Death hits close to blogosphere

ON BLOGGING

April 14, 2009|By ANDREW RATNER

Elizabeth Large, The Baltimore Sun's restaurant critic, signed onto her computer at dawn Wednesday, as she typically does, to post comments sent to her overnight from fans of her blog, Dining@Large. But on this particular morning, one post stopped her in her tracks.

"Hi Elizabeth," it began. "My cousin, Robert (the single one), told me of the fun he had with your blog and fellow bloggers. I am sorry to inform you that he passed away yesterday. His health was not great and we think it was heart failure. I live in Atlanta and I am waiting to hear more from Baltimore. I just wanted you to know because you may have wondered why he was no longer posting comments on your blog. Keep up the good work!"

"I called my daughter and I burst into tears, and it was someone I'd never met," Large said. "I was surprised I felt so strongly. It was definitely like a friend at work who died. I felt just that way, the shock and the sadness."

He was one of several early respondents to Dining@Large who posted as Robert. To distinguish himself after Large declared him one of her funniest commenters at the end of 2007, he began posting comments as Robert the Single One.

He seemed to be a bit of a loner, writing that he often ate out with a companion he named Book. In the virtual world, however, he was a social butterfly, helping coax other readers to dive in with their own comments.

He obviously made an impression on Large's audience because dozens of people responded to her post about his death with deep sympathy and passion last week. Most only knew him by his Web handle, which they abbreviated as RtSO.

"Yesterday after reading about his passing, I was really 'off' all day and thought a lot about why. So many of us come here to kind of escape the ills and worries of daily life. Whether it is the economy, a bad day at work, an argument with a loved one," Trixie wrote about the blog. "However, with news of RtSO's death, the real world was able to permeate through the virtual walls around us."

Wrote Lissa: "Just because you don't know someone's full name and never met them face to face doesn't mean their death won't leave a hole in your life. He was a kind and gentle man with a good sense of humor. ... I'll miss him."

And from TerrierMom: "Jiggsy and I cried a little and then a little more. It's nice to know that someone can inspire these feelings. ... Don't ever let anyone tell you that blogs don't matter. Have a good journey Robert."

Robert's cousin followed up with his identity and information about a service: "Robert Carlyle Hammond was born on February 13, 1951, son of the late Walter and Virginia Hammond. He is survived by aunts and cousins and some of us who were honored to call him friend. A celebration of his life will be held at The Cathedral of the Incarnation at the corner of Charles and University on Monday, April 20 at 10 a.m."

On Dining@Large and other blogs, frequent posters sometimes arrange group outings, using the blog to discuss possible meeting places. The Baltimore Sun's nightlife blogger, Sam Sessa, drew about 80 people to a function he organized last winter for regulars at his Midnight Sun blog.

Such blog posters are descendants of the prolific letter writers to newspaper editorial pages. Some newspapers held lunches occasionally to honor their most impassioned letter writers, who, like the blog writers, became personalities on the page. Unlike the blog posters, the letter writers had to go by their full names and also couldn't achieve the frequency or immediacy of blog posts.

Sometimes, blog respondents take over an entry, turning the dialogue to a running commentary that has nothing to do with the topic by the blog author. The tendency of respondents to go off on tangents spawned an acronym long ago, RTFP, which means "read the flippin' post" (or something like that).

But Large encourages the dialogue. She has even deputized a few regulars to become guest contributors. Last week, the sense of community on her blog was profound even as it helped redefine community.

"Good men die," said one condolatory post, "but death cannot kill their names. Godspeed, RtSO."

It was signed Trouble.

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