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.