Abraham Biggs, a 19-year-old Floridian, killed himself while an estimated 1,500 people watched via a Web cam. He took an overdose of pills, posted a suicide note and, over the course of ten hours, expired. People watched as this young man took his last breath, not notifying authorities until it was too late. Those who watched said that they thought it was a joke; they thought it was staged; they could not believe that it was real even though it was happening right in front of their faces. They did not "realize" that he was telling the truth until he stopped moving. No one helped. No one intervened. No one called the police until it was too late — hours later.
Ironically, at the same time that this incident occurred, another case of suicide and the web was being tried. Lori Drew, accused of posing as a teen boy on MySpace to tease and humiliate 13-year-old Megan Meier, was found guilty last week on three misdemeanor charges of computer fraud. Prosecutors had told jurors that Drew, her daughter and a teenage employee created the profile in a plan to embarrass Meier and get back at her for saying "bad things" about Drew's daughter. Prosecutors alleged that Meier's subsequent suicide could have been avoided had an adult, who lived only a few houses away, not tormented her online.
These two cases highlight the very real danger of what happens when the line between fantasy and reality becomes blurred. As many as 1,500 people watched Biggs dying because they could not tell the difference between fantasy and reality. Perhaps Biggs was crying out for help, as his father has suggested, because in his fantasy, someone would come to his aid. The reality of the situation is no one did. Lori Drew was fighting for her freedom because she did not "realize" that her fantasy would translate into a nightmare for Meier and ultimately herself.
You can file these two incidents under "what the heck were these folks thinking?" But what these two cases really highlight is the lack of integrity that permeates our society. The difference between right and wrong is no longer crystal clear. It is wrong to watch someone commit suicide and to not notify authorities even if you think it is a hoax. We are not God or all-knowing, so what harm would it do to make a phone call to authorities when someone says that he is attempting suicide? If you have his location, e-mail address, and Web address, he can be found and quite easily at that. It is wrong for anyone, especially an adult, to torment a child so egregiously that she commits suicide. A grown woman, mother of a daughter and neighbor to a family created a fake profile to get back at a 13-year-old for saying "bad things" about her daughter. Instead of acting like a 13-year-old, she might have considered asking her daughter to ignore the comments or have spoken with Meier and her mother in an effort to quell the feud. What mother would treat a child in a way that she would not want her child treated?
In my mind, what is more disturbing about these incidents is the behavior by those involved. Have we really declined as a society to such an extent that we will not help our fellow human beings and a young person at that? Biggs needed help. Meier needed help. Unfortunately, they turned to the Web instead of relatives and real friends and what did they get? Nothing. That is the reality of the Internet. It can be a whole lot of nothing, which is why people can "pretend" that they do not realize when something is going on. Meier did not realize that the boy that she liked and thought liked her back was a mean-spirited, childish woman with too much time on her hands to do a whole lot of nothing on the Web, which unfortunately turned into something -- a tragedy. Sometimes when we make something out of nothing, the consequences are dire.
As we wait for Lori Drew's sentencing and learn more about the Biggs case, perhaps we should think about the weight that new media holds in the lives of teens -- teens who are constantly constructing their identities in mediated spaces, to a much larger extent than any prior generations. Is more parental involvement needed? Yes, but not like that of Lori Drew. Does there need to be more oversight on media companies? Yes, but not like that of Justin.tv, the company that hosted Biggs' suicide video. It seems as if the problem reflects our shortcomings as members of society.
If we lack integrity in reality, then why should we expect anything different when it comes to cyberspace?
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of communications and media studies at Goucher College and editorial director for RushmoreDrive.com.