It has been said that the Internet is rapidly turning us into a species of loners, confined to our computers, wasting time with strangers online while falling out of touch with the people right next to us. If such criticism ever held water, it surely no longer does so after the recent death of American diplomat and online gaming enthusiast Sean Smith.
Smith was an Air Force veteran who joined in 1995 and served as a ground radio maintenance specialist, achieving a rank of Staff Sergeant in 2000. He went on to a 10-year diplomatic career in the Foreign Service Office, where he served as an Information Management Officer in American consulates in Baghdad, Pretoria, Montreal and the Hague.
In addition to his real-life diplomatic work, Smith was a respected member and moderator of Something Awful, a comedy web site that has become one of the major hubs of internet culture, with a huge and active community. Known by his online handle of Vile Rat, Smith was also a prominent player of the online science fiction game Eve Online, in which hundreds of thousands of players pilot starships to explore, trade, battle and build alliances in deep space. Here, Smith was one of the game’s most influential players, using his personal diplomatic skill in order to build and dismantle powerful alliances among players. His standing among other players earned him membership in Eve’s Council of Stellar Management, a small group of players authorized to consult with the game designers themselves.
Smith’s real-world and online lives crossed over with some regularity. His friends recall that when he was stationed in Baghdad, he would sometimes log off abruptly, informing his friends that his building was receiving incoming gunfire or mortar rounds, and he had to go. As harrowing as this was for his online comrades, that he typically came back on shortly after became part of the experience of knowing Smith.
On September 11, while working at the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, Smith noted to his online friends that he was concerned for his safety. A mob—presumably incensed over an anti-Islam film circulating on the Internet, but just as likely a group of terrorists using the unrest as cover and using the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks as cause for violence—had gathered outside the building, throwing rocks and grenades and seeking to storm the consulate. Smith told his friends that he saw one of the police supposed to be guarding the building instead taking pictures of the chaos. Shortly afterwards, Smith typed the last two things his friends would ever read from him: “FUCK. GUNFIRE.” They never heard from him again.
Smith was found dead after the consulate had been stormed and burned. He died of smoke inhalation, and was believed to have spent his final moments at his post, destroying sensitive information he was tasked with safeguarding. Smith is survived by his wife, Heather, and their two young children. (In the attack Ambassador Christopher Stevens and two ex-Navy SEALS providing security were also slain.)
Less than 24 hours after Smith’s death, and well before the mainstream media was able to identify him, one of Smith’s Eve Online friends, Alex Gianturco, informed the Eve and Something Awful communities that Smith was gone. He eulogized his friend, whom he had met in person only a handful of times, but had known for years, with genuine sorrow on his website. Gianturco’s news was met with an unprecedented outpouring of sympathy and grieving online by thousands of Eve Online and Something Awful friends. An online fundraising effort at YouCaring.com soon launched to help cover Sean’s final expenses and to establish a college fund for his children. Within days, it had received more than $100,000 in donations.
The Internet has redefined who we befriend and how we share our lives with them. Smith’s many friends are mourning the loss of a man they never shook hands with, but that does not make their grief any less real. We often wonder who will miss us when we are gone; today, that number may be far greater than we realize. Before long, who we choose to provide for in our final plans may include all kinds of people that traditionally never would have received a second thought. Somehow, in a world that seems so filled with hate, there are more friends and loved ones connected to each other than ever before. If that is not reason enough for hope, then nothing is.