Shortly after I joined Twitter he replied to something I wrote, and retweeted it. It was a thrill. His follow-up comments were insightful, incisive and justified. The exchange drew in some more established Tweeps, a few of them followed me, and I felt that I had truly joined the conversation. We followed each other. Thereafter we had the odd interaction, not many, but I tended to agree with him, and he with me. Once, when I felt demoralised after receiving some personal criticism during a controversial debate, he supported my point of view. Coming from him it felt important, and it cheered me up.
Months later I read a Tweet reporting that he had died. I was shocked because he had Tweeted just a few days before. Quite a few commented on his passing. I wrote something, although, never having known him, it was necessarily shallow. I didn’t include his ID…that felt too direct. The brief eulogy was based on the impression I had formed over a matter of months, based on fifteen, perhaps twenty micro-posts. But I was not indifferent, and had to say something.
Then I noticed that an automated daily round up of topics that had interested him was still being generated and posted in his Twitter account. His avatar kept popping into my timeline. Every time it appeared I felt a pang of grief. Then I saw that others who had been referenced in his updates were replying, thanking him for the mentions.
A week later, still haunted by these strange, autonomous updates, I tapped his avatar, took a last look at the hand-drawn likeness, and touched Unfollow. It felt like a disloyal act. Our peculiar, virtual relationship was over.
I have subsequently learned that he was a keen proponent of social media, and a very generous man. I hope Twitter will bring me into contact with even more people like him…(it already has). I suppose an inevitable part of broadening your social and professional circle is that death will touch you more often. It’s not yet clear to me how you respond to the death of a person whose thoughts you are accustomed to reading, but whom you have never actually known. Perhaps, just as Twitter provides a new way of knowing people, it demands a new way of saying goodbye.