From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

July 22, 1997*A Moment of Silence - On Virtual Mourning

Getting news of someone's death is always a disheartening experience. Whether we read about it in the papers, or are informed by friends, whether the death is due to natural causes or has been sudden and unexpected, it saddens us. And this is so even when we don't know the person who has died. If we have no connection to the person who has died, or to his or her family, we're not expected to express ourselves, whereas if we have known the person in question others expect of us, and we expect of ourselves, that we somehow take part in the mourning. The rituals called upon here don't differ whether we knew the deceased from school, from work, from family, or from any other social setting. Is that also the case when our acquaintance with the deceased is solely virtual? Recently I had the opportunity to examine that question.*

The story starts with a distressing e-message that arrived on the horn players' list to which Tzippi subscribes:

Though I hadn't followed Nicole's participation on the horn list, and didn't even know her virtually, let alone personally, this message was very saddening. But it also caused more than a little ambivalence. Here was an example of the communicative power of e-mail, of its ability to spread the word incredibly quickly, yet it was also an example of how e-mail doesn't distinguish between the lofty and the banal; for within one message, posted altogether three days after the fatal accident, not only were the members of the list informed of what had happened, but they were also asked to help in the technicalities of signing off a mailing list. While still in the very early stages of mourning, Nicole's mother requests details on closing her daughter's account, and does so as a sort of aside in an otherwise very moving message. My antennae told me something interesting was happening here.

The first reply was posted the same day by one of the more active members of the list. It reflected, once again, the duality of e-messages:

Here was a kindly worded condolence message, just like any other that we might find inside a slightly garish card with a picture of a bouquet of flowers on it. Yet in addition to the message of condolence, and right next to it, we find an explanation of the unsubscribing process. Perhaps I'm being pedantic, but were I Nicole's mother I think that I would feel a twinge of discomfort each time I read the message and found the kind words of remembrance juxtaposed with a technical message. But two more elements stand out in this message, each of them at least as distressing as the juxtaposition of the condolences with the technicalities.

First, it's hard not to get the impression that the writer of this message really didn't know Nicole. Altogether he has told her mother that her daughter was a nice person ("at least appeared to be"!) and that he enjoyed reading her postings. The only element in the letter that suggests anything approaching a personal acquaintance is the reference to the fact that Nicole seemed to put her trust in the horn list when she approached it with a question, and this, it seems to me, is little more than a truism, since why else would someone ask the list a question other than to receive information? If e-mail is supposed to be capable of drawing people together, of giving them a sense of belonging to a like-minded community, or to a community of similar interests, that capability isn't reflected in this letter.

The second element that stands out in this message is the fifth line of the header, even before the letter itself starts:

A copy of this letter has been sent not only to Nicole's family, but to every member of the horn list as well. Though eulogies are intended to be read in public, I'm not sure that condolence letters are. The cartoon at the head of this page relates to that subject, but I doubt that even the person who drew the cartoon was alluding to messages being sent to an entire list. Though I would think that Nicole's mother would want others to know good things about her daughter, being told them in the same "personal" letter that was sent to her doesn't seem to be the proper way. In the following week an additional twenty e-messages concerning Nicole's death (and the injury of another young member of the same list who was riding with her in the car) were posted to the list. Another two messages were about other subjects but also mentioned Nicole. Altogether this was about 10% of the mail on the list for that week. Of the additional twenty messages, five of them were posted to Nicole's family as well as to the list. I don't know how many private messages were sent to Nicole's family.

Events such as this capture our involvement quite suddenly and totally, and then just as quickly fade from the limelight. There's every reason to expect that the list would return to business as usual in about a week, and it seems that this is what happened. But some of the members of the list sought not only some way to express their sorrow and condolences on the list, but also to memorialize Nicole. One of the ideas raised was to set up a web page in her memory - a logical and legitimate suggestion. (Nicole herself had a web page, and chances are good that with the closing of her account her page was closed as well. Personally, it would seem to me that a fitting memorial would be the maintaining of her pages on some other server.) But this suggestion apparently met with a very lackluster response. On August 3, Thomas Nielsen, of the previously quoted post wrote to the list:

Nielsen seems to be suggesting that the list subscribers, ordinarily a very loquacious lot, were surpisingly apathetic on this sensitive and emotional subject. Personally, I don't think that the lack of response was a reflection of the apathy of the list members. Quite the contrary, it seems to me that what happened was that a few members of the list, perhaps influenced by the popular literature on the subject, mistakenly thought they were a community rather than a list. This would explain the very limited response on the part of the list members to Thomas's request, and the small amount of mail devoted to Nicole. Members of the list simply hadn't gotten to know Nicole from her correspondance with the list, and they thus felt that they had very little to tell about her, or to her family. The only truly personal and emotionally charged letter to Nicole's family (and to the list) came not from a list member, but from the mother of a member who wrote as a mother. It seems that she found more common ground as a mother than horn players did as horn players.

But although the list apparently didn't turn into a community following the death of a member, a number of interesting, perhaps original, methods of mourning were suggested. One member referred to great departed horn players in his short message. Another member of the list suggested a memorial that would be particularly fitting for horn players:

I found this suggestion very fitting, but I was moved even more by a different message. Active mailing lists, by definition, tend to be terribly loquacious, and it's hard to find a bit of quiet in them - the sort of quiet that allows you to mourn for a member of the list. Thus I was most impressed by a message entitled A moment of silence for Nicole Taylor. About fifteen minutes after this first "moment of silence" was posted, another showed up on the list. Intrigued, I did some extensive searching via DejaNews and Reference Com for other examples of this practice. Admittedly, searching through newsgroups for a practice that might be common on listservs may be ill-fated from the start, but it was my best bet. I didn't find any other examples, and I don't know whether this practice is prevalent or not. Whether it is or isn't, on the sad occasions when condolences are called for on listserv mailing lists, I strongly endorse it.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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