How I Won a Mexican Standoff and Broke a Farmers’ Blockade

Date posted: August 21, 2021

There are two ways to get to Mexico’s Puerto Escondido from Oaxaca. Drive the western route on winding roads over a mountain, or drive the eastern route on potholed roads over a mountain.

We chose the eastern route for no other reason than the last hour runs by the sea.

It was challenging. Narrow roads, hairpin bends and speeding traffic. For four hours we proceeded.

Then we encountered a tail back and it stretched as far as the eye could see. “It happens all the time,” said a newfound friend as we sat by the roadside.

The cause was an overturned minibus, its rear hanging precariously over a precipice. The Mexican army had been called, as had two tow trucks and insurance assessors. Three hours later the road was cleared.

One or other of these vehicles were on the wrong side of the yellow line at the wrong time. (c) @wrftr

As the hours passed the fog came down and darkness followed. Exhausted, we stopped at a roadside store for a sugar boost. Coke, overly-sugary biscuits and prunes; there was little else of substance on the shelves.

It was here we first heard of the blockade of Puerto Escondido. There’s one bridge over a river there, explained the shop owner, and demonstrators were stopping all traffic going both ways.

Did I mention the fog? 11 hour mountain journey between Oaxaca and Puerto Escondido. (c) @wrftr

On arrival to Puerto Escondido, we encountered hundreds of stranded vehicles parked on the road awaiting the lifting of a five day blockade. Ahead, in the distance, scores of men wearing cowboy hats stretched across the road.

Conversations with taxi drivers and locals informed that the demonstrators were “campesinos” – farmers – and by creating a blockade of all traffic, they were putting pressure on local and federal governments to resolve a zoning issue. It was about boundaries, tourism revenues, farm land, property and tradition.

The blockade was little more than an inconvenience. A taxi would take you to the edge of the blockade, you cross on foot, then take a second taxi to continue your journey.

Our day of departure arrived. The petrol tank was full. The blockade was still in place and with a plane to catch, we headed east.

Five kilometres outside Puerto Escondido, disaster. We encountered a second hastily assembled blockade.

Campesinos block eastern access to and departure from Puerto Escondido. (c) @wrftr

For those keeping count, that’s two blockades: one to the west and now another to the east, our car in the middle. We had a 300km mountain road journey ahead. It was 11.15am. The rental car had to be returned by 7pm, we had a plane to catch at 8.25pm and we had no exit out of town.

And so I played the foreigner card. I sensed speaking English in this situation might be intimidating enough to put the responsibility on a non-speaker to try to communicate with me and relent. That failed. I switched to Spanish and tried to play the innocent tourist caught in a fight not my own. That failed.

Suddenly I came to the realisation that not only was I blocked, but where I left my car on the road had also unintentionally blocked access for the campesinos as they scurried back and forth between their lines. In the rising tensions, this suddenly seemed like a great thing.

As one campesino tried to exit and waved at me to move, I found myself shaking my head. I told him if they weren’t moving their trucks then I wasn’t moving my car. To my surprise I was joined at the shoulder by a driver transporting propane who said he also wasn’t moving. Suddenly we had a stand-off. A veritable Mexican stand-off.

“OK, we said we were going to end the blockade in an hour, but we’ll stay longer now.”

And so it continued. Thirty-two degree heat so the car engine remained running to provide cool air.

We had two litres of water, a snickers bar, a bag of crisps, some cookies and three limes. We weren’t going to camp out here, a decision had to be made.

A knock on the window. A man in a white shirt, neatly pressed.

Did we want to get past the blockade? Si.
Did we want to follow another route he knew? Si.
Would we pay him something small, like 100 pesos, if he guided us? Si.
Would we reverse back the road 100 metres and wait for him to catch-up? Si.

And that’s how we met taxi driver 02-699.

He’d had this same conversation with the other drivers and suddenly we had formed a convoy. We took a dirt road off the motorway and headed north.

Some thoughts we might be kidnapped, but he had such a nicely pressed white shirt… it seemed fine. (c) @wrftr

Taxi driver 02-699 had paid a local man to sit with him as guide and he was now turning a profit. Smart.

Yes, I did think of kidnappings and robbery, but did I mention our “epic” adventure? Plus, my dander was up now.

Our northernly route turned to the east – more rocky and dusty as we proceeded – until we reached an unfinished motorway and turned south again. A 15km trip in total. There we met a line of cars.

Waiting to take on the hill challenge. (c) @wrftr

So desperate were so many to avoid the blockade that a previously passable road was now cut-up and largely impassable, except for higher-powered 4x4s.

Guys standing – and bouncing – on the back of vehicles to give traction to the real wheels. (c) @wrftr

With no recourse, we returned 15kms to the eastern blockade. The campesinos were still there. We were back to square one.

Taxi driver 02-699 again: “You paid me, so I’ll show you another way, but this time we’ll try go past the other blockade.”

A myriad of turns through the alleyways of Puerto Escondido brought us across a feeble wooden bridge, which signalled the crossing of the fabled river so carefully protected by the campesinos. A fist bump and a 50 peso note was shared and we were set free.

It was now 1.30pm. We had 249kms to cover over the mountains of the western route. We had 5h 30m to return the car, 7 hours to catch our plane and Google Maps was estimating a journey time of 5h 52m. The race was on.

At 6.15pm, some 4h 45m later, we sat down at Taqueria “El Primo” in Oaxaca, early for both our car return and plane departure. Success, we thought.

Tacos at “Taqueria El Primo” south of Oaxaca, highly recommended. (c) @wrftr

But, the province of Oaxaca had one final test for us. Arriving to Oaxaca airport, we received a phone call from Hertz. Apparently they can make outbound calls.

“Where are you? You can’t come back to the airport!”
“Why not?”
“Hasn’t the airline told you? The airport is blocked.”

— The — airport — is — blocked —

Not campesinos this time but university students, dubbed “normalistas.”

So-called “Normalistas” block access to Oaxaca airport. (c) @wrftr

It was explained to me a number of times why they were demonstrating but it was never very clear, something to do with temporary university placements versus the guaranteed places they desired.

And there they stood for four days. We waited them out for three days in a hotel on the edge of town. We had hoped to catch an Aeroméxico plane but it was cancelled, then a newly booked Volaris flight, but it too was cancelled. We finally made our escape on a seven hour ADO bus journey to our destination, Mexico City.

I do admire the willingness of the Mexican people to demonstrate peacefully. I admire the Mexican authority’s patience in accommodating them. I lament there are so many situations in Mexico where they feel it is required. We saw many crossroads and junctions blocked that weekend, all for different reasons. Farmers, students, natives, workers.

One waiter had said to me: “In Mexico, anything is possible.” What he didn’t say: In Mexico, anything can happen.

I was in New York the Night Trump Won

Date posted: May 3, 2021

I was in Twitter’s office in New York City on the night of the United States presidential election in 2016.

Twitter HQ on the night of the US Presidential Election 2016.

Twitter had partnered with BuzzFeed who ran a live video feed of talking heads, which was projected onto the wall. We had stats piped in, live Twitter feeds from CNN, The Guardian and AP.

Live Twitter feeds on the big screen at Twitter HQ on November 8, 2016. (c) @wrftr

Beer was free. Wine was free. Food, also free, was served by chefs in all-white to Twitter’s platoon of 20-somethings.

There was an air of excitement. New York is a Democrat town. There was going to be a party.

Even Clinton was having her afterparty in city, over in the Javits Center on lower 11th Avenue.

As a foreigner in town, a lover of all things media, and one who had discovered a special interest in US politics, it felt like I was paying more attention than most in the room as the first results started to come in.

I remember an early call from Florida. It was called for Trump and it wasn’t supposed to be that way.

Looking around, expecting others to share in my dismay, I realised few were paying attention. It was like the result was pre-destined for Clinton – I too shared in that assessment – but this was too important to not pay attention.

Ken Bone was brought in. Remember him? Lovely man, easy to speak to, very polite. Everyone was given a red sweater. Real wool. The price tag was still on, $120 each. It was all becoming surreal.

Ken Bone speaks at Twitter HQ on the night of the US Presidential Election 2016. (c) @wrftr

An hour passed and the situation continued to worsen for Clinton. More calls going the wrong way.

This wasn’t my country nor city, but I felt at one with New York and I cared for it and its people. And I saw danger.

I could take no more of the disinterest being shown by the room, I had to get out.

NBC news centre at the Rockefeller ice rink in Manhattan. (c) @wrftr

A taxi ride brought me to The Bell House in Brooklyn where the online publication The Slate was hosting a night of politics, with live TV, live political commentators and comedians. I needed to sit with people taking the situation seriously, even if comedians were on hand to make light of things.

As I arrived, Jacob Weisberg of TrumpCast fame and Mike Pesca were on stage. For anyone keeping up with Trump’s electioneering schenanigans, Weisberg had become something of an icon with his daily snapshot of the latest Trumpian faux pas or insult to the left.

Mike Pesca and Jacob Weisberg of Slate at The Bell House, Brooklyn with visuals comparing 2016 to the 2012 election. (c) @wrftr

Their level-headed commentary made way as a commentator/comedian duo arrived on stage. The comedian walked on wearing a hoodie pulled up about his head. He approached the microphone: “I can’t perform.”

He sat dejectedly in a leather sofa, facing the crowd, head down for the most part.

It was left to the political commentator to speak words of wisdom, soothe a nervous crowd, offer scenarios for how the results might turn our way. And there was an “our” in the room. This was not a Republican gathering, this was the depths of Brooklyn, our Brooklyn, just south of Gowanus, a block down from Whole Foods, a block over from Four & Twenty Blackbirds.

(It was only later I found out that Steve Bannon owned a house at 377 Union Street, just 20 minutes walk away.)

On Sixth Avenue, looking from the outside in at Fox News for Bret Baier’s Special Report – US Election Day. (c) @wrftr

But things did not turn our way. I was probably the only outsider in the place. I turned to look at those sitting around me. Hands is what I remember. Hands held to foreheads. Hands covering mouths. Hand over faces.


The event ended two hours early. We were shepherded out. There were going to be no jokes that night. No one complained. We complied. We were now going to be in a world where the rules were made by an other.

That night I lay awake in Bed Stuy and looked at the ceiling. It’s not something I ever do. Stunned and somewhat numb, both intellectually and emotionally. On that night there was to be no easy sleep.

Silent nods of understanding were shared the next day. Nods with strangers. Distant gazes met on subways, park benches, queues for coffee. It may seem like a concept the writer of a piece like this will sell you, but the writer is not selling you a dud: there were silent nods of understanding amongst strangers. In New York City.

It wasn’t until a few weeks later that I cried.

Coming off the G train at Bedford-Nostrand, I was on Vernon Avenue between Marcy and Tompkins. Close to midnight, walking the way one walks in deep Brooklyn at night, head down, at pace, but not fast. Earphones in, I was comfortable in my bubble.

I was listening to The Weeds. Or TrumpCast. Or NPR. One of those. Something with Michael Barbaro or Matthew Iglesias or Ezra Klein, a male voice, American accent. Thoughtful words, smooth voice.

I don’t keep up to date with my podcasts. I’ll listen days or weeks after they are recorded. But on this occasion, it was the episode recorded the night Trump won. 

Live, intimate. Raw audio, no distraction.

The verbatim dialogue I wanted to share with you here, but despite tweeting at the Messrs above, I wasn’t able to locate the episode and relisten to it. So, here is my attempt at a paraphrase of it.

Male Voice #1: “… the race is close in the district and it might trigger a recount …”

Male Voice #2: “The election has been called by the New York Times.”


Male Video #1: “OK, let’s keep going. We were saying that we could see a recount in the district, which will probably favor the Republicans as we have to consider absentee votes…”

Male Voice #2: “It’s been called by AP as well.”

[Long Pause.]

And when I say a long pause, I mean a long pause.

Silence in the studio, silence in the podcast.

Cue tears. Unexpected. It’s like the crying you do after a hard break-up, unexpected, and for little apparent reason. I’d had the emotion welling up inside, and this was the trigger.

Our podcasting friends, so adept at speech as the medium requires, were speechless. They had opined for months on the election, and I had listened every step of the way. Trump was a sideshow, then down the bill on the main stage, then the headline act; and now he had prevailed.

Helplessness was the overriding sensation.

Yes, there had been demonstrations on Fifth Avenue outside Trump Tower, and I joined them.

At the junction of 56 Street and Fifth Avenue. Note dumper truck in place to protect the approach to Trump Towers. (c) @wrftr

Being non-American, I was likely the only one speaking the truth as we chanted “Not My President.”

But there were too few demonstrations, the US population were markedly docile, they seemed to equate a like or retweet for adequate social action.

In the midst of the anti-Trump demonstration in Manhattan on November 9, 2016. “Not my President,” was the refrain. (c) @wrftr

Trumpian outrage after outrage was ignored, tutted-at or accepted. The American image abroad altered utterly.

Trump was now America’s president, and like it or not, my American friends were going to have to overcome.

Looking back now, we can see how horrid an influence he had:

Pulling out of the Paris Climate agreement, reversing the ban on the Keystone pipeline, enabling white supremacy, playing both-sidesism with the Nazi movement, fostering falsehoods and conspiracies which so empowered Q-Anon, overseeing the separation of kids at the Mexican border, attempting to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, withholding federal funds from “sanctuary cities,” banning airport arrivals from predominantly Muslim counties, firing James Comey and Sally Yates, failing to defend his country against Russian election interfering, profiting from the use of his own hotels and businesses for government business, calling international peers “shithole countries,” pushing the Montenegro PM aside at a NATO summit, supporting the placement of the US embassy in Jerusalem, empowering those who stormed the US Capitol in D.C., failing to tackle the spread of Covid-19 and being ill-prepared for the vaccine roll-out.

I was in New York the night Trump won the election, and it’s a time I will never forget. Like the Covid-19 era, horrid to experience and live through, but from a historic perspective, a privilege to be a part of. Words about Trump and the Coronavirus will pepper academic studies, history books and drama for decades and centuries to come. We were there, we lived it, and we survived it.

My Search for No Man’s Land Between Israel and Syria

Date posted: April 18, 2021

When Iranian General Soleimani was assassinated by U.S. drone strike in Baghdad, I was in a hotel overlooking the U.S. Embassy branch office in Tel Aviv. It was January 2020.

My first thought was flight. Ben Gurion airport was 25kms away and I had a car parked downstairs.

I gathered my thoughts: the likelihood of Iranian retaliation on Israeli targets, the Iron Dome defence system, the distance from Tehran to Tel Aviv, whether Iran would blame Israel for the U.S. strike, whether Iran would retaliate now or later, what would Israel do next… and as I gathered those thoughts, I realised I knew nothing about any of this.

From my window I looked down at the people below, skating, rollerblading, cycling, walking. They were either oblivious to the news, or this was the norm. So I took comfort in their confidence and decided to proceed with my plan for the day: visit the Golan Heights and cross into No Man’s Land between Israel and Syria.

I’ve always had a fascination for the grey zones in our world. I enjoy looking at enclaves and exclaves on Google Maps. I trek out to points where three countries meet. I identify abandoned castles for later visiting. I look at satellite imagery to identify forgotten forts. I drive back and forth across the barely perceivable Northern Ireland / Republic of Ireland border for kicks.

But of all the grey zones, it’s the war zones that most capture my imagination. See my visit to Srebenica and Tusla. I dub it “Terror Tourism,” and if anyone wants to start a venture dedicated to such a specialisation, I’m in!

In 2019 and 2020, Syria was infamous. Scene of destruction, broken families, displacement, the struggle for survival, and the import/export of jihadi.

What had commenced a bright and sunny day on Tel Aviv’s mediterranean coastline turned more gloomy as I drove the 200kms past Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee to our bolt hole in Kibbutz Ortal.

On arrival, and now less than 10kms from Syria, we found the Israeli Defence Forces digging in.

Tank emplacement, Israeli/Syrian border. (c) @wrftr

Despite the mud and potential danger, we receive a wary nod from the soldiers, who continued to dig in.

With snow forecast for the following day, we hunkered down for the night. And snow, it did come.

The Golan Heights. (c) @wrftr

With it came complexities. What should have been a decent view from a bluff overlooking Syrian territory gave us mere metres of visibility.

Former tank emplacement, Israeli/Syrian border. (c) @wrftr

But the challenge was still at hand. No Man’s Land beckoned. I’d passed on foot through No Man’s Land between Israel and Jordan at Aqaba where peace reigns. And at Taba, I’d found the No Man’s Land between Israel and Egypt calm and friendly.

But No Man’s Land between Israel and Syria was a different proposition for there was an uneasy peace and Israel was known to fire eastwards when rebels came too close to their border.

I had identified a backroad that crossed from Israeli territory over the 1974 ceasefire line, called UNDOF “Alpha.”

On the top right of the satellite view you can see trenches cut into the landscape. That building just above my pin I was unsure about. On closer inspection, it appeared foreboding.

Abandoned, Israeli/Syrian border. (c) @wrftr

And the scars of war were all too evident.

Shell damage, Israeli/Syrian border. (c) @wrftr

I stopped short of the dotted line.

Standing alone on a shell pockmarked back road, with poor visibility, a biting January wind, bombed-out buildings, and only 0.8kms from the Syrian town of Quneitra, with nothing more than an economy class car to make my escape… nerves appeared.

At this point my travelling companion was sitting in the car, weeping. She felt I wasn’t coming back.

And in retrospect, perhaps her concerns were warranted. Reuters reported in 2018 “a strong presence in parts of Quneitra of Iranian-backed militias” and need I remind you about Qasem Soleimani’s assassination the previous day?

Sign at Israeli/Syrian border. (c) @wrftr

I approached a sign. Hebrew I do not understand. It was hardly a welcome. It could have been a warning. It probably was.

I’ve since had it translated by friends in Brooklyn. It reads:

No Man’s Land. Military Vehicles Are Forbidden. Stop.

I was definitely in the right place.

I stood there in the quiet. Uncertain. This is what I saw… of Syria.

Looking into Syria, January 2020. (c) @wrftr

But did I cross into No Man’s Land?

Here’s a screenshot of my Google Maps timeline for the day.

Google Maps Timeline, January 2020.

But let me add, I’m a civilian tottering around an international boundary. There are people who really cross into danger. Soldiers, of course, but so too brave journalists who document life in turmoil. My experience was an adventure for me, but life is a daily dangerous adventure for others.

Revisiting Srebrenica

Date posted: April 17, 2021

The Serbs have a three-finger salute.

It’s the thumb, index and middle fingers held aloft.

I saw it once, just outside Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Back in 2004, I knew enough to install 56k internet modems. This, then, was a skill much in demand in Bosnia.

A few miles outside Tuzla stood a village and in it a school with no internet connection. A friend suggested a visit might be helpful.

At the time I lived in Barcelona and in my youth and innocence a road trip seemed in order. It was a struggle to find a hire car company to let us take a vehicle across five international borders but we found a dusty three-car outfit near Sants Estacio and a date was set.

No international driving permit did we carry, nor a green card for cross-border travel, nor adequate insurance most likely.

Coal-fired power plant, Tuzla, Bosnia. Photo © @wrftr

Bosnian officials particularly like green cards, so at frontiers I was relegated to the backseat whilst my companion wearing a mini skirt smiled at the wheel as she explained the absence of the document.

At one point we took respite under a motorway overpass as hailstones the size of table tennis balls fell. We ended up front bumper to front bumper with a car facing the opposite direction as we sheltered from the onslaught.

We covered the 2,000kms in two days, with an overnight stop in Slovenia’s Ljubljana en route.

Our arrival at our destination village was notable for the absence of men, a complete absence of men. Only women and children inhabited what could be considered a rudimentary camp.

These were Srebrenican refugees. The men had all been killed.

Blue-eyed and blonde. Photo © @wrftr

Wooden cabins, colourful blankets cast across front stoops, headscarves and smiles. The children, blue-eyed and blonde, were shy but curious. We had brought pens, paper, notebooks and pencil cases, which were appreciated, but likely not adored.

We had mixed success with the modem installs. Some became operational, others need parts and equipment we later secured with some difficulty.

As the sun went down that July evening, it became apparent our greater contribution would take a different form.

The village of Srebrenica was 100kms away and we had a car, one of only four at the disposal of the village. And, coincidence or no, the following day was the ninth anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, which had occurred at the height of the Yugolsav wars (1991 to 2001).

That night we slept restlessly in sleeping bags, blankets recovered from the stoops to give us some comfort against the wooden floors.

We travelled in something of a convoy. I drove car three of four through Zvornik and Drinjaca, which hugged the Drina river and with it the Serbian border. We passed signs with skull and crossbones – the indicator for minefields, still active and dangerous.

It was then, near Bratunac, where I saw the Serb three-finger salute.

Drivers in their cars coming towards us met us with a right hand on the steering wheel, but left hand held high, and those three fingers raised.

Abandoned vehicle of war. Photo © @wrftr

We were essentially a Bosnian Muslim convoy, en route to a memorial of a massacre perpetrated by Serbs and we were being told that we had been seen.

But it was more than a memorial. It was a reburying.

List of dead, where buried. Photo © @wrftr

In 2004, nine years after the killing of 8,000 Bosniak Muslim men and boys, bodies were still being recovered from mass graves and being reburied by their families.

The mood was that of a funeral. Tens of funerals. Where the deceased had died too young. Where the deceased had been shot in the back of the head. Where they died for their religion and likely their poverty. Wealth enables escape but these 8,000 did not have the funds nor the temerity to do so.

But, I surely colour it with my bias. Surely they were too trusting of international support, which never came. They were intent on protecting their families, which they could not do. They were certain that their foe would not kill 8,000 of them in an abandoned factory, which is what took place.

And so it was the women and the old men in 2004 who buried their people with shovels, under wooden green crosses, while I took photos, the visuals from which you see here.

Shovels to rebury those found in mass graves. Photo © @wrftr
Wives, sisters, mothers, daughters. Photo © @wrftr

One last request was made of us: take us home. One woman and her daughter wanted to return to their real home. They hadn’t been there since their displacement. And so we drove some more.

Her return to home. Photo © @wrftr

What we encountered wasn’t fit to live in. Shell-damaged exterior walls, all window panes broken. I looked through a gaping hole, Serb graffiti covered the interior walls.

And then, one of our local travelling companions:

Don’t go in, it’ll be booby-trapped.

View, damaged window. Photo © @wrftr

Their return home was a return to the periphery of home and no more. Uncertain they could live in this area any longer, the decision to stay was postponed and back to Tuzla we went with our passengers, displaced.

That evening I bought a few gifts and I still remember the embarrassment I felt as more and more children appeared to share in the gifts, which meant I had to ration what were very light and very plastic toy cars one apiece. Such meagre offerings.

The next day I drove for 20 hours, stopping once at a petrol station outside Genoa for a tank fill and a 30 minute nap. As night fell, I was sorely tempted to stop at Montpellier but we pushed on for the four additional hours to Barcelona where with relief I parked the car overnight in a porous multi-story car park on Carrer de les Magdalenes.

The heavy hailstones had knocked out the left side indicator light and it was hanging on by wires. Young, poor and not wanting to lose my deposit, I stuck it back in place with two pieces of chewing gum.

With 4,000kms extra on the clock, the car was returned with an appreciative pat on its pockmarked roof. Yet, it was probably less impacted than all who travelled in it for those four days.

Death Became It

Date posted: January 20, 2020

I maintain more relationships online than I do offline.

And many of these relationships are with people I have never met.

If I died… would any of them know it?

My email inbox would max out. My domains would expire. My social network accounts would go quiet. My instant messenger account would never respond.

Death may have become me. Or I could be a vegetable in hospital. Or on a world tour, or have decided to leave this whole internet lark behind.

I wondered how I might remedy the situation.

And so I built a website. A website for people to record messages when alive, to send when dead.

Messages could be audio, video or text. They could contain vital passwords, or last testimonies, cryptocurrency, extraordinary secrets, messages of love, or the mundane.

When the individual did die, their two pre-assigned “keyholders” would unlock their account, and the messages would be transmitted according to the schedule decided by the departed.

I worked this out on the back of a beermat in the pub one day. Lines here, scrawls there, notes and strike throughs. By the third pint it needed a second beer mat.

The year was 2006, and it would take months of effort to get it live.

I knew the idea was original. I knew it had the capacity for controversy.

What if someone admitted to murder through it? What if a message was sent by the system in error saying an individual had died when she hadn’t?

I guess I was arrogant about the idea. I told myself that if I got a mention in the New York Times, then I’d be pleased with the result, regardless of what else happened.

We called it “Post Expression.” It took a inordinate amount of time to come up with a title that made sense – subtle, respectful – and a title for which we could still get the without dropping a few thousand on it.

We gathered people from as far apart as Turkmenistan and Jordan, Argentina and Malaysia to work on it, all remotely, all via the internet.

The tagline we put on it was “Death Ends a Life, Not a Relationship.” Perhaps a little twee in retrospect. I remember the holding page, it was made up of three images, each called live.gif, for.gif and ever.gif respectively. Through a good friend in Poland we whipped-up a frenzy through LiveJournal. It was big community at the time. We had a few thousand people sign-up to be informed when the site went live. They probably didn’t realise what we were doing. We kept it vague.

We pre-dated Twitter, I believe. I say that because we used a little bird for our artwork. If it were done today, Twitter would sue our ass for copyright infringement.

And so we launched. The switch was flicked in another pub. This time it was caffeine that fueled us. A half-hour later I was on the bus home, and I fell asleep right there in the seat. It was the first time I’d slept properly in weeks.

People arrived, they said nice things like “it’s absolutely amazing. i got goosebumps reading the opening webpage.” and “oh my god. when i saw it i just GASPED.”

The about page said this: “There exists a generation who have not known life without the internet. As the people of this generation grow older, and die, they leave behind them their networks, their online friends, their communities, all evidence of their online existence. Post Expression facilitates online closure. This will change life, and death, online.”

We let people contact their friends on Second Life. We let people opt to publish their after-life messages publicly to our on-site blog. We let people update their own blog and social media accounts, posthumously of course. We let people dictate the music to be played at their funeral. We let people send a message on the same date each year, every year… we were thinking of the grieving son or daughter on their birthday, and the wife or husband on their anniversary.

The site was a failure. It was beautiful, but it was a failure.

I made a total of €20 from it, but I’d spent thousands on the development of it.

The reason for the failure, I realised much later, wasn’t the design nor the wording. It wasn’t that they didn’t trust the site to get it right. It wasn’t even that we were a touch too early to launch. The problem was: no one wants to think about death. And few can muster up the courage to write a note to a loved one if death isn’t approaching through terminal illness.

I wasn’t going to get into the business of marketing to the terminally ill.

We attempted a pivot to sell our service to members of the armed services around the world. That’s a target market that does think about death, and bravely face it. Plus, they write letters to loved ones before battle. But, we lost energy and belief before we ever launched it.

An Israeli development company did ask us to sell them the code. They wanted to develop their own version of it, but we were inexperienced, in love with the idea, and we figured it would do no harm to ask for $100,000 to see how they’d respond. We never heard from them again.

To this day no one has really resolved the issue of death on the internet. Facebook has a process for removing accounts when a user has died, it’s called “memorialized accounts.” It’s in the FAQ, right under “Hacked and Fake Accounts.” It involves proving the individual has died by providing newspaper clippings, death notices, or similar. Time even penned an article in April 2019: “Dead Facebook Users Will Soon Outnumber Living.”

A friend of mine was tasked with the responsibility of closing her younger sister’s Facebook account when she died in a car accident. As it happened, the boyfriend of the deceased did know the password in question, and my friend was able to access the account and contacted each of the deceased’s friends one-by-one to inform them of the news. It was a harrowing experience. Some were acquaintances, remote and of trivial importance to the young girl who died, but others were long-time friends and real-world confidantes.

Years after we’d given up on the promotion of Post Expression, the site and database was lost in a massive data failure in a data centre somewhere between here and the ether. Weeks of work, months of wonder and contemplation, and a whirlpool of ideas died in that moment. Happily, none of our users ever did pass whilst subscribed to our service.

Yet, I did get my mention in the New York Times. They called it “a macabre niche in the online economy” in an 2007 article about the best ideas of the year. I think we got one sign-up as a result of that fine accolade.