Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Reminisces: And Then He Was Gone...

It's hard to disappear off the 'net. We're tied so tightly to our online presence. We like our email, blogs, websites, calendars, and social networks. We may dream or threaten to leave once in a while but I think most of us have come to accept that some part of our lives is lived online. We have a presence in cyberspace and we don't wish to leave it.

Plus it's hard to imagine how to pull the plug and just leave. How would you do it? How would you erase most of the traces of yourself online? And don't just think about abandoning things. I'm talking about removing as much of your online presence as possible when you go.

So when a well known hacker, writer, programmer, and all around online personality just dropped off the face of the earth the shock was immense. He not only disappeared, he took with him most of his work.

Smashing magazine's _Why: A Tale of a Post-Modern Genius is a good synopsis of what we know of the person known as _why the lucky stiff, or just _why. It's the tale of a person who threw his personality and offbeat way of looking at things into all his work and who one day... just disappeared.

In August 2009 as soon as he disappeared there was article, after article, after article all wondering why _why had gone. Aside from lamenting the loss and wondering why it happened the online community, especially the online community around the Ruby programming language, started to collect the copies of his work they could scrounge up. An effort was made to make sure that his digital legacy didn't completely disappear as well.

The Ruby programming language owes a lot of its current popularity to _why. Why's (poignant) Guide to Ruby is as weird an introduction to a programming language as you can read. It's personal, interesting, and uses cartoon foxes to help along the way. It's filled with great lines (some from the cartoon foxes) such as "Addiction is like Pokemon. Let's collect every cigarette ever!". It goes beyond being just a simple tutorial. It's a reflection of the person who wrote it. Ruby's spread from its homeland of Japan was hastened by _why's work.

We may never know why _why left. We may not know who he is. But he did have an impact while he was online. A community has saved his works and continues to keep his memory alive. And after all... isn't that all we can ask for when we go?


Lene Andersen said...

Are you sure _why's a he?

(Just messing with you - given the time and topic, he probably was)

It makes me wonder why he did this - a perfect stranger that I didn't know anything about until I read this and now I'm worrying about him.

David G said...

Well _why did give presentations at several Ruby conferences so we know what he looked like and that he was a he.

Some people say that when people started to figure out who he really was he bailed. Some people like to keep their private lives private. Plus he was able to remove his _why persona pretty cleanly. So it may not have been his entire online life. Who knows what other persona and online presence is really _why in disguise.

Or was _why the disguise?