Reflections of a ModemJunkie

September, 1999

Searching for Barry Goldstein:

Virtual Community -- Real Loss

by Leonard Grossman

Searching for SWJM, early 50s, 
Res. California/Israel. 
Disappeared earlier this year in
midst of on-line dialogue.  Reply to 
Leonard Grossman

In the decade since a "friend" gave me my first modem, lots has changed in the on-line world. But some things have stayed the same. "Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose."

I don't mean to ignore the tremendous growth, the incomprehensible commercialization, the speed, The use of the Internet by business for purposes we can't even imagine. But today I want to focus on the the basic, core element that runs through it all -- Interpersonal communication and the development of community -- and some of the consequences.

It was a decade ago that I got my first computer. The very first day a friend came over to set it up ... and he gave me a modem - a 2400 bps Multitech. I have told the story before so I will skip some of the details. All I wanted was a word processor. But within days I had discovered a local BBS, Syslink, with subscribers from all over the world. It was the interaction and feedback I had with this group, especially members of two local computer groups (NICOL and CACHE) that got me hooked.

Long before the days of Instant Messaging ("IM"), Syslink had "echoes," news groups on many topics, and an on-line chat facility. The echoes were local and international, using the old Fidonet network.

Some of the issues that exist today existed back then. Ignoring a page to come and chat was considered rude.. But sometimes I just didn't have time to chat. So the Sysop installed a feature that allowed me to be on-line without being seen by other users. (It didn't really work, but that is another story.) Even to this day, I prefer e-mail to chat except in very unusual circumstances.)

Last week's edition of Circuits, in the NY Times (Sept. 2), included a plaintive note from a teacher who finds herself in a similar dilemma. When she can't sleep, she grades papers in the wee hours of the morning. She whines that one of her students had begun IMing her at 3:00 a.m. She finally blocked the intruder's screen name. But then got a hurt note. The student had caught her exchanging notes with another student when she appeared to be off line. The first student used another screen name and got through.

The teacher complains. But she really isn't being honest with herself. She is hooked by instant messaging. If she really didn't want to be bothered during the middle of the night she could have completely turned off instant messaging. None of her students would have gotten through or known she was on-line. It was her desire to remain selectively hidden (or selectively available) that got her in trouble. Indeed, if she really wanted to get some work done, why was she on-line at all? Download those papers and get off line!!

Easy for me to say!! Hah! I am hooked as well. Though I do keep IM turned off. I do check my e-mail over and over again. And it is on in the background as I write this piece. (I have only been interrupted twice by spam during the past hour).

One of the echoes on Syslink was called "Writer's Roost." And there I found Ed. Ed and I left notes from time to time on the writer's art. And then one day he suggested we get together for a beer. Although he could have been any where in the world, he actually lived just around the corner. One house down from the stop where I waited for the bus every morning. Ed has become one of my closest friends.

With that first beer, the on-line world became much more real, and I have since met face to face many of the people I have first met on-line. In 1993, I wrote about "Meeting the Faces Behind the Screen"

But the vast majority of communication on-line is with virtual strangers. The great old New Yorker cartoon still hangs on my wall: "On the Internet, nobody knows you are a dog." And therein lies the rub.

I have had communications with hundreds of strangers over the years. Respondents to a Usenet posting. Comments on my articles or my web pages. Many of these exchanges last a few days or less and are over. But some ripen into longer lasting relationships.

Some are based on exchanges of technical information. Some are political. Some become more personal. Sometimes a communication begins that takes on a life of its own and extends for months or years.

There is a certain trust in on-line communications. We accept on faith the persona created by the correspondent. After all, even after nearly a decade of my columns, there must be some aspects of my life and personality that remain mine alone. How well do we really even know the people we see every day at the office? Or in Church or synagogue. Even, to a certain extent, our own extended families contain some mystery.

So we carry on. We don't know the whole truth, but like in other walks of life, we build relationships on what we know and on what we fill in, consciously or not, with assumptions, wishes, or misinformation. Even romances may be based on projections rather than reality. This all happens in the real world. Not just on-line.

However, on-line the possibility of misrepresentation or misinterpretation is magnified. Now, there are situations where this can be dangerous: Children's chat rooms, commercial transactions. Look at the extent to which E-bay has made seller information available to users. But these obvious dangers are not what I am talking about today.

I am a member of a few very small lists. Members share something, if not much in common. We do get to know each other in a simple way. We share good news and find comfort when disasters strike. We become more than text images on a screen. When someone disappears for a while we notice and comment. After a while we usually know each other well enough to have secondary sources of information. We can find out what has happened.

But some times that doesn't work. Years ago I began communicating with Cathy Murtha, who created an award for "speech friendly" web pages, pages which can be read by a speech synthesizer and therefore, can be "read" by the blind. I communicated with her, infrequently, for some time. Indeed a few of my pages proudly bear her award. I still try to keep the issues she raised in mind when I create a page, although I don't always succeed. Then I noticed links to some of her pages became broken. E-mail to her addresses bounced. I posted notes on news groups related to html authoring. No response. Cathy seems to have disappeared.

There is a loss. Someone has disappeared. But I have abandoned the search. The nature of the communication was not intensely personal. I am curious but not intensely so. I would like to know if she is O.K. But . . . If she had worked at the local flower shop, or in the library in town. I would know that I could find out what happened to her. I suspect that there is enough information about Cathy on-line, that if I really tried. I could get behind the silence.

But some communications are more intense and the need to know is more powerful and the roadblocks are more insurmountable.

I don't remember how "Barry" found me. Probably because of my Jewish Links page or my Open Letter to the former prime minister of Israel or something like that. I have saved hundreds of his e-mails but didn't start saving them until much later.

We talked primarily about Israeli politics, but about much, much more. Family matters, personal things. A relationship began. In his intensity he reminded me of my late friend Arthur, whose death I eulogized on-line.

For at least two years I corresponded almost daily with "Barry." As time went on the correspondence increased. Sometimes, if I didn't reply within an hour or so, I would get an urgent message asking if the earlier message had gotten through.

From the very beginning there was something strange. He revealed a lot, but he was always a bit secretive. Somehow he got out of sending me an emergency phone number when he was ill. He conveyed messages from his close friends but avoided giving me their e-mail addresses or enough information to find them.

He seemed a compassionate individual who has had, if any of it can be believed, a fascinating and difficult life. Through the original negotiations at Wye, during the run up to the Israeli elections, during all of this he was intense, always a bit secretive. But on the ball, informed, far to my Right, politically. Passionate. He would try to clear up my mushy headed pacifism. He claimed to be a realist in Arab/Israeli relationships.

Last spring claimed to have flown home to Israel to vote. He sent me messages purporting to come from his lap top on-line, in Europe, in Israel, always through his MSN account.

One of the most beautiful pieces he wrote was a description of the shifts utilized on his moshav (a collective settlement, something like a kibbutz, near the Lebanese boarder) to permit everyone to vote. Still he refused to tell me on exactly which moshav he was staying.

I am including his message because it doesn't seem to betray any confidences and it conveys a sense of my friend.

Len, hope you get this before work. was up at 5am. 
took a short ride. then as is our tradition, sent the
 first half of Moshav down to vote. My father insisted
 on going along, even though his vote had been 
registered, under the disability clause. a caravan of
 our vehicles, pulled up to polling place, when the 
polls opened. (remember the days, when we all came
 in old trucks) this too is a tradition with us. 

When the lift got my father out of a van, people came
 over and hugged him. The children came along. This,
 too is a tradition. perhaps that is why we have 100%

When the first group got back. the second group
 stopped work, and another caravan went down to the

Now the cooks, some of them male, are making dinner. 
This tradition I modified, after being in Texas. it is a 
cross between a traditional Jewish feast, and a Texas
 barbecue. with a Yemeni twist, not much considering 
both love chili's. when the polls close, our Arab neighbors
 will come over. still a work day, on a farm.

 I just finished checking the yearlings. After I finish writing,
 will go back and check some new foals. The menu will
 include, lamb 'n beef chili. started FRI., takes three days
 to make a really good chili.  spitted lamb, fresh, very 
fresh. barbecued chickens. some steaks that we traded
 with a kibbutz, for a lamb. vegetables sauteed in olive oil.
 a huge salad, that is my mother's specialty, along with her
 "world famous" matzo ball grenades. Again she will 
complain about how hard they are  Some things never
 change. spiced deep fried potato skins, that is my dish,
 although others will make it. along with other delicacies.
 Special rice, Amnon will never tell how it is made.
 along with a local wine.

When the polls close, We will open the meeting room.
 it was re-built about ten years ago, so it could be 
converted to open air. That is without endangering the
 one large screen TV and watch the results. No matter
 who wins, there will be some debates. But all will celebrate,
 no matter who wins. 

Why do we celebrate, even if the election goes against 
what one wishes? We celebrate that we live in a land, 
where free elections are held.

Yassmin and Miri just came in. time to show Yassmin
 our foals. Yassmin has never been on a farm like this
 before. and is acting like a teenager, on her first visit
 to the big city. 

	Shalom, Barry
	Everyone says hello, and write if you can.
 (will be checking for personal mail periodically.)


Could he have made all that up. And if so, why?

"Barry" was somewhat coy about his actual political loyalties and I will preserve his confidences here. Still, for the next several weeks "Barry" claimed to be very much involved in lower level negotiations regarding the assembly of a governing coalition under Barak. He seemed to be everywhere.

Up until one hour before Barak actually announced his coalition, I felt very involved in the process, getting what appeared to be almost minute by minute reports from my friend.

We argued consequences and debated predictions. He always seemed at least 12 hours ahead of the news. He predicted weeks ahead of time that the big battles would be over who got what portfolios but argued long and hard that it would be best to include Likud. to which I protested loudly.

I put his name in quotes because I wonder if it was an alias. We were exchanging messages at least 4 times a day in the last few weeks when suddenly it stopped. Cold. No more messages.

In earlier messages he had claimed to be ill. Various illnesses had kept him hospitalized much of the time in California and hindered him in Israel as well. I worried. It was that situation that made me ask for friend's phone numbers or e-mail a year earlier.

I asked an on-line friend, an Israeli peace activist, with whom I knew Barry was corresponding, where Barry might be. Response:

"In a mental institution, a hospital, or dead." He didn't have time or inclination to help in the search. They were politically poles apart.

My friend on the Left thinks he was crazy and didn't have any patience for him. His views were far to the right.. which for me was his greatest value. Testing my ideas. A corrective for some of my mushheadedness, even when I ultimately disagreed.

My friend on the Left questioned whether Barry Goldstein was even his real name. I wondered about many things, too, but decided to go with the flow. Attempts to really pin him down always met with a need for confidentiality for his "work" for the government. He claimed his dialogue with me gave him a chance to test his ideas, to let off steam, etc.

He was a Zelig like character, appearing almost everywhere. Born in New Jersey, raised on a moshav near Eyelet Hasachar (near the Lebanese border).. moving back and forth between here and there. Once married to an Israeli, close to the Palestinians in the local village. Living with a Palestinian woman in San Francisco. Or all made up.

I have been unable to trace Barry. His writings were frequently manic, stream of consciousness flows, but informative and grounded in verisimilitude...very personal. But he always maintained a certain level of secretiveness. Perhaps his e-mail address should have been a giveaway. I never thought about it. " . Mail to that address does not bounce. So the account has not been canceled. [Hamovet means Death, with a capital D -- Death personified.]

I have posted notes on all the Israel related Usenet groups, searching for Barry. No response. An MSN subscriber did look him up in the MSN membership directory. He found him listed as an author living in San Francisco. But no more. I called all the listed Barry Goldsteins in the San Francisco area code. None were him or had any idea. Finding a "Barry Goldstein" in Israel would be like finding a needle in a haystack.

In any other community, I could have found out something. If he was a clerk I had run into at the local library, I could ask the management. If he were the news vendor on the corner, I could ask the local police. If he subscribed to a small ISP I could probably get the management to makes some inquiries. Not to put me in touch, but to verify that he was all right. But MSN does not respond. Its not that they respect his privacy. They have no personal face at all. And perhaps that is what this story is ultimately about. As the on-line world grows we grow closer and closer, yet there is so much we don't know about each other. During the old Fidonet days, there was an irregular participant from somewhere in the Soviet Union. He had access to a computer in a university and somehow was able to sneak on-line from time to time. Then, as things got easier under Gorbachev, his messages disappeared. Once I reached him somehow and then...gone.

I wondered, but in that fluid society and rapidly changing world I could understand. That was the first Internet hole in my stomach. There have been others. But none as intense as Barry... and none whose disappearance was as stunning.

Four times a day. Heated political argument. Shared family and personal matters. All over with no warning. A hole.

Community is wonderful. But how do you grieve a virtual friend? Where do you sit shiva in cyberspace? Am I mourning something real or was I the victim of a two year elaborate hoax.

For several months, I have been reluctant to talk about this in public. I have been respecting Barry's right to privacy. I thought of using an alias for Barry when I wrote this article. But if I had, I would be giving up this one last chance of finding him. I hope I haven't betrayed him here. I sent him one last note, telling him I was going to write this story. He could have stopped me. If you have any clues as to his whereabouts, please send me a note at Len at LGrossman dot com.

After some two years of intense communication the silence is strange.


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Copyright 1999 Leonard Grossman

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