Chris Stedman had not heard from his friend Alex in a while. This wasn’t unusual. Alex often went off the radar. And besides, Stedman had taken a sabbatical from the internet for a few months to complete work on a book.

But soon after he came back online in December 2019, he received an email from Alex. It opened with the line: “Listen, I am writing to let you know that when you receive this scheduled email, I will no longer be alive.”

The rumours in the fan community were that ‘Alice’ was Britney Spears herself.

Sadly, it was true. Alex had taken his own life at the age of 31. Stedman was bereft. In order to cope, he threw himself into doing things to help.

“I knew his family was not in a position to pay the costs for the funeral, so I offered to set up a GoFundMe,” he says from his home in Minneapolis. “Then I asked if they needed help with planning the memorial, so I worked with his sister and best friend on that. Later, at the memorial, I had this moment when I just started sobbing, because I realised there was nothing else for me to do.”

But as it turned out, there was. And the result is a touching four-part podcast called Unread.

Stedman, who is 34, describes himself as “a gay atheist who is somehow teaching religion at a Lutheran university”.

“Even though I’m not religious, I’m involved in a lot of interfaith programs and my activism is focused on understanding,” he says. “As human beings we all have fundamental physical needs but we also need meaning and need to know that our lives have a purpose. I think that looks different for everybody.”

For Stedman and Alex, a big part of finding meaning and identity came through their shared fandom of Britney Spears. The two of them met in 2009 on a dating app, but flirtation quickly became friendship.

“Alex came into my life in a way I’ve since discovered he came into everybody’s lives, which was like a whirlwind. I was in grad school studying religion and I was on this particular track in my life. But he was messy, impulsive and whimsical, just following his instincts. I’d spent my life trying to prove to other people that I was worthy. But he made it clear he loved me for who I really was and he showed me another way of being in the world. For me, our friendship was transformative.”

But now, Alex was gone. When Stedman went back to his friend’s last email, he noticed he had attached some audio files. They were recordings of conversations between Alex and a girl named Alice. The two had met on a Britney Spears online fan forum years earlier. Alice was legendary in this world, because many fans believed she was actually Spears, finding solace from her increasingly troubled life by anonymously communicating with the people who loved her.

“I wondered why Alex had included these with his email,” says Stedman. “I didn’t understand, and I needed to understand. Alex knew me inside out. He knew I fixated on things and I don’t leave things alone. He was always leading me down the rabbit hole with him.”

So Stedman went down the rabbit hole one more time. He started contacting other Spears fans and friends of Alex who had also received the final email.

Although the hook of Unread is solving the mystery of Alice’s identity, and the possibility she could be Spears, the podcast ends up becoming something much deeper. Stedman’s investigation puts him in touch with a worldwide network of souls who had a special connection to Alex and who found identity and a place to be themselves online. The point is that although the internet can be an absolutely horrible place, it can also be a lifeline that creates communities.

And ultimately, making Unread helped Stedman share his grief and deal with the loss of Alex with others who knew him best.

“Certain types of lives get memorialised, and Alex’s life was not one of those lives,” Stedman says. “He didn’t found an organisation or accomplish a great feat. And yet, he utterly changed the life of everyone who ever met him. I wanted to do him justice.”

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