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Genealogy, Death and Facebook

The Internet connects us in difficult times.

by / October 30, 2008

By a Friday evening in late August, the TV had been off for at least a week. I turned it on to see what we'd missed - Olympic medal counts, Russia promising to pull out of Georgia and bad weather wreaking havoc all over the place. Then there was the most anticipated text message in history: Who would Barack Obama pick as his running mate?

During The Situation Room, CNN's Wolf Blitzer earnestly promised that "when we know, you'll know," which missed the point of the campaign's gimmick; it was about letting its subscribers know before cable knew. (My text message of the official announcement arrived at 2:44 a.m. on that Saturday; the time stamp on a related story indicated it was posted about 25 minutes later.)

Well below the radar, in a village of 800 people on the Canadian prairies, a more personal drama was unfolding in which the Internet played a strong supporting role. My father-in-law was dying. The family returned home to be by his side. Before we left on the trip, my wife quickly and instinctively updated her Facebook status to say she "is in Hamiota, Manitoba with her father who was recently diagnosed with cancer."

What followed is anecdotal evidence that, with Web 2.0, the Internet is returning to its social roots. "It seemed a little tacky to dump such bad news into the status bar," my wife later reflected, "but I thought my friends would want to know." Indeed, they did. The brief missive spurred an outpouring of concern, well wishes and offers of assistance.

But there was more. The news prompted many phone calls and face-to-face meet-ups with people whose only knowledge of the illness (or that we were back in town) was from the status update. Facebook friends spread word from network to network to people who would want to know but aren't linked directly with my wife or me.

In time, we logged into my father-in-law's e-mail account, with his permission, to send an update on his deteriorating condition to the people in his e-mail contacts file. His inbox was already peppered with messages from friends who had noted his online absence and were checking to see if everything was OK. A perusal of his inbox revealed a network of friends from neighboring communities and around the world who shared common interests in farming, gardening and genealogy.

In fact, most of the e-mail traffic was about family history. It included both long-running, detailed correspondence with other genealogists and seemingly random inquiries about whether the writer was related to my father-in-law's family or if a family member was buried in the town's cemetery. The sent folder revealed that each inquiry received a response that was characteristically enthusiastic, knowledgeable and caring.

My father-in-law - a near-octogenarian living in a small, rural community on a fixed income - would have been pigeonholed by demographers and policymakers as being on the wrong side of the digital divide. They would have been wrong. He never lost his curiosity about the world around him or his awe for the wizardry of the Internet that connected him to it. That said, he was also an intensely practical man and could spot a slow DSL connection within seconds of logging on. He always thought the phone company could do better.

As we worked through the final chapter, we searched the Internet for medical information to make fuller sense of the latest change in his health. We also found a poem on he wanted read at his funeral. We arranged to have his obituary published in the local weekly paper and the nearby big city broadsheet daily. At the same time, we arranged for it to be carried at, along with an online book of condolences so friends and family could say goodbye.

To paraphrase a wonderful line from the film Lars and the Real Girl about the lost art of keeping vigil in a small town, "We sit and we click. That's what we do." What made this so remarkable is how unremarkable it was. Nobody was trying to make history - or even a point - by using the network to get things done. They used tools that worked, and it made hard things a little easier.

In the end, James W. Routledge (1930-2008) lived a good life - a first life informed by first things - and this column is dedicated to his memory.

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Paul W. Taylor Contributing Writer

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the editor-at-large of Governing magazine. He also serves as the chief content officer of e.Republic, Governing’s parent organization, as well as senior advisor to the Governing Institute. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO and chief of staff of the state Information Services Board (ISB). Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet start-ups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the non-profit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C.

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