Losing the social in networking

What makes a young boy commit suicide live on an online video streaming site?

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A disturbing report surfaced in the international media this week, of a young confused boy who committed suicide live on an online video streaming site. The story sent ice through my veins as it was revealed that fellow video bloggers encouraged him to do it.

Far worse than the encouragement, and the fact that it was probably one of the best hit videos on the Internet this week, no one thought to call the moderators, much less help, for the boy. The reports of the number of people watching the 12-hour tragedy are sketchy, but range from 180 all the way through to 1 000 people, who allowed 19-year-old Abraham Briggs to overdose.

Briggs was bi-polar, a problem close to my heart, because a close friend suffers from the disorder. For my friend it is a daily struggle, as I am sure it was for Briggs. I wonder if any one of those viewers considered he might have a problem.

The whole incident is extremely sad and has placed a serious dent in my faith in humanity. Taking a look at the site today, there is no mention of the boy - which is even more disturbing, because those bloggers are not being held accountable.

All or nothing

Briggs's suicide is a classic example of a cry for help that went wrong. People with bi-polar disorder can be extremely rational, and a live suicide attempt usually means it will not work - someone will help. People who truly want to die will make sure no one knows they are planning a suicide attempt.

We are given free rein to express what social norms prevent us from doing when other people are physically present.

Candice Jones, Telecoms Editor, ITWeb

The action of the viewers of this atrocity reminds me of a report I read about the psychology of road rage in SA. The report explains that people in a car feel socially protected by the privacy of the four doors around them, leaving them free to express any emotions they would normally restrain in public places.

I believe the same is true for the Internet. We are given free rein to express what social norms prevent us from doing when other people are physically present. People download porn and they share their deepest feelings with people they have never met. There is a flip side; the bubble also relieves all sense of accountability.

The social networking also allows for quick contact with many people all at the same time - the mob factor. People feed off each other, even with thousands of kilometres of cable between them.

Parry Aftab, executive director of WiredSafety, an organisation dedicated to preventing cyber-abuse, said it perfectly: “The Internet is crazy. You get mob behaviour much faster, people... say things they only think about, but never say out loud.”

Revenge is bitter

Another troubling headline in the media relating to social networking is the story of a 49-year-old mother who used MySpace to take revenge against a young girl who teased her daughter. Thirteen-year-old Megan Meier also ended up committing suicide.

This grown women, Lori Drew, created a fake MySpace profile under the name Josh Evans. Drew used the account first to flirt with Meier and later to tease and taunt her. Like Briggs, Meier suffered from depression, although the reports indicate that Drew knew about it.

Prosecutors in the case, which has now come to court, say she preyed on Meier's “psyche" and tried to "embarrass her, to humiliate her, to make fun of her and to hurt her".

While I am hoping the woman receives the harshest sentence an adult can receive, the temptation to consider her a child is overwhelming. How does an adult, with adult sensibilities, taunt a child with such animosity as to cause suicide?

The concept of revenge is not a new one, though - it's an age-old ideal. The trouble is there is so much out there to encourage these ridiculous Internet revenge schemes. is a person who details the best possible revenge schemes. shows similar scenarios, but gives historical accounts as well.

There is a deep problem with the social schemes attached to the Internet that I believe will need to be addressed, and soon. People need to know that, while they may not be able to see the people they interact with, they are still people.

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