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I found an old article from the NY Times from 1994 about online grieving and support.  It is quite interesting on two accounts.  One is the historical element of the piece.  Who knew were we would be 17 years later when it comes to the internet.  The piece discusses hooking up via a modem through one’s telephone, etc.  The second is that the idea of supporting people through electronic communication seems to have been a natural outgrowth of the chat rooms and electronic forums. 

March 8, 1994

Strangers, Not Their Computers, Build a Network in Time of Grief


It was all too familiar a New York story. A gunman, after robbing a topless club in Times Square, turned and fired at his pursuers. A stray bullet instantly killed a bystander in a nearby store.

The victim, David Alsberg, was a 42-year-old computer programmer. He left behind a wife, a young son, and hundreds of grieving friends in both of the neighborhoods in which he lived: one in Astoria, Queens, and the other in the electronic community called cyberspace.

Although most of them had never met him in the real world, his cyberspace neighbors from around the nation mourned Mr. Alsberg’s death with an on-line wake that lasted weeks, commiserating through their personal computers. Using modems linked to telephone lines, they met in the same electronic forums where, just before his killing a few days after Christmas, Mr. Alsberg had been involved in a passionate debate on handgun control.

Much more than a mere crime statistic, Mr. Alsberg has come to symbolize the new social dynamic of computer networking.

In a world where physical contact is impossible, Mr. Alsberg’s cyberspace neighbors consoled each other over the senseless loss of a mutual friend. And in their collective grieving, they demonstrated an impulse for togetherness that is as modern as the digital age and as old as humankind. For as more people become citizens of cyberspace, they are forging relationships that many describe as being as rewarding as their face-to-face friendships.

When Mr. Alsberg’s cyberspace mourners learned that he had no life insurance — he had been laid off several months earlier from his programmer’s job at Citicorp — they decided to begin soliciting recipes to compile an electronic cookbook. Proceeds from sales, once they begin, will go to a trust fund for the Alsberg family.

There are no hard numbers for the population of cyberspace, although it has recently been estimated at 30 million to 35 million — if one counts all the computer networks in offices, the networks that subscribers pay for like Compuserve and Prodigy and Minitel of France, the thousands of privately run electronic bulletin board services, and the global network of networks called the Internet. Alone, the Internet has 15 million to 20 million individual addresses — although it is not known how many of those are in regular use.

But the hundreds of thousands of messages posted each day on the Internet indicate an active user universe. And the vitality of relationships on these data networks appears to dispel the notion of computer users as loners and social misfits who prefer the cold glow of video tubes and the precision of binary logic to the warmth and unpredictability of human relationships. Like frontier neighbors who come together for barn-raisings, for worship, for dances and for funerals, the residents of cyberspace often display a sense of communal support that surprises newcomers.

“Those who scoff at the notion of electronic community sometimes suggest that it is inhabited by classic lonely guys, get-a-life types,” said Jim Seymour, a computer consultant in Austin, Tex., who had often chatted with Mr. Alsberg on the Ziffnet on-line information network, although they never met.

This new type of computer-based relationship — some might call it artificial intimacy — is catching the interest of psychologists and sociologists.

One cannot travel very far on the data networks without coming across new communities, new friendships and spontaneous acts of kindness among strangers, phenomena that sometimes seem to be all too rare “in the real world” — or I.T.R.W., as it is known in the shorthand of cyberspace.

Sara Kiesler, professor of social and decision sciences at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, said she first noticed the phenomenon more than a decade ago while studying the Arpanet, a scientific and academic network that has since evolved into the Internet.

“Although the network was originally supposed to connect people with computers, what they really spent their time doing was connecting with one another,” Professor Kiesler said.

It may be hard for many people to imagine developing a close emotional relationship with someone with whom one merely corresponds, although such things do happen in real life. Pen pals do fall in love, and friendships are made and lost over the telephone. But in cyberspace the exchanges are still mainly in text.

Even so, it is common to hear stories of people laughing or weeping while they interact with others through the computer screen, of people so attached to their on-line relationships — they become addicted to the net — that they seek counseling.

On most larger commercial services as well as on the global Internet, people form all sorts of groups based on a shared need for information and emotional support.

There are forums for cancer patients, for people with AIDS and for people who do not have AIDS but carry H.I.V., the virus that causes it. There are network groups for victims of sexual abuse — and even a support group for recovering abusers. Other communities range from the broad (one has the Internet address “soc.culture.feminism”) to the narrowly drawn (“DEAFBLND,” coordinated by a computer at the University of Kentucky, for those with dual sensory impairment).

One of the most popular, and broad based, network gathering spots is the Internet Relay Chat service, the cyberspace equivalent of citizens’ band radio, where people gather for free-ranging discussions on a virtually limitless array of topics. It was on I.R.C., as it is known, that Internet night owls gave live reports about the recent Los Angeles earthquake and its aftermath.

News, good and bad, travels fast in cyberspace. Brendan P. Kehoe, an affable, 23-year-old computer whiz in Mountain View, Calif., was severely hurt in an auto accident on Dec. 31 while visiting in Newtown, Pa. Mr. Kehoe is well known on the Internet, having written “Zen and the Art of the Internet,” an introductory guide to cyberspace.

Within hours, word of Mr. Kehoe’s accident spread throughout the global web of Internet connections, passing from one friend to the next in the cyberspace equivalent of jungle drums. Flood of Get-Well Cards

The next day, Mr. Kehoe’s housemate and co-worker, Jeffrey Osier, flew to Pennsylvania from California and set up a laptop computer in a motel room across from the hospital, the University of Pennsylvania Neurological Trauma Center in Philadelphia, where he posted regular Internet updates on Mr. Kehoe’s condition.

Get-well cards, mostly electronic but also on paper, flooded in. Messages arrived in Spanish, Japanese, French and Russian, reflecting the global nature of the network. Dozens of people offered financial help, with more than $1,000 sent so far.

Others, reflecting the Internet’s heritage among university and scientific researchers, sent research papers about brain injuries, gleaned from medical data bases. When Mr. Kehoe emerged from the coma and began speaking in numbers, rather than words — a condition known as aphasia — people who had suffered from similar symptoms, or knew others who had, began sharing anecdotes about what Mr. Kehoe and his family could expect in the months ahead.

Mr. Kehoe, who is regaining his normal speech, said he intended to answer every get-well message. But the task is hampered by a broken shoulder that he says has reduced his typing speed to a mere 110 words a minute from his pre-accident pace of 150.

He also has to fight for access to the computer. While recovering, he is living in Augusta, Me., at the home of his mother, Alice Kehoe, a local radio disk jockey who became so interested in the on-line community that she now spends an hour a day chatting with friends on the Prodigy network.

Another case: Last May, the moving van taking Mike Godwin’s belongings to Washington from Cambridge, Mass., caught fire en route and most of his belongings were destroyed.

“I felt immensely uprooted and alone” in a new city with a new job, Mr. Godwin recalled. “I didn’t know my new neighbors in Washington, but I knew who my cyberspace neighbors were.”

Mr. Godwin turned to his neighbors on the Well, an electronic community of about 8,000 users, operated by Bruce R. Katz, a private investor in San Francisco.

When Mr. Godwin expressed particular concern over the loss of his books, which he had been collecting since youth, another Well resident, Elliot Fabric, suggested that he post a list of the books that had been destroyed.

He did so, “and for the next six months, not a day went by that I didn’t get a book, or a box of books, in the mail,” Mr. Godwin said.

The Well is unusual in that it has a strong geographic locus, the Bay Area, which allows members to meet “I.T.R.W.” if they choose.

“We rent a nice site under the Golden Gate Bridge once a month and sort of see what happens,” said Gail Williams, conferencing manager for the Well. Attendance sometimes approaches 500 people.

It is common at such encounters for people to be surprised by the physical appearance of people they know only by streams of text. In cyberspace, physical disabilities, racial or ethnic differences, socioeconomic stratas and even gender issues tend to disappear.

Mr. Kehoe, recovering from his auto accident, said he now saw a different dimension of cyberspace.

“I knew I had a dozen really close friends, but oh, it just really amazes me,” Mr. Kehoe said. “It occurs to me now that even though they’re just E-mail addresses on screen, there are real people behind them. It’s really neat, especially when you realize that the people who are into it aren’t just computer weenies.”

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