as one user on Reddit wrote, deleting your online presence is apparently the signal for “the start of a serious mental illness.”

That response was part of a 200-comment-long thread in Reddit’s r/programming section, where users of the social news site tried to understand Pilgrim’s psychological state. What does it mean when someone whose career is tied so tightly to the web --he worked at Google, after all -- decides to disappear from it?

“Authors don't go back and burn all the books they wrote; actors don't go back and burn all their previous films,” wrote redditor hab136. “This guy not only cut off all communications without explanation, but also destroyed all his creations. Not only is this spiteful to humanity, but a big warning sign of suicidal thoughts.”

Pilgrim hadn’t killed himself though, and there’s no real indication he was planning it -- at least not beyond amateur psychological analysis online.

Yesterday, Pilgrim contacted Jason Scott, the Twitter user who’d called the police, and told him he was fine.

“Mark Pilgrim is alive/annoyed we called the police,” Scott wrote. “Please stand down and give the man privacy and space, and thanks everyone for caring.”

Pilgrim isn’t the first programmer to disappear from the Web. Pseudonymous programming legend why the lucky stiff famously picked up and left back in 2009. No one’s heard from him since. The phenomenon even has a name: infosuicide.

In a post on his personal blog -- now deleted but saved in Google’s cache -- Pilgrim enumerated his personal steps to happiness:

1. Stop buying stuff you don’t need
2. Pay off all your credit cards
3. Get rid of all the stuff that doesn’t fit in your house/apartment (storage lockers, etc.)
4. Get rid of all the stuff that doesn’t fit on the first floor of your house (attic, garage, etc.)
5. Get rid of all the stuff that doesn’t fit in one room of your house
6. Get rid of all the stuff that doesn’t fit in a suitcase
7. Get rid of all the stuff that doesn’t fit in a backpack
8. Get rid of the backpack

“I’m working on step 4,” Pilgrim wrote. That was 2008. Maybe three years later, he’s reached that eighth step. He’s tossed away the backpack and found happiness.

But online, you can’t ever, really, get rid of anything.

Fans have already picked up the metaphorical backpack. They’ve posted his books and coding across the web.

Pilgrim’s eight steps to happiness have now been copied here, and on Reddit. They would have likely been lost in the Internet’s perpetual flood of information -- if only he’d never disappeared.

Photo By Tim Bray