Saturday, April 30, 2011

Rest In Peace, Virtual Friend: Or, What Modern Angst Tastes Like

Recently, a guy I know died.

At least, that's sort of how to say it. This man, who was by all accounts a really good guy, is someone I only "knew" online. So, more of an acquaintance, really, except not even that because I never actually met him.

His real name was Damian (or Damien, the spelling isn't consistent), and he was an Istanbul expat old-timer, here since the mid-80s when apparently Istanbul was some sort of expat English teacher adventure haven, because there weren't many language schools then. For expats plying my particular trade, especially those of us who have been here for the long haul, Istanbul is a very small world. Everyone knows everyone else, or knows of everyone, and of course there's all the shagging. So I know a lot of people who had met Damian. Hell, it's more than likely our paths crossed in real life, but I can't say for sure and it's likely I wouldn't remember it anyway.

I learned he was ill online, from Damian himself. I learned about the progression of his cancer from another friend I've mentioned on here before, a gentleman I've been swapping books with over the last several years, when he stops off in Istanbul on his way from Saudi Arabia to Bulgaria, and who, coincidentally, has also met up with Damian a few times on his travels. Then I learned Damian had died, from a co-worker who know him from back in the day. So that's what I mean by small world.

I never imagined I'd be the sort of person to have fake online friends. For awhile though, most of my interactions with other foreigners seemed to be through the Internet, and mostly though the Turkey jobs forum at Dave's ESL Cafe. At that time, I was the only foreigner in my department, and I was newly married living out in the sticks. I came to think of Dave's as the yabancı forum because that's also how I referred to it to BE. BE was uncomfortable, to say the least, about my having interactions with online yabancıs, but he was even more against my having interactions with real-life yabancıs so him shutting up about the online thing was what he called "compromise."

Whoops, that just started getting ugly and I don't want to talk about it anymore.

I went on the Turkey jobs forum at Dave's ESL Cafe in the first place to post a warning about a previous place of employment who was recruiting for my replacement, a cowboy outfit that's either now out of business or has been through so many names since then it doesn't matter. Damien, a regular on the forum, was the first to reply to my post, something nice along the lines of, “That really sucks, hope things are going better for you now.”

And it was going better in some ways but not in others. But I read around the forum a bit, and there was a nice banter between the regulars around there, plus lots of useful information like where to find bacon or your SSK payments. And there was an ongoing thread about EastEnders that I could always rely on for backstories. Also I had a lot of free time on my hands at work, and apparently everyone else did too. At times, it felt like the forum was the only place where I could speak normal, un-graded, real English with delicious slang and inferences and everything.

Eventually, all the chatty regulars got expelled from Dave's after a wave of heavy-handed moderation in which they were probably trying to stop chattiness and in-groupiness, plus there was an awful lot of talk all over the international jobs forums about schools that completely sucked but which were sponsoring ads on the site. So another good guy from there became David Vincent and started his own international jobs forum and ELT website, to where the Dave's exiles have since migrated.

Forums are interesting. I mean, how people behave on them is interesting. There's nothing like the Internet to bring out someone's closeted asshole so I tend to avoid most forums, especially those dominated by people who revel in their cleverness and erudite sentences, and teenagers, who are like that anyway. On the other hand, a nice forum where people are nice is okay. On Dave's, there was a fellow who was our local asshole type, except after while it became apparent he wasn't really an asshole, just a guy who liked to be one online. He had a bone to pick with a particularly obnoxious school and his incisive disdain for Turkey was a source of amusement for me as I was entering the throes of belated culture shock. This was also all back before I cottoned on to the idea of having a blog, and the forum was where most of my writing ended up. In a way, it served more or less the same purpose.

And I did make actual human friends through the forum. Not only was there my book trading friend, but there was another woman, Yaramaz, who's now in China.

A third woman ended up being one of my dearest friends here. I was lucky enough to get pregnant three months after her, so now we get to be fellow expat intercultural marriage moms of bilingual kids roughly the same age, in addition to all the other great stuff I love about her.

But Damian, I never managed to meet. As an online personality, he came off as kind and intelligently funny. He never really said anything mean about anyone, except maybe some stuff about football and EastEnders. He piped into potential battles to defuse their nastiness. My theory about Internet personalities is that, while someone who comes off as an asshole is either truly an asshole or a closet asshole, someone who comes off as decent is probably decent in real life.

And anyway, anyone who knew Damian in real life says he was lovely, and a wonderful teacher, so apparently there really wasn't any online pretension there.

I knew about his cancer for awhile. It got better, then bad again, then okay, then very, very bad. As it got worse, he went back home. Then my book friend told me how bad it had really gotten, which I'd suspected anyway because Damian had grown silent in Forumland and that wasn't really like him.

And now he's gone, and I'm not really sure how I'm supposed to feel because I never knew him for real. I mean, I know how I feel but I don't know what to call it so I figured I ought to write something about him just to make him a little more real and say goodbye.

Goodbye DMB. You are much missed and I hope Internet vibes somehow can reach the ones we've lost because everyone is saying really nice things about you, and it's not just out of a sense of obligation to the dead.

I also hope you never become a zombie, especially a running one, because that would be really scary.

Rest in Peace.



MaryAnne (Yaramaz) said...

That was beautiful, and it really captured that oddly pleasant mid-2000s conversational era we had on Dave's. I made a lot of real life friends there (like you, Damian, Sandra, Kristi, etc, etc) before the forum vibe kind of fizzled out.

I was shell shocked when I heard about dmb. I knew him as a casual friend (we had met a number of times for beers many years ago) and I knew so many who knew him (like, the woman who married him) so he was always kind of present in discussions or gatherings there.

The feeling of loss is huge and unexpected though, as I hadn't even seen him in about 5 years and I've been away from the Turkey scene for nearly 3 years. I actually cried.

Thanks for writing this post.

Nomad said...

That's a nice memorial to your friend and another great observation about net relationships.

It is kind of strange the way the Internet allows us to make contact with so many more people we probably would have had no other opportunity to meet. As you rightly point out, however, it is not really meeting them in the usual meaning of the word. And, in some ways, the absence of genuine intimacy (oh you know what I mean!) ultimately has a sort of hollowness about it. It's is like have fictional characters as friends.

Having said that, I have met people online and later met them in real life and found that that shallowness and superficial quality to the Internet relationship is really probably more suitable for them. I mean, after an evening or two, I realized that their Internet persona was as deep as they could possibly go. It really wasn't a "taste" or a "hint" of the wonders within. That was it! So, you never really know.
I'd like to hope I am deeper than that but I have no idea. Probably not.

Adam said...

I worked with DMB way back in 2002 and hadn't seen him at all since 2005. He was, nevertheless, always with me through his online self, which I knew much better than his physical self, if that makes sense.

The sense of loss is great, he was a fine man.