by Esther Schindler

If you died, would your online friends know?

Nov 14, 20074 mins

For the last 25 years, I have lived in TCP/IP packets more than I do in the real world. I do have personal connections; I’m involved in community activities, and I have warm-blooded friends who would notice if I quit breathing. Those people have my phone number and physical address… but my virtual correspondents do not. If I disappeared from one of those online communities, would they notice?

I knew Elliot for 15 years. He showed up at every user group meeting of the Phoenix OS/2 Society, he participated in its discussion forum, he always wanted to help. Elliot died during an open heart operation. Now, a year later, his mom wants to invite people to the unveiling… and she has no idea how to reach his friends. Elliot’s computer was, of course, password protected, and she didn’t know where he stored his contact information. He didn’t have a “regular” address book. So she spent hours on and other services trying to find addresses for people. I got a plaintive phone call last night, asking if I was Esther and I used to know someone named Elliot…?

This is unusual only in that Elliot’s mom has some idea of the online communities in which her son was active. When other community members have passed away, the only way for others to learn about it is when a friend with an in-person relationship to the deceased posted an announcement to the list. (Last year, I had the sad duty to tell POSSI members about Elliot.) Otherwise, we all assume that the individual wandered away, lost interest in the subject, changed jobs, etc. There’s so much noise that we don’t notice the silence of one individual voice.

Especially when the voice is infrequent. Even though it had been years since I had spoken with him, I cherished Randell Flint, president of software developer Sundial Systems. But because there’s no “Obit Page” in most communities, the only way that word reached me about his death was from “hey did you know…” e-mail messages from old friends.

Although I’m taking myself off on a tangent here… it’s not just about online community. Some years ago, a met a young widow whose husband was a bit of a security freak. He carefully stored all their important information — such as how to get into the safety deposit box holding their wills — in a Word document, and put a password on that document. She didn’t know the password; he was killed in a car accident. Even Microsoft couldn’t help her. Ask yourself: does your spouse know your passwords?

I was an early adopter of online communities (which sounds better than, “Esther, you are such an old fart!”), so I watch all this “social networking” stuff with a jaundiced eye. (Yeah, yeah. It’s just “online community” with voting priviledges.) As more of “who we are” moves online—complete with avatars, passwords, and other ways to protect our online identities—I wonder how well the grand new world of Community 2.0 will address the stage when a contributor’s line goes dead.

This is not an idle need. Successful communiites are defined by members who care about one another. When one passes, the community needs to grieve. I participated in an online wake when Howard Benner, the author of TAPCIS, died; it was basically a chat room in which people (from Maine, California, France) posted their memories of a guy whom few of us had ever met in person. Communities that work know how to greet a new person… and they also need to know how to — and be aware of when to — say goodbye.