The internet is a strange medium: fluid and ethereal, but at the same time a matter of public record. With a few lines of text and sometimes a blurred photograph substituting for the full range of sight and sound and smell, we must, inevitably, project an edited view of ourselves. The quirks of speaking, the nuances of body language, the fundamental minor features that make up a personality – all these are missing, and instead we must turn the lens upon ourselves and set the necessarily flawed results in print for others to know us by. We are all ghosts, vague and badly defined entities given form only by our own self-image
The same will be true for all others we meet online: so we accept it.
An online neighbourhood - a newsgroup, chat room or discussion board – will be peopled with ghosts. But we are ghosts too, and they are our peers. They will not be presenting a full, real-time view of their personalities – but, in the nature of the medium, neither will we. Sometimes we may be able to meet one of these entities in the flesh, to discover whole new dimensions that cannot be conveyed online, but, for the most part, our neighbours in cyberspace are ghosts and ghosts only. Ghosts who will be flawed, or, rarely, deliberately misleading representations of their real-time selves, but, usually, known and predictable ghosts with whom we can interact without needing to consider the real-time part. We know, for example, that Lord Slime can be somewhat pungent towards those with whom he disagrees, and that Horse dislikes top-ropers. We know who can be relied upon to drag a discussion off-topic, who will inject an overdose of lavatorial humour, and who will start threads so pointless and so far off-topic that they become inherently funny. We know who can't spell, who can be unnecessarily cruel to commas, and who can be excessively and inappropriately pedantic about both spelling and grammar. We know who shares our opinions, who disagrees violently with them, and who makes us smile when they come online. We know our online community and, within these ghosts, we know our friends.
Until, suddenly, one of our ghosts is missing.
At first we think nothing of it. People do go offline sometimes. No-one's on twenty-four by seven. They need to eat, sleep and work. Sometimes they're busy, have technical problems, can't think of anything useful to contribute or may even, strangely, have gone climbing. They disappear for a while and then return, complaining about work or equipment failures or waxing enthusiastic about Peak grit or Scottish snow or sunny Spanish bolts. Sometimes they take a little longer but they do, eventually, come back.
Sometimes, however, they don't.
Sometimes, they just disappear.
We're not talking casual drop-ins getting bored and drifting away here. We're not talking well-documented prima-donna stampings-out or pre-planned round-the-world trips. We're talking well-established ghosts with some considerable history suddenly and inexplicably ceasing to be. We're talking the online version of an empty barstool where a regular isn't. We're talking gaping holes where friends should be. We know there has to be a relatively innocuous reason. Somewhere, there's a technical problem. They're too busy. The server's down. The dog died. They'd be here if they could. But, in the continuing silence, an ugly thought rears its head: behind every ghost is a person, a person with an interest in climbing, and climbing, as explained in the disclaimer, is a dangerous sport.
Sometimes, people go climbing and they don't come back.
You can't ask after ghosts in real-time. Going to the police and asking them to look for VS Nick or Squeaky Lemon wouldn't get you very far. If they're no longer evident online, and email doesn't get answers, then who do you ask? It is quite possible that no-one, no-one at all within your online neighbourhood knows the real person behind the ghost. It probably isn't a serious problem. But, says a nasty little voice in the back of the mind, it could be. Faced with one such random disappearance, there is little that we, powerless to act or communicate, can do. Ultimately, we are all ghosts in the machine.