“It boggles the mind.” The was the reaction from the sister of Abraham Biggs, 19. “We don’t understand,” she added.
Biggs posted his intent to take his own life on a bodybuilding internet forum message board. He included a link to the site where he was broadcasting via webcam to a live audience. His suicide was witnessed by internet viewers. And now his family, law enforcement officials, and internet users are asking how such a situation could occur — and why it wasn’t prevented from playing out to a tragic and irreversible conclusion.
Biggs had a history of depression and ingested a lethal overdose of medications prescribed to treat bipolar disorder. After he posted his plan on the messageboard, a site moderator was alerted to his writing by a forum visitor. The site owners alerted local authorities who were dispatched to his home where his lifeless body was discovered on his father’s bed.
Reports are surfacing that the webcam broadcast images of him lying on the bed for as long as 12 hours. It appears that viewers did not see him take the drugs that killed him, but he did leave a suicide note. “When (police) came in, the webfeed stopped. So that’s 12 hours of watching. They got hits, they got viewers, nothing happened for hours,” his sister said.
Even more disturbing are accounts of some viewers debating whether he had actually taken a lethal dose and urging him to take more prescription drugs. Allegedly, other viewers attempted to dissuade him, but apparently did not alert the owners of the site from which the webcast was being broadcast, ostensibly because they believed they were witnessing an internet hoax and Biggs had purportedly posted similar threats in the past.
“Technology blurs the lines between reality and that which is not real.”
Biggs’ distraught father says that the website owner-operators and audience members all share responsibility for his son’s death. “I think they are all equally wrong,” he said. “As a human being, you don’t watch someone in trouble and sit back and just watch.” He believes that his son was crying out for help when he posted about his plan.
One sociologist opines that witnesses who egged the young man on “were in essence able to depersonalize. They would not do it face to face, but in the computer medium they were able to absolve themselves of any personal responsibility for their actions.” He believes that they “absolutely not” absolved. In most jurisdictions, they cannot be held legally liable for Biggs’ actions, although some states criminalize advising another person to commit suicide. Clearly, however, “technology blurs the lines between reality and that which is not real.”
The medical examiner confirmed that “if somebody had come immediately after he took tablets, then probably not all the tablets would have been absorbed. Then, therefore, they could wash his stomach and get rid of the additional tablets. Certainly, he would have had a much better chance.”
Ultimately, Biggs is the latest disturbed individual to gain fame through death. In 2007, a British citizen hanged himself while broadcasting live and another Florida resident shot himself. Of course, the numerous individuals who have planned and carried out school or workplace shooting rampages that culminated in their suicides have also sought notoreity through their heinous acts.
This tragic episode again underscores the need for caution when using the Internet. But it also raises troubling questions about what responsibility bloggers, in addition to messageboard, forum, and social networking site users bear to look out for each other. Biggs’ post was flagged by a reader, eventually reviewed by a site moderator, and the police ultimately informed of its contents. But if a live webcam continued broadcasting for as many as 12 hours and a significant portion of the broadcast occurred, as Biggs’ family alleges, after he lost consciousness while observers casually speculated about his well-being, this event demonstrates that Internet users are capable of disconnecting from reality to the point of becoming fatally callous to the plight of other participants at various social websites.
To what extent are we our brothers’ online keeper? What responsibility do we owe our fellow Internet users? Is anyone responsibility for the tragic death of Abraham Biggs? If so, who?