I have never lost anyone close in my adult life. A fortunate thing in one sense, perhaps, but when the loss does come, it will make me all the less prepared. Even when I entered Rwanda as an aid worker in August 1994 just after a genocide, the only body I saw in the killing fields was that of a cat with rigor mortis at a strategic fork in the road. It helped with my bearings in that unfamiliar city until it disappeared one day a week after my arrival.
And so when it comes to mourning, perhaps I am not best placed to judge. And yet loss is loss, whatever the context, and loss can be virtual as well as physical. And so I come to write my first obituary, at the age of 44 - to an online forum that is no more.
It is a relationship which is hard to describe to the outsider, but I will try.
The year is 2010. The location a small Adriatic island in Croatia called Hvar. Not even the main town on the island, but its third most populous - Jelsa.
It is the end of another tourist season on Croatia's premier island, and the reality of the global crisis and a long hard island winter brings the financial situation once more into the spotlight. Just how can one make a living all year on this beautiful island without speaking the language fluently?
A morning's online research, followed by another, and another, offered an intriguing possibility - making money online by writing. Put me in a kitchen, tell me to be a mechanic, ask my medical opinion on an illness - I am a total disaster. But write? And write quickly? I am your man.
Apparently, if the Internet hype was to believed, there were websites which offered things called 'revenue share' and 'recurring revenue'. The gig seemed to be that you could write about anything you wanted for certain websites, and revenue would be accrued and shared on articles when readers clicked on the Google Adwords. Although there was no upfront money, it did not cost either, and the beauty of it was in the 'recurring revenue' concept. Once you had written the article, it was online for life (or so we thought) and any future ad click would yield pennies, perhaps pennies of pennies, but recurring revenue all the same.
The season over, there was plenty of time for researach. Eager to get started and never one for big research, I stumbled upon www.suite101.com which looked ideal. Not only did it seem that you could write about anything you chose, but people were making real money - some woman called Lena was raking in $3,000 a month. Now that sounded nice. Especially the recurring revenue bit.
After a day of research. I decided to press forward - Suite101 looked the real deal. There were some negative comments on some forums, but the general impression was positive. As I understood it, if I could provide the volume of content, enough people would read the articles, and a proportion of these would click on an ad from Google, which would generate 'revenue share'; if the article was 'evergreen' - relevant in the future or better, forever, that 'revenue share' would be 'residual income'.
I penned my first article on October 28, 2010. Entitled "Driving in Albania, Not for the Fainthearted", it was my trial article for the site. If they thought my writing was good enough based on the article, I was in - free to publish what and when I chose, with post-publication editing. If I could get enough articles online, then the 'residual income would flow'.
I found the forum on the website, where I spent hours. Here were some 20,000 writers in a private forum, offering the most phenomenal advice, support and tips. I spent hours pouring over old forum posts, full of writing nuggets freely given, and I learned that 20% of writers who had posted 300 hundred articles or more were on $1,000 a month residual income. I began to write... Winters are long on Hvar, and if one could knock out 300 articles or more this winter, that $1,000 a month residual looked very enticing indeed.
Two things happened the day after I published that first piece of Albania driving advice: I found stats on the back end where I could track my page view minute by minute; and I became big in Toronto.
Looking back with the knowledge I have now, a free writer producing content on Albania and the like must have been a syndicate's dream. There was a bomb in Greece, and some newpaper's online edition needed some boxes filling with current content from the region. My article was ideal and they were saved. The (few) subsequent clicks made me realise that the power of a well-written blog or article was were the power of the future lay.
I also discovered that Suite101 had a forum, a very lively and informative place. New to the online forum world, it quickly became clear that it was a place of friendship and networking, but that like any community, it had its rules and its rulers. Like many approaching a new forum, I lurked in the shadows without making my presence known, until I finally decided to introduce myself. After all, who were these people?
The reaction was a revelation and led to a new journey, a road along which I am still travelling. Warm, welcoming, encouraging and, above all, a willingness to share knowledge and advice. As a rookie writer, I could not have found a better university if I had been thousands of dollars, and all this was available for free. 24/7, for this was a truly international forum. It was my first proper taste of forum life, and I found it hypnotic. Of course none of it was real, as these people were just profiles, real or imaginary, around the world, and they would not actually enter my physical life. Until they did - firstly as I knocked on a door in Bournemouth in southern England one evening, armed with a young daughter and a bottle of gin to meet my first Suite writer in the flesh, then later as another turned up for month right here in Jelsa, encouraged by the articles I had written.
It was a forum from which I have learned so much, and it has led me to a situation where I can now do what I never thought possible - make a living as a writer on a remote island in the Adriatic. With gentle encouragement, advice, contacts, I went from a rookie writer to guide book producer, with my own app and Kindle version, then an accompanying website, which brought further opportunity. Google News accreditation opened up the world of news and media exposure. And all the while, the helpful, homely forum to bounce ideas, rant when necessary, follow the personality clashes online.
And then it happened. Panda.
A Google algorithm change that would change my online comfort zone forever. The decimation of that online writer's currency, PVs (page views) devastated a lot of my colleauges. With an overnight loss of 90% of traffic by Panda, Suite101 became the poster child of Google's wrath, and there was nothing we could do about it. I did not so much mind the loss of page views, or the subsequent reduction of revenue that it entailed, as I had long ago learned that Lena with the $3,000 a month and I would never be on the same page, but it mattered little, as I had found something a lot more valuable - my free university.
And then my first painful experience of a lingering death came to be. Virtual, far away, and yet far too close to home.
I had a hero on the forums, her name was Jennifer, and she stood out from the crowd from the first day I lurked. Young and pretty from her profile picture (not that that meant anything, or was necessarily real). What made her interesting was her (savage) cutting humour, combined with an intimate knowledge of Google practices which she was willing to share. She was brutal to the uninitiated, but it soon became clear that for her the forum was a board for letting off steam on ine. When she let off steam, it was hot!
She disappeared, and as the incompetent management fumbled (and, rather pathetically, continues to fumble to this day, years later), a new forum and blog appeared, mocking those of us who still believed in the management who had led us into the path of Google's wrath. Most Probably Suite101 was decidedly clever, intensely personally and brilliantly funny. There could have only been one person behind it - Jennifer 'Harsh' Marsh.
Most Probably divided my beloved online community, with some expressing outrage at the betrayal, others cheering on the rebellion against authority, but all secretly agreed on one thing - Most Probably was addictive reading. With her considerable computer knowledge, she was tracking all the hits to the site of course, and poked fun at the Vancouver management, who were regular readers.
And so things settled down. Some of the best writers left, and when I say best, I mean most generous in their advice and support. Despite all the promises, which we all wanted to believe, the site continued to plummet, and then plummet further as Google pounded it again with Penguins and other beasts. But at least the precious forum, albeit much diminished, survived the bloodshed.
We were left to regroup, clinging to the hope of positive change and messages of hope from our great leadership. We became used to the phrase 'exciting new changes', then even more used to their non-delivery. But there was one thing that kept us loyal to the site - that precious forum.
One day, as part of the exciting changes that were coming to the site, the enlightened management announced that the previously closed forum would now become open to the wider Internet community, a move which was greeted with understandable outrage. Soon after that, the threat of Internet exposure was removed, with the announcement that the forum would shortly be closed forever.
And just like that, on the whim of a leadership which continues to move from incompetent brilliant new idea to incompetent brilliant new idea, I was returned to my Adriatic isolation of life in the third largest town on an unpronounceable Croatian island.
Dozens of friends, a 24/7 helpline gone in an instant. It was painful to experience, but after a while I learned to be grateful for all I had learned.
And then gradually, out of the ashes, a community rebuilt itself without the help of an enlightened leadership, as one of our group - who also visited me on Hvar last year while cruising through the Adriatic - formed a Facebook group for former writers of Suite101. It started slowly, grew gradually, and while today it is not quite at the heights of the forum, it is an important part of my - and others' - online life.
My first online bereavement. A time of loss and pain, but also of learning. Life - even online life - goes on.