E-evil

WebcamworldAs far as I can tell, there is no faith, no religion, no hope and no positive sense of morality in the following story. Only evil.

There may be some apathy, which is often another form of evil. Here's the top of the Associated Press report, as printed in the Los Angeles Times.

The message "OMG" popped up next to the live webcam broadcast of Abraham Biggs lying motionless on his bed, followed by "LOL" and "hahahah."

But Biggs wasn't joking. The 19-year-old Broward College student really did commit suicide by drug overdose, as some audience members egged him on and others tried to talk him out of it.

Eventually, police entered the video frame, having been alerted by watchers. But it was too late. The officers hovered over Biggs' body, then stopped the Web feed -- 12 hours after Biggs, at his father's house in Pembroke Pines, had declared his intent to kill himself.

It was unclear how many people had watched.

Now, is there evil in this story (which is getting quite a bit of coverage)? If so, the existence of evil is essentially a religious question. However, I am not sure that we can expect the Associated Press to chase that ghost in what is, essentially, a crime story.

Only, it's not just a crime story. It's a story about a new kind of cyber community and whether that community has any sense of ethics. And, inside the wider online community, there was a smaller community of bodybuilding enthusiasts, people spread out across the Internet with their own sense of community values (or lack thereof). Who provides moral leadership in that kind of setting? Who makes the rules? Determines what is right and what is wrong?

The family of this young man felt wrong, felt abandoned. The sense that something wrong took place is clear in their comments.

Biggs' family was infuriated that neither the viewers nor the website that hosted the live video, Justin.tv, acted sooner to save him. The website plays videos next to a space where computer users can post real-time comments.

"They got hits, they got viewers, nothing happened for hours," said Biggs' sister, Rosalind. She added: "It didn't have to be."

As a professor who teaches journalism and media studies to modern young people, I am haunted by passages such as this in the report:

Some members of the bodybuilder forum told investigators they did not take him seriously because he had threatened suicide there before. Some online observers encouraged him to do it, others tried to talk him out of it and some discussed whether he was taking a dose big enough to kill himself, said Wendy Crane, an investigator with the Broward County medical examiner's office.

One person who claimed to have watched said that Biggs went to sleep after swallowing pills and appeared to be breathing for a few hours. Meanwhile, observers cracked jokes.

Right. And ultimately, there is this jarring reality about the only larger frame of reference that exists in this day and age:

Montana Miller, an assistant professor of popular culture at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, said the circumstances of Biggs' suicide were not shocking, given the way teenagers chronicle every facet of their lives on sites such as MySpace and Facebook.

"If it's not recorded or documented, then it doesn't even seem worthwhile," she said. "For today's generation it might seem, 'What's the point of doing it if everyone isn't going to see it?' "

Indeed. What's the point? Ultimately, life isn't real unless it's in some form of mass media. But what about death? Is that real?

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