Some people would have you believe that an ‘online friend’ isn’t the same as a ‘real-life friend’. Maybe it’s because they’ve never had one; maybe they think shared experience isn’t enough and physical contact is needed; maybe they’re just plain stupid. Allow me, Dear Reader, to tell you a story about that gentleman to the left of this text. You know, the one with the magnificent beard and ridiculous hat. That there is Owen Allaway – known online as TheRev, ThatRevChap and various other nom-de-guerre.

The Rev was one of the many denizens of the* USENET hierarchy, groups I’ve been reading and contributing to for over a decade. USENET, for those unfamiliar with it, is kinda like a web forum but older, and suffers from all the usual trolling, hysteria and flaming that the Internet is renowned for.

One of the attractions of USENET is its anonymity – it’s easy to hide behind a pseudonym and get arsy with the world. I should know – Chewbury Gubbins will be celebrating his fifteenth birthday pretty soon. But every now and then, you get someone whose personality shines through the plain text interface. That’s The Rev. In the chaos of USENET, he was a balanced, easy-going, courteous, eloquent and decent guy, and his many posts – joking, mickey-taking, informative, helpful, whatever – were always a welcome addition to the group.

But it’s not just USENET – his blog postings and tweets also became part of my normal day. I have a folder in my RSS reader called ‘Gaming’ containing a dozen or so UGVMers bloggings, and my lunch hour was generally spent reading these. I’d get home and fire up the xbox, and there he was on my Live friends list. We’ve stood side by side gunning down endless hordes of zombies; we’ve laughed until we cried at my ridiculously bad performances in FPS games; we’ve had rude word competitions in Words with Friends (an iPhone Scrabble game – where, incidentally, his vast vocabulary never failed to thrash me completely). What I’m painting here is a picture of a man I interacted with on a daily basis for over ten years and in that time was never less than the embodiment of all that’s good about humanity.

On October 12th, Owen tweeted that he was out of breath after climbing the stairs. He’d just taken a couple of days off work with a suspected chest infection. On the 13th, he died of a heart attack, aged only 37, leaving behind the young wife he’d spent the last few deliriously happy years with.

Some people would have you believe that an ‘online friend’ isn’t the same as a ‘real-life friend’. To those people, I present the shockwave of Owen’s passing which has made his loss felt in dozens of forums, xbox friends lists, social networking sites and just about any other community you care to mention. To those people, I present the gaping wound that has appeared in my world and the worlds of the hundreds of people whose lives were touched by this gentle, thoughtful, compassionate and just plain magnificent man.

I have a Carcassone game that will never be finished, a Words with Friends game that will never be finished, and an unread blog post in my RSS reader that I can’t bring myself to open. But I also have friends – hundreds of them who, just like me, are startled by their feelings of loss for someone they’ve never met in person. Friends who have been drawn closer by this tragic unspeakable loss.

Owen Allaway, your legacy is this: you’ve inspired us by your example; you’ve brought us closer together through the recognition that shared experience is every bit as genuine as a shared latte; you’ve reminded us of how precious life is; you’ve shown us that none of us are alone, ever.

Rest in peace, Rev. Wherever you are, you’re sorely missed.