The tweets came thick and fast on Twitter—expressions of sorrow for the sudden death of the young Egyptian blogger Bassem Sabry in an accident.
Many of his friends and followers wrote about the magnitude of the loss of a promising writer and researcher whose writing and commentary often reflected a vision deeper and more far-reaching and open-minded than what was taking place in Egypt and the region.
I didn’t know Bassem Sabry personally and we never had any direct contact; however, like many other members of the Twittersphere, our paths crossed via the odd tweet here and there.
In the world of Twitter, the reasons why we follow certain people vary according to who we are, what our interests are, and what we like and dislike. But we always come across people who make us feel, when we read an opinion or comment they write, a desire to befriend them and exchange ideas with them.
These relations seem urgent in a world where many people make us feel alienated and distressed in our homelands and make us feel distant from what is happening there.
Bassem Sabry was one of those people who quickly made you feel stimulated, whose ideas seeped through, spreading reassurance—even for a brief moment—that the terrible times we were living in would not last.
Yes, there are many people who tweet but who are then lost, but they can affect us and help us build ideas and visions that do not belong to the general pattern of tension and emotion.
I do not intend to dwell on the obituary of a young man, as many of his friends both inside and outside Egypt have already done so—and will continue to, in several languages. But what is intriguing and worrying here is that such relationships have become a normal and very real aspect among our network of friends.
We meet people and build relations with them which end without ever meeting them directly, and we feel as if something has been stolen from us suddenly.
When I read Bassem Sabry’s obituary, I visited his page on Twitter like someone who visits the grave of someone dear, and asked myself: Will our pages become our gravestones in the future?
Our relationships and friendships have expanded, and even our real friends have started to prefer relationships conducted via social media websites, so that we have all become almost invisible. Perhaps we are more truthful and lighthearted when we are isolated, and reveal what we think and feel through these pages without being burdened by a direct relationship and the etiquette this requires.
It is likely we are now moving down this path. We may not lose our direct relationship with our family and friends and acquaintances, but our feeling of belonging to a wider world and ideas has become so attractive we cannot resist this temptation, and cannot resist becoming involved in the general outpourings of grief when something happens in this wider world.
What doubles our concerns for such internet relationships is the continuing fear of repression when we witness how a regime or a ruler or authority somewhere can deprive the public of the right to use social media websites, as was the case in Turkey and in Iran and many other countries.
This can happen in any country in our region. So will our affiliation to these open mediums be shaken in the future if a certain authority decides to wipe out our existence and block or ban these websites?
If Twitter were blocked in Egypt, would Bassem Sabry cease to exist? In this sense, it seems that the virtual Bassem Sabry is more powerful than the real Bassem Sabry, because his virtual presence has survived his physical death.