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

September 25, 2003*: If you knew him like we knew him

Approximately a year ago an aging friend of mine died. This friend (we'll call him Avraham) was in his late seventies, and very lucid, but in failing health. He knew he didn't have long to live. A number of years earlier he'd become a computer enthusiast, teaching himself many of the ins and outs of personal computers. He was happy to share his knowledge, and he helped many newcomers to the field get their bearings, gave useful pointers to whomever might ask, and even taught a small class or two. As Avraham's health worsened, and more and more he became confined to his home, his interest in the internet blossomed. Contact with people via the internet offered him a way of socializing that didn't demand that he leave his apartment. An online discussion forum devoted to writing became his main internet-related activity, and to a rather large extent, his main social activity. The focus of this forum was the posting of stories and poems written by members of the forum, and feedback - usually constructive criticism - offered by other members. Avraham became a respected member of this forum, and he posted many stories that he wrote - primarily recollections from his youth.

Avraham knew that his health was deteriorating, and shortly before his death he posted a message to the forum titled "parting". In that message, altogether about 100 words long, Avraham expressed his thanks to his family and to his friends for being near him and supporting him. He thanked the infirmary at his home for caring for his health needs, and emphasized that he didn't want any valiant efforts undertaken to prolong his life. At the very end of that message was one sentence to the members of the forum: he wrote that "it was pleasant being in your company".

In the light of this message, with its emphasis on non-forum friends and family, it seems very legitimate to ask why Avraham would choose to post it to the forum. The people whom he thanked weren't readers of that forum, and the readers of the forum had reason to feel, upon reading that message, that they played little more than a minor role in his life. Judging from the responses to that message, however, the members of the forum weren't interested in asking that question. Instead they took the opportunity to take part in what seems to have become a sort of bonding ritual of cyberspace.

Many people in Avraham's community knew that his time was running out. Many friends and neighbors visited with him during the last few weeks of his life, knowing that they were probably visiting him for the last time. But though many people stopped by his home to visit, in sheer volume these visits couldn't compare to the flurry of activity in the forum. In the next two days over forty responses to Avraham's message were posted to the forum. Some of these related to Avraham personally - the writers noted, for instance, that they had read the stories he had posted to the forum and had been moved by them. Other members, however, simply noted "I didn't get a chance to get to know you" or something similarly banal. To an outsider, such as me, the general impression that these responses created was that the members of the forum who didn't know Avraham felt compelled to make some sort of supportive comment, even if they didn't have anything personal to write. These responses could be seen as an expression of the power of an online forum. The sheer volume of over forty messages suggested, regardless of their content, a true feeling of community.

Three leaders of the forum came to Avraham's funeral, and one of them spoke at it. As might be expected, this spokesperson for the forum told those attending the funeral how they had gotten to know him through his participation in the forum. More than this, however, she suggested, more than once, that she, and the other members of the forum, had known the real Avraham. She suggested that this real person hadn't been recognized and/or respected in his community - that his true qualities became apparently only in the forum. She referred numerous times to "our Avraham". She remained a representative of her community, and reported back to it after the funeral. She hardly seemed to notice, however, that the eulogies of the non-forum members at the funeral related to Avraham as an important and well-regarded member of his community - just the things she'd been suggesting that he wasn't.

There's something sadly predictable in this situation. My guess is that many of us who immerse ourselves in the "virtual" world almost desperately want to prove that the camaraderie of virtual community is at least as strong, and probably stronger, than that of the regular world. It's in this light that the forum leaders seemed simply to miss the obvious fact that the people attending Avraham's funeral actually did know him, and had great respect for him. As much as they tried to see things differently, this wasn't a case of someone who wasn't recognized in his "physical" community and who was able to find expression only in the "virtual". Quite the opposite: Here was a person who was recognized and highly regarded in all of the communities he encountered. Avraham's "virtual" friends would have paid him a greater service had they been willing to recognize this. More than telling Avraham's story, they rather predictably told only their own.

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

Jay Hurvitz

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