And now blogs lead to suicide?

I’m not convinced that (largely anonymous) and vicious verbal attacks through blogs are enough to drive anyone to suicide. Maybe I’m wrong, but news of an advertising executive in the US killing himself at least partly because of what was published about him online is a bit of a stretch. And this, as the article notes, isn’t the first time (in the US) someone’s killed themselves because of insults against them published online. Hope none of the judges from Chillies follow suit. And if I had taken Rajpal’s insults seriously, I would have killed myself a long time ago.

More seriously though and as a general point, I keep going back to David Pogue’s sentiments of last year. Speaking of the timbre of debate online, the NY Times renown tech columnist said:

The real shame, though, is that the kneejerk “everyone else is an idiot” tenor is poisoning the potential the Internet once had. People used to dream of a global village, where maybe we can work out our differences, where direct communication might make us realize that we have a lot in common after all, no matter where we live or what our beliefs.

But instead of finding common ground, we’re finding new ways to spit on the other guy, to push them away. The Internet is making it easier to attack, not to embrace.Maybe as the Internet becomes as predominant as air, somebody will realize that online behavior isn’t just an afterthought. Maybe, along with HTML and how to gauge a Web site’s credibility, schools and colleges will one day realize that there’s something else to teach about the Internet: Civility 101.

Especially after the Kathy Sierra incident, there’s been a lot of debate in the US in particular and on various blogs about freedom of expression vs. hate speech. It’s not an easy debate as this article from Ars Technica highlights or this post and the responses to it bring out.

But suicide? I’m not ruling it out totally, but to kill oneself because of online insults sounds just a bit too extreme. I guess you have to be suicidal first, or some sort of a manic depressant, to be affected by vitriolic online content to the degree that it acts as a trigger to take one’s life. Getting suicidal solely because of online content sounds a bit fanciful to me.

I think the larger problem is that in an age when everyone’s first impressions are through Google, content that’s insulting to you online and downright factually incorrect is impossible to delete and for those who don’t know you well, may appear to be legitimate grievances.

If you are the target of hate speech online, I think there are better ways to deal with it than killing yourself, but I’m interested in the opinion of anyone out there who has actually dealt more with this issue, that I think is really quite central to the manner in which we communicate today.

4 comments on “And now blogs lead to suicide?

  1. Haren
    March 5, 2008 at 9:35 pm #

    I don’t know of any research or data regarding this issue if there is any, so this is purely a hypothesis;
    With the Internet becoming increasingly ‘ubiquitous’ there seem to be a certain demographic – that may either be characterised by a certain psychological profile, or by childhood traits and habits developed as a result of growing up with the Internet – who virtually migrate more than a critical percentage of their social interactions to the Internet.
    As with basic communication theory, where we know that ‘chatting’ on an IM is not the same as speaking to them on the phone, which is not the same as talking to them face to face, virtual social interactions cannot fulfil the void left by the lack of a physical presence of those whom we trust and depend on. Such an imbalance could make people more vulnerable/sensitive to how they are perceived by the online community and what is said about them and to them on the Internet, than others who have healthy relationships in the real world.
    So hypothetically – it may be possible that a person could be driven to suicide – based purely on negative relationships/communication they are subjected to on the Internet. Simply put, if a person can be driven into a suicide mentality in the real world by the actions and/or words of real people, the same should be possible in the virtual – perhaps depending on ‘how real’ the virtual world is in that person’s perception.
    Maybe?

  2. Sanjana Hattotuwa
    March 5, 2008 at 10:35 pm #

    Interesting theory.

    The particular case NYT points to may not fit it though – an advertising executive responsible for accounts such as McDonalds I doubt would have spent all his time quaffing angus third pounders in Second Life, or hooked on to blogs and IM to the extent that he was removed from all collegial contact.

    There does seem to be some nascent approaches the law can take in this regard – see http://virtuallyblind.com/2007/11/21/myspace-suicide-tort/ in response to the suicide of the girl who was a user of MySpace.

    Is suicide monocausal? No Can online interactions strengthen suicidal instincts? Yes. See my review of Chatroom, a play by Enda Walsh that specifically deals with this issue here – http://www.groundviews.org/2007/02/25/thoughts-on-chatroom-a-play-by-enda-walsh-directed-by-tracy-holsinger/

    A bit of a tangent, but you say “virtual social interactions cannot fulfil the void left by the lack of a physical presence of those whom we trust and depend ”

    Don’t know about that Haren. My son’s just over one year old. When he hits my age, I’m certain that the distinction between real and virtual relationships will be moot. And besides, aren’t we communicating far more with even “real” people (never mind the furry bunnies of Second Life) more virtually? My office sends more emails a day to colleagues in the next room that I suspect telephone calls or just walking over to their desk.

    Sanjana

  3. Haren
    March 8, 2008 at 7:29 pm #

    It may be possible that there is no direct relationship between a person’s career or social status and the opportunities they have to develop positive relationships, and unless he had time and a capacity for a healthy social life, we can assume that people now have the space to confine themselves more and more exclusively to virtual relationships.

    As for the prediction that future generations will find it harder to differentiate between virtual relationships and real ones, maybe you are not giving enough weight to the physical needs that ‘real relationships’ cater to, that virtual relationships cannot fulfill. Evolution of technology will not be sufficient to effect such a metamorphosis – because real (as opposed to virtual) relationships fulfill physical needs too.

    But the more i read about it, the harder I find to isolate the issue Sanjana.

    To digress a little from the core question, Lt Col. Dave Grosman in his books gives a summery of research from WW II pointing out that the human psyche inhibits us from perpetrating violence against our own kind and how the military has devised ways to overcome those psychological barriers. Interestingly, he points out how an average person would find it hard to hurt a recognizable human figure or even an animal as opposed to an object. explains to a certain degree, why we find it much easier to say certain things to others in a letter, but not in a live conversation.

    Talking about virtual relationships and the psychological effects of it that we may or may not carry with us into real life, the horizon stretches wider than merely chat rooms, social networking and virtual worlds – also to encompass video games and perhaps even hyper-reality and robotics.

  4. Sanjana Hattotuwa
    March 11, 2008 at 4:45 pm #

    Haren,

    Thanks for a thoughtful response. I think you may find an article of mine an interesting counterpoint to Grosman’s contention that an average person finds it hard to hurt another living being – http://sanjanah.wordpress.com/2007/06/09/the-banality-of-evil/

    Eichmann’s and Zimbardo’s experiments suggest something quite frightening – that all of us are capable of a great degree of (physical) violence. Translate that into anonymous online / virtual spaces and the picture isn’t pretty.

    I guess what you point out is true today and even more so in the future – factors for suicide must now include both the real and the virtual, which may be real to the person who died.

    Food for thought.

    Sanjana

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