The cold hearts of digital voyeurs

03 Dec 2008

By The Record

The webcam suicide of an American teenager gives the lie to the notion of an “internet community”.



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 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  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 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 crush?
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 have 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 neighbours helping neighbours; not neighbours watching neighbours 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 psychiatrist.


 Internet addiction carries a "Moral Cost" – Zenit

 ARLINGTON, Virginia – The Internet suicide of a Florida teen witnessed by an online audience is an example of the “enormous moral cost” of screen addiction, says philosophy professor Roger Scruton.
Scruton, a research professor for the Institute for the Psychological Sciences, said this in response to the actions of those who watched 19-year-old Abraham Biggs, Jr, overdose on drugs and die last week on the live video Web site
Users notified the police only when it was clear that the Florida teenager was no longer breathing. It has not been revealed how many watched him die, but more than 100 people were still watching the video when police arrived and turned the camera off.
Abraham Biggs Sr, the teen’s father, told the Associated Press that he was appalled by the actions of those who watched his son die: “As a human being, you don’t watch someone in trouble and sit back and just watch.”
Scruton explained in a statement sent out by the Institute of Psychological Sciences that there is a natural lure to watch others suffer: “Human beings have a desire to witness suffering, by way of celebrating their own temporary freedom from it – hence the appeal of the Roman games and public executions.”
“But they also feel guilty when they do this, since they know that they are being tempted,” he continued. “They are being prompted to want what they see: to want another’s suffering, even another’s death, simply to gratify their own sadistic desires.
“Hence, in normal circumstances, shame will prevent them from going far in this direction, and turn their thoughts toward another goal – toward helping the other, rather than relishing his pain.”
Anonymity The professor said the Internet, however, “abolishes shame in this context as in so many others. Viewing the world from behind a screen, the Internet addict can relish every kind of narcissistic, sadistic and hateful feeling without cost.
“Nobody sees him; nobody knows what he is doing; nobody judges – so he believes.”
Referring to the audience watching Briggs’ suicide, he said “the fascinated spectators could enjoy a cost-free sadistic spree, and – when the dreadful event was over – turn their vicarious lives in another direction, as though nothing had happened.”
“This is but one instance of the enormous moral cost of screen addiction,” Scruton said. “As we shall increasingly see, 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.
“Only concerted action now can control this menace; and it is important that all decent people turn their attention to the question of how it might be done.”