Online publishing pioneer Phil Agre.
Online publishing pioneer Phil Agre.
Several weeks ago, the family of information studies professor Phil Agre reported him missing, saying that they had not heard from him in over a year. At first glance, it may seem like a fairly typical missing persons case - families lose touch with relatives and begin to worry about their safety. For Agre, though, the situation is somewhat more complex. He's a well-known Internet researcher and online publishing pioneer with fans all over the world. He doesn't necessarily seem like the type of person who could just vanish without a trace. But vanish he has, and now his friends are mobilizing to find him.
As reported by the Chronicle for Higher Education, Agre's sister filed a missing persons report last month. Agre hadn't just gone missing, though. The report stated that he had abandoned his job and apartment possibly as far back as year ago, and that he suffers from manic depression.
Agre's online influence reaches far and wide - which makes it all the more surprising that he could have gone missing for such a long time without more people noticing. He was the publisher of the Red Rock Eaters News Service, an influential mailing list he started in the mid-1990s that ran for around a decade. A mix of news, Internet policy and politics, RRE served as a model for many of today's political blogs and online newsletters.
I was influenced by Agre, too. I became a fan of the Red Rock Eaters list in the 90s, and encountered online references to it almost on a daily basis. I was always excited to see one of my articles or projects cited in it. With Agre's curation, RRE reached thousands of Internet researchers, policymakers and some of the first bloggers. Agre had established a sizable online network and knew how to use it - so much so, he even published a how-to guide on using the Net to strengthen your professional relationships.
In Agre's case, it seems, all too many of these relationships were held at arm's length. Many of us who knew his work didn't really know him, and some others who did, lost touch with him over the years, particularly as he cut back on his online publishing.
He and I knew each other online, but not well. He wrapped up his work on RRE as I changed jobs and moved to NPR. It didn't seem strange for me to not see his name on a daily basis any more. Relationships evolve online as the do offline; I'd simply lost touch with him and his work. And apparently I wasn't the only one.
Charlotte P. Lee, an assistant professor at the University of Washington's College of Engineering, is one of several people mobilizing online efforts to find Agre. In an interview with me earlier today, she noted a number of factors that have led to the current situation:
Different people, including people at UCLA, have been involved in efforts to help at different times. A great deal of what has transpired, and also what had not transpired, has been governed by privacy laws and regulations. These and related considerations required that there be no publicity for quite some time. The release of the police report was the first public release of information. ...
It is also important to note that despite his sometimes larger-than-life presence online and despite his kindness and warm intellectual tutorage of his students, Phil could be extremely reclusive. This was accepted as part of who he was. If you take all of these things into account, it is reasonable that only now are people mobilizing to find each other and to find him. Even knowing the practical logic of the timeline, however, does not make the current situation any less upsetting. ...
All of us had lost touch with him over the years. How would you know if one of your friends not only lost touch with you, but had also lost touch with almost everyone they know? You wouldn't.
Professor Lee and Jean-Francois Blanchette, one of Agre's UCLA colleagues, have launched a Web page for friends to post notes for Agre in the hope that he sees them and is motivated to contact them, even just to say he's OK. They've also created a Google group for coordinating volunteer search efforts. Meanwhile, there's a Facebook page dedicated to finding him as well.
Assuming that Agre decided to go off the grid and cut his contacts with the world, it raises this question: What are the ramifications of mobilizing online communities to track him down, particularly if he's in a fragile mental state?
"Right now our primary goal is to make sure that he is physically safe," Lee said. "Once we accomplish that, we will know more about what to do next. Without knowing more about how he is, we can only speculate as to whether these activities pose any risks. We are concerned enough about ensuring his physical safety that we are undertaking efforts to find him while also trying to respect his privacy."
But, as Lee explained, when you lose touch with someone it's not easy to tell that so many others have also lost touch with that same person. No matter how many friends you compile on Facebook or whatever, there's no automatic mechanism to tell you that a friend of yours has isolated himself or is in need of help. Online social networks ultimately rely on actual communication - staying in touch with each other, checking in to see how someone is doing.
While some professional associates reached out to Phil Agre and tried to do just that before his disappearance, it apparently was not enough. So now, all we can do is mobilize the people who knew him and valued his contributions to online scholarship, and hope for the best that he's safe.