The cold hearts of digital voyeurs
Earlier this month, the world witnessed
the internet version of a man standing on a ledge threatening to
jump. Instead of snarling strangers yelling “jump!”, digital
voyeurs tapped away on their keyboards as they watched the life drain
out of 19-year-old Abraham Biggs.
On November 19 at about 3am, Biggs (aka
feels-like-ecstasy), began his web cast on Justin.tv with an
announcement that he had overdosed on drugs. He also posted a suicide
note. As this modern tragedy progressed, the chorus debated whether
he had taken enough pills or whether he was faking. Others challenged
Biggs to finish the job. A few tried to talk him out of it.
Throughout, there were the laugh messages -- LOL and ha-hah-ha. At
11am, a few noticed that Biggs was motionless. Eventually, one viewer
contacted the moderator to get Biggs’ contact information. Twelve
hours after Biggs’ declaration of death, the curtain came down.
Police broke down the locked door of the Florida apartment and found the
young man dead.
Biggs is not the first to commit
suicide on a webcam. Last year a British man hanged himself on
camera. His viewers also taunted and laughed at him until they
noticed that he was turning blue.
Rosalind Biggs, Abraham's sister,
described her brother as an outgoing college student who loved taking
his nieces to Chuck E. Cheese. Biggs also had a darker side, a
history of bipolar disorder. Still, his sister says that her
brother’s death was sudden and a shock.
Biggs’ family was understandably
angry with his son’s callous chat room acquaintances. “It didn’t
have to be,” she lamented.
His father was “appalled.” Abraham
Biggs Sr. chastised his son’s viewers: "It's a person's life
that we're talking about. And as a human being, you don't watch
someone in trouble and sit back and just watch." The death of
his child could have been prevented. A quicker response might have
saved his life.
The father’s anger may be easily
dismissed because there is no clear legal accountability.
Nonetheless, he is correct about the moral responsibility. Abraham
Biggs Sr is tortured by the idea that his son’s webcast was a cry
for help. He is further tortured by the lack of response.
Understandable, but less forgivable,
has been the reaction of journalists and their experts. Much of the
media coverage has been focused on finding a scandal. The obvious
scandal is the question of liability. Can chat rooms be sued? Lawyers
say it’s a stretch.
The echo chamber of the press and
cultural experts assure us that this is basically kids being kids.
Associated Press summed up the event as an “extreme example of
young people’s penchant for sharing intimate details about
themselves over the internet”.
A University of Ohio assistant
professor of popular culture told AP that the public suicide was not shocking (emphasis mine) given the way teenagers chronicle
every facet of their lives on sites like Facebook and MySpace.
When did suicide become a banality in
our culture? Furthermore, how could the revelation of a suicidal
threat be placed in the same category as some schoolgirl’s latest
Even stranger is the notion that people
who remain anonymous and talk about themselves are being intimate or
sharing secrets. How intimate was Biggs with the public? He never
even revealed his name and address.
If Biggs is just another
exhibitionistic teen, then what can be said about the spectators of
this 12-hour death watch? Some may not have been certain that he was
dying. They may thought that he was joking. Yet the audience watched
because in the dark recesses of their minds, they were titillated by
the idea that he might actually be dying. Are young people naturally
this callous or does the internet harden their hearts?
Yes to both questions.
Consider the popularity of fight videos
on YouTube. In a recent interview British philosopher, Roger Scruton
predicts that “the result of the internet
will be a widespread hardening of the human heart, and a replacement
of true relationships between people with their cyber-substitutes.”
The Florida teen’s suicide shows the
deficiency in these cyber-substitutes. One may find mutual interests
on the internet and a semblance of friendship. Can a friendship grow
in chat room where the occupants buzz by like bees going
from flower to flower? As with many people seeking companionship on
the web, Biggs may have bought the line that chat rooms are
communities. True communities are neighbors helping neighbors; not
neighbors watching neighbors for amusement.
Like the man standing on the ledge,
Abraham Biggs may have been hoping for a rescue, hoping for someone
standing on the street with a safety net. Unfortunately, on the web,
there is no net.
Theron Bowers MD is a Texas
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