On the death of a Twitter friend

I never met Penny Lankshear. In fact, until a few hours ago, I did not know that the Twitter friend I knew only as Penlan was, in fact, Penny Lankshear,  a retired librarian living in Stratford, Ont. [As I come back to this post two years later, in Feb. 2013, I see Penlan is now someone else’s Twitter handle. Click through. I wonder if the new user knows about the Penny … – Akin]

I now know her name — and a little bit more than that — because she died.

Some now are blogging about her passing and I’m thankful for that to learn more about Penny. [I refer here to blog posts by James Curran, Liberal Arts and Minds, and Susan Delacourt].

So why am I both touched and saddened to learn of Penlan’s — Penny’s — passing even though our only relationship was through Twitter? To be honest, I don’t exactly know the answer to that.

I suspect though that it has something to do with that fact that our relationship, such as it was, was based on the fact that I believe we took each other seriously. I wanted to read what she had to say and, though I don’t know for sure, she seemed to be interested in what I had to say. She would re-tweet and comment on my stuff and I would do the same to her. She was, as it says in her Twitter profile bio, a “voracious follower” of Canadian politics. I, too, of course, am a “voracious follower” of federal politics. And that common connection – a serious interest in federal politics — was apparently all it took for each of us to take each other seriously when we bleated something out on Twitter.

And really, isn’t that what all of us want when it comes to political discourse? We want to know that others are listening to us. That we will not be insulted, demeaned, or hollered at for what we say about politics in this country but, rather, that our contributions will be considered, debated, and taken seriously.

So, thank you, Penny, wherever you may be now, for taking me seriously. (I should point out, in case it’s not clear that “taking me seriously” does not mean she always agreed with me. Indeed, she often disagreed with me. But she took my reportage seriously enough that she wanted to respond to). You have no idea how how important and meaningful that is for journalists who are always wondering if anyone ever cares about the things we write.  And, similarly, thank you for your contributions to the debate. I and many others, it’s now clear, took your contributions seriously. We wanted to hear what you had to say.

But beyond that, Penny’s death has forced me to think about the relationship, such as it is, that I have with other pseudonymous Twitter followers who, like Penny, contribute in positive ways to online political discusssions and who seem interested in the contribution I have to those discussions. I find myself asking myself this evening: Is everyone else OK? What are your names? Where do you live? What can I do to help?

Twitter and the Internet are strange beasts. I reported on Internet culture for a decade from 1995-2005 and was fascinated by how computer-mediated communications affect human relationships. And now, for reasons, as I said, I’m not quite clear about, I feel saddened to learn of the death of someone for whom the relationship consisted of little more than a frequent “Re-Tweet” or the occasional “modified tweet”.

MIT professor Sherry Turkle, who I have long admired for the her thinking and commentary when it comes to issues about how human relationships are being changed by the impact of always-on, Internet-connected gadgets, has a new book out right now called Alone Together. I have not yet read it but it’s generating a lot of reviews and commentary. She is, if I read the reviews and discussion correctly, down on new technologies, like Twitter, that we are using.New York Times review Jonah Lehrer says Turkle has concluded that the Internet is “a ball and chain that keeps us tethered to the tiny screens of our cellphones, tapping out trite messages to stay in touch. She summarizes her new view of things with typical eloquence: “We expect more from technology and less from each other.”

I’m looking forward to reading Turkle’s apparently bleak assessment of how we have become “Alone Together” but I will read it knowing that, without Twitter, I would never have known that “Penlan” was a woman named Penny Lankshear who may even have been from the town I was born in and who wanted to talk about politics for all the right reasons.


4 thoughts on “On the death of a Twitter friend”

  1. Nice piece David; well done. I think twitter and others are creating a new kind of community where more of us can connect with each other, either superficially, or more deeply if you choose to pursue the connections. In the last year I have witnessed how people reach out to and help strangers they have never met and perhaps only know through a pseudonym. If twitter or a blog helps one person out of a lonely existence, I think that's a positive development.
    Keep up the good work, on all your platforms!

  2. Thank you so much for your kind words about my sister.
    Her passing was a huge shock to us. We are grateful that it was painless and peaceful.
    She will be greatly missed by her family and friends.
    Thank you once again for your friendship.

  3. I knew Penny for many years on the internet. We met several years ago online when she formed a Yahoo group for the 50's singer Eddie Fisher. We were both fans, and we had that in common but became friends and we chatted almost every day. I called her a couple of times on the phone, she lived in Mitchell at the time. She said she was moving but would be in contact with me after she got a new internet provider but I never heard from her. I was looking up her name online to try to find her again. I was shocked to hear of her death. She was a lovely person and a good friend to everyone and she loved her animals.

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