Credit: James Marvin Phelps/Flickr

How Everything Turned Out

When refugees from another planet make contact and ask for help, Earth’s web geeks should help them, right? A tale of Non-Earthers, online social networks, and memorable sunsets.

Finally, one year after the project had started, we finished uploading all of our photos to Flickr. We spent some time clicking through to make sure they were all there.

“OK,” Stewart said, “Looks good. We have taken a picture of everything.”

Someone wondered if we had a picture of Mount St. Helens, before it blew up. We did. Did we have a picture of the Appalachian Mountains, enshrouded in fog? Yes. We also had pictures of an attractive woman wearing a distressed t-shirt bearing the slogan “Maui ‘68,” a broken chair in the middle of the desert, a forest fire, and Miles Davis standing next to Ian Astbury.

“We have at least one picture of everything, ever,” Stewart said.

Everyone began cheering and congratulating each other. It had been a huge undertaking. They said it couldn’t be done! But look what humans can do, when they cooperate. Look at what people can accomplish on the internet.

Anil asked if there was a picture of the sunset from Aug. 22, 1998.

We checked.

There was not.

“There has to be,” Stewart said. “Are you sure? It’s there, it’s just tagged incorrectly.”

But no, it was not there.

“Well we’ve got the other sunsets,” Heather said. “We even have the ones from August 21st and 23rd of that year. Good enough, if you ask me.”

“Argh! We came so close, though,” Derek said.

“That was a great sunset, as I recall,” Jason said. “I think I wrote about it on my blog.”

“We’ve got all the others!” Heather said.

“Not the point, Heather,” Anil said.

“Oh, wait, I’ve got it,” Matt said. “Turns out I forgot to upload it. Sorry.”

He put the picture up and everyone took a look at it.

It was actually pretty nice.

All of this happened after we discovered the other planet.


It was a strange and exciting time, with one stunning revelation after another. There is another planet, just like Earth, far away! It has all the conditions necessary to support life! Whoa, it actually has people on it! They kind of look like us! But oh no, their sun is dying and pretty soon everyone on their planet will be dead. What do we do? Should we help them?

Well, of course. Of course we should help them.

It seemed weird to refer to them as aliens, since in most respects they were so similar to us. There was talk of calling them “The Others,” but then there was the danger of confusing them with characters from the TV show Lost. The easiest and most polite thing would have been to refer to them using the name of their planet, but it seemed they weren’t as hung up on proper nouns as we were, and it wasn’t clear their planet even had a name. And of course our scientists only referred to it using an awkward string of numbers and dashes and letters. In the end most people called them the Non-Earthers.

For a short while after the Non-Earthers were discovered, there was a pleasant sort of truce on our planet. Suddenly it wasn’t Pakistani versus French versus Israeli versus Iranian; it was all of us, and them. But it didn’t last very long. Soon the decision to bring everyone from the other planet to ours caused some issues and hurt feelings. There were people already on our planet who had been denied access to various countries, and yet here were these Non-Earthers being flown down—at great expense—right to those same countries. Just as one example, there were people in Mexico who were very upset about having already waited so long to get into the United States. Well, Mexico’s sun isn’t dying, the argument went, so maybe they should just relax. Still, one could see how they might feel slighted.


So, a lot of people were outraged that we were bringing the Non-Earthers over to our planet. And then there were also a lot of people who were outraged that the other people were so outraged. It was a very complicated issue and everyone was posting their opinions on blogs and online forums and social networking platforms. Sometimes in a nice way, trying to get other people to agree with them, but more often angrily, deriding the other side and trying to bully other people into agreeing with them. One day, you might log in to MySpace and the background of the site would be a huge advertisement against helping the Non-Earthers. The next day, it would be an ad saying how can we not help them, et cetera. Some people accused Google of filtering its search results to favor those on the pro-Non-Earthers side. Some people accused Twitter and SixApart of deleting anti-Non-Earther groups and user accounts. A lot of people said that a lot of other people were worse than Hitler, both jokingly and seriously. This caused forum administrators to have to delete a lot of threads, which caused a lot of people to complain that they were victims of censorship, that there was no longer free speech, and that the administrators were beholden to one side or the other.

The internet felt very crowded.

It was around this time that I reconnected on MySpace with someone I had known in high school. Her profile was filled with pictures of her five-year-old daughter, who had died of cancer.


I spend a lot of time Googling and searching on different sites for people from my past. I remember everyone, and I’m always curious to see how their lives turned out, how their lives compare to mine now, and if we have anything in common.

That was how I found Angela on MySpace. We had been in gym class together in high school. We hadn’t been close, but had mutual friends and enjoyed chatting and keeping a low profile while everyone else was running and jumping around. On Angela’s MySpace there were a lot of pictures of her with her daughter, but also some of just Angela, alone. She looked tired, but was smiling in some of them. I sent her a note, reminded her of who I was, explained how I found her, told her that I was sorry to hear about her daughter. She wrote back and we corresponded a few times. I wasn’t sure if she really remembered me or was just being polite. We’d only shared that one class, and high school was so long ago. We messaged a few times, but that was it. Our lives were very different and we didn’t live near each other. She posted a lot of bulletins on MySpace, which were the modern equivalent of email forwards. Here is a story about a girl who is sick, please pray for her. Here is a warning about some emails from companies that are trying to steal your passwords and identification. Here is a questionnaire I filled out having to do with my favorite bands and movies. Basically everything I knew about Angela I knew from what she posted to MySpace. I went through her friends to see if there was anyone else I remembered from high school, but there wasn’t.

Sometimes I wonder why all of those people I’m looking for aren’t searching for me. Maybe they send me emails that get caught in my spam filters. Maybe they have more important things going on. Still, I wonder.


The Non-Earthers arrived and began settling in. At first we mainly communicated by talking slowly and using elaborate gestures, but they picked up our languages fairly quickly. Theirs, on the other hand, were a lot more complicated; many of their most common words didn’t have parallels in our vocabularies. They would group together pictures of an angry mob, a girl wearing a colorful hat, and a barren field, and we would have no idea what they were talking about.

And even stranger: They kept trying to touch us. We learned that some of their communication with each other had to take place via direct physical contact. They had entire words and ideas that could only be expressed through touch. It seemed a little inconvenient, and it didn’t work with us, but it was interesting.

The Non-Earthers enjoyed their first few weeks here, but then they unexpectedly began dying off. It turned out that there was a slight difference between our atmospheres. We had done tests beforehand, but we could only test for things we knew about or understood. There had been something else, something critical that was missing here. Within a year, all of the Non-Earthers had died. There were a few small glimmers of hope along the way—Maybe their babies who are born here, on our planet, will be able to adapt and survive. But no, they all died, too. The Non-Earthers had wanted to be sent back to their home planet, if they were all going to die anyway. But it was too expensive, and they were dying too quickly. There were a lot of tests, a lot of science, a lot of debates. Maybe if we try this or this? Maybe if we keep them in this one room? Maybe we could genetically modify them? But nothing worked, and there were hundreds left, and then just a dozen, and then none. Some people say there might still be a few alive, kept somewhere secret, hooked up to machines in government labs. Who knows.

Many people here were angry that they’d all died, given the great expense we’d gone through to bring them here. What a waste! All that for nothing! Why did we even bother? Think of how much good all that money could have done for people already on this planet, who are hungry or sick or dying. I don’t know. We recorded their stories. They taught us a few concepts we hadn’t been able to wrap our heads around previously. We showed them pictures of things that were important to us. Setting suns made them sad, but they liked almost everything else.