What Online Community?

Young people are hyperconnected online, but the recent "deathcast" of Abraham Biggs is a reminder that many aren't really building community

The recent tragic incident involving 19-year-old college student, Abraham Biggs, has unwrapped a host of social, moral, ethical, and legal issues. This American teenager announced his suicide online and broadcast live his last hours on Justin.tv for the world to view. Bizarre and macabre behavior followed as some viewers egged him on.

News of the suicide and how viewers responded to it give cause for reexamining conventional wisdom concerning the role of technology in the lives of the so-called Millennials, who were born between 1982 and 2003 and grew up on the Web and mobile technology. Is it increasing the measure of social integration, or is it producing isolation among young people such as Abraham Biggs?

There's no question that social media make it easier to be connected. A 2007 Kaiser Family Foundation survey of people ages 8 to 18 showed that the average young person spends 6 hours, 21 minutes every day exposed to various forms of media. The average young person spends nearly two hours on the computer and playing video games. Much of that time is spent interacting with others via chat, e-mail, and blogs; on social networks like Facebook and MySpace (NWS); and uploading videos to sharing sites like YouTube (GOOG). These tools have become the primary means of staying connected with others and have progressed from accessories to necessities. Face-to-face communication has been usurped by computer-mediated communication.

Mutual Trust

For all this connectivity, the quality and depth of communication has decreased for many young people. Have you read a transcript of a teenager's text messages lately? Superficiality pervades these communiqués, and this type of communication tool does not inevitably nurture strong bonds between members of our society, nor does it create socially cohesive networks built upon mutual trust, respect, and commitment.

Millennials are dangerously susceptible to feelings of isolation even though they describe themselves as "connected" by means of technomedia. For example, heavy Internet use displaces other activities such as spending time with family members and friends. The result is fewer meaningful connections and a weaker social support system. Therefore, it can be argued that Millennials are more connected as a result of being online, but less likely to have meaningful relationships online.

This paradox of being more "connected" but actually less connected may explain the behavior of the spectators during the Biggs online suicide. Potentially, the spectators were able to distance themselves from the actual event and the personhood of Biggs, as a result of being conditioned to refrain from genuinely connecting online at the emotional and personal levels.

Morally Reprehensible

The events that transpired around Biggs' death can only be explained in the context of behavior unique to an Internet culture that provides participants a false impression of anonymity. It is unimaginable to think individuals would have egged on Biggs face-to-face. Within my Introductory Sociology course, students discussed this issue and the general consensus was that it would be morally reprehensible to offer a suicidal teenager more pills and encourage the suicidal ideation in a face-to-face setting.

Yet in essence, this is precisely the behavior demonstrated by the spectators. These individuals were able to hide behind the thin veil of anonymity the Internet provides, and thus either justify their behaviors or assume they were protected from the consequences of their actions. Consequently, computer-mediated communication provided the setting for moral detachment and a lapse of ethical judgment that would not have occurred within face-to-face communication. Legally, the spectators may be exonerated, but morally and ethically they are accountable for their actions.

And what of the second group, the bystanders? These individuals viewed the incident live on Justin.tv and chose to be observers. This behavior is actually more predictable, based upon the so-called bystander effect whereby in an emergency, the more bystanders there are, the less likely it is that any of them will actually help. A recent example involved a Philadelphia subway rider who was beaten with a hammer while 10 bystanders chose not to assist the victim. Similarly, many individuals who witnessed the suicide unfold chose not to get involved. The ubiquity of the Internet and the mass of viewers on live video sites potentially increase the possibility of the bystander effect occurring during online emergencies.

Emergency Response

Another plausible explanation for the inaction and macabre voyeurism is related to our fascination with death. Once again, this is a cultural norm and is not surprising that many spectators would view the first case of "deathcasting" on American soil. Ironically, Justin Kan (founder of Justin.tv) popularized the term "lifecasting" by wearing a Webcam 24 hours a day. It is my sincere hope that copycats will not popularize the term "deathcasting."

The third response (and, of course, the most appropriate response) was the group who attempted to contact authorities, although this response was met with difficulties. Contacting the moderators and the ISP proved to be tricky. The time lag between contacting authorities and finding the location of the victim was approximately 12 hours. This group acted ethically, responsibly, and can be exonerated from any culpability. It is important that we continue to examine this issue to explore available or new means of monitoring and responding to emergencies on the Internet.

Of the three responses portrayed by the spectators, the Internet culture and technology played a role in each. As a sociologist, I would be remiss if I did not address the macro issue behind this tragic incident. Suicide in the U.S. is a salient issue and concern. Every 16 minutes an American takes his or her own life. In 2007, the number of 10- to 24-year-olds who committed suicide rose by 8%, the largest increase in 15 years. Suicide is directly related to the degree of social integration among members of a society. In other words, the more connections between individuals, the lower the suicide rate.

It's my sincere hope that as more people use technomedia to forge connections, they'll also use it to find meaningful relationships and build support systems.

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