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July 7, 2010

I see dead people

“Extreme social networking,” the latest wave to sweep both the Internet and Silicon Valley venture-capital circles, has opened a new frontier: chatting with the dead. Pramana Darmali, a 13-year-old Indonesian boy, has devised a video chatting site that allows users with webcams to chat with random dead people.

“It was the next logical step for social networking,” said the Jakarta wunderkind, whose net worth is already estimated at $600 million. “Facebook lets us connect exponentially with a wide network of friends. Skype lets us make video calls with our friends and families. ChatRoulette offers video chatting with random strangers the world over. I thought, ‘Why not dead people, too?’” Darmali also announced plans to drop out of seventh grade and move to Palo Alto, Calif., where he will work with Napster founder Shawn Fanning to monetize the product.

Anyone with a computer and a webcam can visit www.ISeeDeadPeople.com to try out the service. After a few moments, the site presents two windows — one for the live user and one for a random dead person. The two may chat or, if they don’t like what they see, click “Next” to move on to another random user or cadaver.

How the technology works is a closely guarded secret, but it’s clear Darmali, whose net worth is projected to reach $1.3 billion this year, borrowed heavily from ChatRoulette’s program code. How he made it interface with the dead is another matter. “I was grounded by my parents for skipping school. I had a lot of time on my hands,” is all he would say.

I See Dead People enthusiasts describe the product as a major breakthrough in both social networking and paranormal exploration. “Facebook is totally lame now,” said Allie Weber, a University of North Carolina freshman who recently abandoned Facebook and her 2,987 friends. “It’s all old people and marketing. Like, my mom and my aunt friended me, and they are always posting recipes. Fail! Dead people are way cooler than that.”

Weber now prefers to chat with the dead, including her paternal grandfather, John Henry Weber, who died in 1997 after battling Irritable Badger Syndrome. “At least I’m pretty sure it was him,” she said. “It was hard to tell because it was mostly just his skeleton, and his skull had worms crawling through the eye sockets. It was awesome.”

The decidedly one-way chat did not concern Allie Weber, who said she carried most of the conversational load. “He listened and I talked,” she said. “But it’s OK. I’m used to that. It’s a lot like talking to my dad.”

She did caution, however, about inappropriate behavior online. “If you think live perverts are gross,” she warned, “try talking to dead ones. You gotta be ready to ‘Next’ them before you see something really disgusting.”

Despite the morbid nature of Darmali’s site and the lack of meaningful feedback from the beyond, Silicon Valley investors are lined up to throw cash at the web’s latest sensation, and experts on paranormal activity were eager to take a firsthand look.

“It’s a very exciting development,” said the Rev. Joseph E. Kurtz, archbishop of the Archdiocese of Louisville. “This new gift from God is a window into the afterlife that promises to be an effective tool for meaningful prayer and worship as we seek to become one with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Undaunted by what so far has been stone silence from the departed, Kurtz called for patience and perseverance. “We’ve been talking to the dead with no response for 2,000 years,” he said. “That is not a problem for those of faith.”

Sully Gunkel, an angel investor from Redwood City, Calif., agreed. “The holy grail of social networking is going to be chatting with life from other planets. But until then, we’ve got our own dead. True, they haven’t said much back so far, but what investor wants to be on the sidelines when they do?”

Darmali, whose net worth is expected to exceed $43 billion by the time he gets his driver’s license, has no plans to rest on his laurels. He’s already hard at work on an I See Dead People “reincarnation app” that would allow users to chat with themselves in a former life. “I’m dying to know what I was like in my past lives,” he said. “How shiz would it be if I was a totally hot girl?”

Jim Welp is the author of “Summary of My Discontent — Constructive Criticism for Discerning Americans,” now available at Carmichael’s Bookstore or Amazon.com.