Scott Herhold probably thought he had a great human-interest story. The sad tale of a San Jose man named Phil Gustafson who’d slowly retreated from the world, cut himself off from ties to people and the basics of everyday living, and died alone, unmissed and unmourned - well, it’s got pathos in bucketloads, the sort of story designed to make you stop for a moment over your morning coffee and appreciate the people in your life. Who could resist?
Except there’s a problem; the story isn’t so simple. In the networked world - a world first built by Phil and his generation of geeks - you can’t always tell who is alone, or even what being alone really means, quite so easily.
I first met Phil in 1994, over the Internet, in the hazy distant days when (to quote another member of that circle of friends) meeting people over the Internet wasn’t creepy, it was just weird. Before the Web, when geeks and nerds congregated on Usenet, we hung out together in alt.folklore.urban, a Usenet newsgroup dedicated to tracking and debunking urban legends. A lot of what Scott Herhold found out about Phil in his online search for who he’d been traces back to that community, right down to the quip in quotation marks in the sign-off, a subcultural marker the group regulars all used (here are some examples from my own posts).
Usenet stopped being much other than spam and piracy a long time ago, but friendships are different: the alt.folklore.urban folks aren’t the only group of friends who still stay in touch. Phil and I attended weddings and funerals together, we’d both attended group get-togethers all over the country, and while we weren’t close friends, we had the familiarity only a long-shared community can provide. I hadn’t seen him in years, but I still tell stories in which he gets the last line. He had his demons, but he was fundamentally a good person, and I’m not the only person who felt the news of his passing like a kick in the chest.
Herhold’s article was published on the afternoon of January 18th. I don’t know when the first of Phil’s friends spotted it, but by the 19th, when I heard about it, there were comments on it from our mutual friends all over the world, testifying that Phil would not be either unmissed or unmourned. Herhold’s article noted that the coroner’s office was awaiting official identification; the alt.folklore.urban old-timers’ mailing lists pulled out every reference they could find to Phil’s brother and sister in the email archives, tracked them both down, and took on the awful task of informing the family, so at least they’d hear it from someone who cared about him.
To me, perhaps the most remarkable part of this story is that it’s totally unremarkable, and yet probably surprising at the same time. Online communities do remarkable things every day, from raising money for charity to fighting laws that threaten their existence to stopping someone from getting caught up in a sex trafficking ring. But we still don’t necessarily think or know how to look for someone’s online affiliations and community memberships.
Phil doesn’t fit our stereotype of the always-on “digital native”: he was a shy senior citizen. Herhold did go online to learn more about him, but Phil’s primary digital haunts - mailing lists and online poker games - are out of Google’s grasp. It’s true that for all of his online friends, Phil was only found because the mail and papers piled up outside his door - especially over the holiday season, when many people are offline visiting family and friends, his online silence wasn’t particularly notable. As the first generation of computer nerds who found their friends online age into their 60s and 70s, maybe we need a better system to let distant communities know when something is wrong. For now, though, I hope the outpouring has comforted his family, and maybe taught a columnist something about assuming too much in a human-interest piece.
One of our friends, writing from New Zealand, commented on the article, which dwelled on Phil’s isolation from his neighbors:
phil was an early adopter of e-mail, usenet and other forms of on-line socialisation and he was a very social person on-line. he died with his computer on. why is there an assumption he was alone? most likely he had been socialising with someone just before falling asleep for the last time. is that not the most we can ask for? he lived in an age which allowed him to find a peer group of like minded people which spans the globe and travelled great distances to meet those people in person. i would say his horseshoe worked for him. he will be missed by many.
UPDATE: Please read the comment on this post by Carl, Phil’s brother, who deserves to get the last word.