Yesterday we got word that one of my fellow Stack Exchange moderators (not on a site I moderate, but a different one) had died. I didn't know him well, but we had talked in our moderator-only chat room intermittently, we'd read each others' posts, and I felt like I'd gotten to know him some. It seems like that was mutual. The last conversation we had started with him telling me he respects me "a heck of a lot" (that's mutual) and ended with plans for him to come to Mi Yodeya with a question he was forming. And now he's gone. We found out because somebody -- we don't know who -- updated his profile, and investigation showed it not to be a cruel prank.
I've been on the net a long time, and I still manage to be surprised by how much I grieve people who I may have only known as names and gravatars. But they are still people, people who shared their thoughts and knowledge and aspirations, people I got to know, and online communities -- the ones that are really communities, not drive-bys and transient places to post comments and stuff like that -- cause us to form connections that are every bit as real as those we form with the people we see, speak with, hug. It blows my mind.
And as we grow more and more connected, and frankly as I get older and have online friendships that stretch from years to decades, I know there's going to be more and more of this. Affable Geek wasn't the first in my digital life by far, he won't be the last, and we knew each other only casually, and yet his passing still touches me deeply. I still expect to see his digital face pop up on the network, but it won't any more.