THE ONLINE WEB 2.0 SUICIDE MACHINE, ironically enough, traces its roots back to an offline event. At the start of 2009, Savicic and frequent collaborator Langelaar organized a “Web 2.0 Suicide Night” at a Rotterdam club. Attendees were encouraged to unplug for the evening and check out an early, not-yet-functional prototype of the Machine. They responded enthusiastically.
For the next six months, Savicic, 29, and Langelaar, 32, slowly pushed forward with the project. Given that both hold day jobs — Savicic teaches at the Design Academy in Rotterdam, and the two head a media lab called Moddr and contribute to the Netherlands-based artist collective Worm — the process was more slog than sprint. After many tweaks, it went live on Dec. 19, 2009, and became an immediate online word-of-mouth sensation.
So much of one, in fact, that the first cease-and-desist letter arrived less than three weeks later. Facebook, it seems, did not take kindly to a Web upstart more or less taking over its servers and vanishing a glut of status updates, photos and related personal effluvia — content that, under the terms of its service agreement, it owned. The social-media behemoth likely also chafed at the possibility of losing users and their demographic data. As Savicic wryly puts it, “The more people poked, the more money Facebook is earning.”
In the attorney’s letter, posted on the Web 2.0 Suicide Machine website, Facebook demanded, in so many words, that Savicic and Langelaar knock it off. “They quoted a lot of American laws, which don’t apply to Holland, where the servers are actually hosted,” Savicic recalls. “Our lawyer replied to them and asked them to explain their thoughts a bit more. Since then, we haven’t heard from them.” Neither has American Way: Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.
Facebook also attempted to thwart the Machine by blocking its Web server from connecting, a move which Savicic and Langelaar parried by redirecting traffic through other servers. MySpace tried the same approach, with the same result. Twitter? “I think the Twitter guys are cool enough that they were just laughing,” Savicic says slyly.
Since then, the two Machine partners have become unlikely tech-media darlings, while the device itself recently received the ultimate pop-culture embrace: It was featured prominently in an episode of South Park. While still stunned by the barrage of interest, Savicic understands it. Even though he organizes Wi-Fi–cracking workshops that, uh, address vulnerabilities in private networks, Savicic is far from a techno-anarchist. His concern with the tactics of social-media players, it seems, exists on what he calls an “interventionist/artistic” level.
“What was very interesting about it is that people started to discuss privacy within these platforms,” he says. “They started to realize that all the stuff they’re uploading, all the stuff they’re chatting about and poking, belongs to another company. … The valuable outcome of the project was creating a heated discourse.”
Savicic relinquished control of the Machine in late August by making its source code public. This allows anyone who’s technically inclined to expand upon it: to add other social-media platforms, to increase the number of servers supporting it, etc. Savicic cheerily admits that he has no idea what will happen from this point forward.
“We didn’t have any financial interest in this project,” Savicic says. “We really believe in sharing knowledge.” As for the eventual legacy of the Web 2.0 Suicide Machine, he believes it has already started to reveal itself. “You can see it now, with people organizing quit-Facebook days. It really started a trend, I think.”
LARRY DOBROW is a writer in New York who tweets, Facebooks and LinksIn.