Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Suicide as Spectator Sport?

No sooner had we discussed the dangers of suicide and internet, when word spread of a suicide last week which the person broadcast live over the web while 181 people sat around "LOL'ing" and "OMG'ing" like lobotomized buffoons.

Last Wednesday, [Abraham] Biggs posted a suicide note and listed the drug cocktail he intended to consume...on BodyBuilding.com, which includes discussions of numerous topics besides bodybuilding. On a live video Web site, Justin.tv, Mr. Biggs was “egged on” by strangers who, investigators say, encouraged him to swallow the antidepressant pills that eventually killed him.

Mr. Biggs’s case is the most recent example of a suicide that played out on the Internet. Live video of the death was shown online to scores of people, leading some viewers to cringe while others laughed. The case, which has prompted an outpouring of sympathy and second-guessing online, demonstrates the double-edged nature of online communities that millions of people flock to every day.

Online communities “are like the crowd outside the building with the guy on the ledge,” Jeffrey Cole, a professor who studies technology’s effects on society at the University of Southern California. “Sometimes there is someone who gets involved and tries to talk him down. Often the crowd chants, ‘Jump, jump.’ They can enable suicide or help prevent it.”
Nice. And in the case of this young man, the crowd was clearly of the "Jump!" variety.
It was not the first time someone had used the Web in this way. In Arizona in 2003, a man overdosed on drugs while writing about his actions in a chat room. In Britain last year, a man hanged himself while chatting online and webcasting. In both cases, other users reportedly encouraged the individual.

M. David Rudd, chairman of the psychology department at Texas Tech University, said the Internet did not fully live up to its potential to help with suicide prevention. “Most of what’s available via the Internet only serves to make the problem worse,” Mr. Rudd said, whether it is information about how to commit suicide or immature comments from chat room users.

Mr. Rudd said he believed that Mr. Biggs was not seeking an audience online.

“What he was really doing was expressing his ambivalence about dying and, in an awkward manner, asking for help,” he said.

But the virtual nature of the community — distant, largely unaccountable and often seeking entertainment — was equally ambivalent. Hours after Mr. Biggs died, some of the forum users still sounded highly skeptical of the case. Others asked to see the video.

“The anonymous nature of these communities only emboldens the meanness or callousness of the people on these sites,” Mr. Cole said. “Rarely does it bring out greater compassion or consideration.”
Sadly, this is contrary to the great promises of the internet in the 90's, when so-called "virtual interactions" would lead to a decrease in deviant or pathological behaviors.

I'm not sure who, if anyone, bears any legal liability in this case. I'm sure the Biggs family feels a retributive punishment is justifiable, and there would a delicious irony in bringing criminal charges against the jeering half-wits who egged this young man on. But if we were to criminalize stupidity, then collapse of our justice system would ensue, etc.

It's appropriate to discuss this case in terms of cyberculture, suicide, group/crowd interactions, and legal liability, but the case itself also serves as an appropriate comment on the state of our culture today.

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