Our Digital Footprint. When a Friend, and a Network, Dies

This poignant post comes from {grow} community member Jenn Whinnem …

Remember Friendster? The social network that predated even MySpace (or am I showing my age?)? At any rate, it shuts down at the end of May, and I’m having a hard time with this.

See, Friendster is my last connection to Curtis, a friend of mine who died nearly eight years ago. That’s why I haven’t been able to bring myself to delete my account, even though Friendster stopped being a truly viable social networking service in 2005 (I think).

I never met Curtis – he was someone I knew through a message board and chat room. This was how I amused myself while I attended a rural college nearly ten years ago. Many of the people I met online became friends in real life.

Curtis was in his early 20s and very, very into music. In fact, he ran the site rantcore.com (no longer available), and it was pretty well known in punk circles back during that different world that was the internet in early 2000’s.

Curtis and I bonded because we were sickies. I have cystic fibrosis and Curtis had something called demyelinating polyneuropathy. This meant his nerve sheaths were destroying themselves, and he was becoming weak enough that he had just started walking with a cane. He was in pain every day.

At one point, he confided in me that he had found a blog (a newish thing, at the time) by a guy with an advanced case of the disease. The post that got to him was the one where the guy purchased a car for the handicapped that would load his wheelchair into the car for him.

When you have a fatal disease, you have these moments where you realize: this is going to happen to me. You feel your mortality. This was one of those moments for Curtis as he realized what his disease was going to do to him. If he did attend one of his beloved punk shows, it would be in a wheelchair. That was, of course, if he could even breathe. Curtis and I talked a long time about what this would mean for him.

And yet, this never happened.

Curtis slipped in the shower and hit his head. He lived alone, so he bled to death. We found out because his girlfriend logged into chat one day to tell us he had died. A friend verified this with the county coroner.

I can’t tell you what this felt like, to grieve for someone I knew but had not met. I talked to Curtis everyday for almost a year. He sent me a .zip file of The Bangs to cheer me up once; I told him stories about my job taking care of the elderly. You can’t tell me that that’s not a friendship.

Curtis died November 25, 2003 – just a few months after Friendster started and we joined. Every year I get a little reminder about his birthday, and I log into Friendster, see his photos, read the funny comments people wrote about him. Friendster shutting down means I lose one more little piece of Curtis.

It’s something that many of us don’t like to think about, but I’m going to ask, because what I learned from Curtis is that it can sneak up on you way before you’re ready for it: what’s your digital legacy? How will we remember you after you die? What do we do when the comments are gone?

Jenn Whinnem is the Communications Officer for the Connecticut Health Foundation (www.cthealth.org). In this role, she is in charge of the web and social media for the foundation. You can find her on Twitter www.twitter.com/jennwhinnem.

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