When I talk about why I research social software or online communities, I like to say that I research these things to prove to my mom that the things I do online aren’t scary. In the almost ten years since I started hanging out online, meeting people via BBS or webring or the @forumz or LJ or NaNoWriMo, I’ve made a number of close friends – some, like Carrie, that I’ve met in person, and others, like Cait, that I’m still waiting to meet. There are all sorts of scary things that do go on when people meet online, but I’ve been fortunate to have overwhelmingly positive experiences. My ‘online friends’ – though I prefer to think of them as ‘friends’ – are funny, generous, creative, and kind. I’ve exchanged presents, letters, music, software, and pretty much anything you can send online or through the mail with these people that I first knew as just a screenname, but who have become a source of encouragement, comfort, laughter, frustration, and friendship despite the miles and lives between us.
My ‘online friend’ Leslie died this weekend. She hadn’t updated the advent calendar in a few days, and I was starting to worry, as were other friends. I sent her a note last night saying that I hoped she was off having adventures while we were stuck in the past. When I logged on this morning, I saw a post from another friend saying that Leslie had died over the weekend, probably of bronchitis. Her mom found her yesterday, and that’s all we really know.
I never met Leslie in person, but she always felt like the cool big sister I never had. She was encouraging during times of boy trouble, and she seemed to know everyone. She sent me software when I couldn’t afford to buy it, and I sent her cookies in return. When I posted about my house troubles, she offered the possibility of buying it from me as an investment property – an incredibly generous gesture from someone I’d never met. I had a funny Hello Kitty thing on my desk waiting to send to her for Christmas.
Paul said a while ago that when someone you know online dies, it’s hard to cope because information is so limited and more news may or may never come. I think it’s also hard to cope because there’s never a chance to say goodbye. I suppose that’s always the case with death – but with an online friend, you’re doubly deprived. I never had the chance to meet Leslie – the person she was away from the computer – and now I’ll never know what I missed. I think it’s also hard because when an online friend dies, you know there are other people who are sad, but they’re not there to give you a hug.
So goodbye, I guess. I wish I’d had the chance to know you offline – to eat one of your fantastic meals and learn more about your interesting, challenging life. My life was richer because you were a part of it, and I hope that wherever you are, you are at peace and without pain. You will be dearly missed.
update: more memories of Leslie here. I think half the Internet is mourning her today.