By Greg Oguss

Like many interested in Web culture, I was disturbed by the news of nineteen year-old Abraham Biggs Jr.’s online suicide in November 2008, carried live on the lifecasting site Justin.tv while observers offered instantaneous commentary as if they were participating in one of those pop-up video style reruns of MTV’s The Hills. While the news of Biggs’s death saddened me in an abstract way, I was more disheartened by the spectacle of American journalists and academics using his live-blogged suicide to fuel the moral panic over what the Internet is doing to the fabric of society. The Biggs story disappeared quickly in America’s ADD news cycle, unlike salacious digital stories such as a generation of kids raised on free Internet porn and the young girls sharing nude pictures of themselves online.

The brief burst of coverage Biggs’s death received fit with a consistent pattern of reporting on these stories, however, stirring up fears of kids on the Web run amok. An MSN.com wire story on Biggs’s suicide focused on the teens who “encouraged him to do it” and “cracked jokes” while others wondered if he was “taking a big enough dose” of benzodiazepines and opiates to kill himself. When police finally discovered the body, the story noted onlookers’ reactions ranged from “OMFG” to “lol,” suggesting to the journalist that many either didn’t understand what was happening or didn’t care one way or the other about it. In USA Today, the story was edited for maximum sensationalism, with a pulpy opening stating: “The message OMG popped up” next to his body, “motionless on the bed, followed by LOL and hahahah.” A paragraph break, then: “But Biggs wasn’t joking.”

With tragedies like this, journalists can be forgiven for trotting out a poor Raymond Chandler imitation or making rash claims suggesting the Internet has given us a generation of kids who can’t tell the difference between cyber-fact and cyber-fiction. To avoid this, academics are typically called in to explain the psychology of Generation 2.0. In this case, the academic trotted out was Montana Miller, Assistant Professor of Popular Culture at Bowling Green State University, who placed the callousness of Biggs’s audience in context, explaining for “today’s generation,” public suicide isn’t shocking given that teenagers chronicle every aspect of their lives on social networks. Miller argues teens may think, “What’s the point of doing it, if everyone isn’t going to see it?” When adults engage in the kind of behavior Miller is referencing, it’s called oversharing. People are sick enough of this kind of thing that Slate’s Ron Rosenbaum wrote a column in July 2008 on catchphrases calling for a vote on whether the term was overused. He was clearly premature since Webster’s named “overshare” its Word of the Year for 2008, posting a YouTube video with real-life tales of icky consequences people suffered for indulging, though the first consequence frequently experienced is being ridiculed by online audiences and commentators fed up with this behavior. In youth culture, online interactions can take on the character of extreme sports and oversharers like Biggs face the results.

YouTube fight videos, kids sharing nudie pics via cell phones and Facebook, teenage Webcam porn stars, and audiences mocking online suicides are all outgrowths of oversharing that have paternalistic commentators concerned about the effects of the Internet. Others feel anti-social online behavior merely reflects a corrupt society, displaying the effects of Hollywood, kids raised by negligent parents, or the general decline of America. These problems aren’t limited to kids or the U.S., though. In August 2007, forty-two year-old Kevin Whitrock of Shropshire, England was goaded by a chat room audience into hanging himself. His case is similar to Cornwall’s Simon Kelly, communicating with a chat room audience in 2001 until moments before he died. In 2006, a Missouri mother, her daughter and another teen used a dummy MySpace profile to bully a thirteen year-old into killing herself. 2008 saw the appearance of 90DayJane, a supposedly suicidal twenty-four year-old who promised to video-blog the last ninety days of her life on her BlogSpot. Jane took down the blogs after revealing herself as a hoax, providing plenty of material for a Gawker post-mortem in their “Webtards” column.

From these disparate tales, it is tempting to suggest, as journalists and Professor Miller claim, that we are losing our grip on reality thanks to all this time spent handcuffed to our laptops. Perhaps we’ve also become more heartless thanks to the atomizing effects of the online age? A more compelling explanation often heard is that the bottom-feeders and emotionally damaged have merely flocked to certain websites so that they can harm each other in ever more attention-grabbing ways. The notion of cyberspace as a haven for maladjusted, self-absorbed attention-seekers is predominant in popular culture, even appearing as the running gag on a Californication episode entitled “LOL.” But whether or not the Internet has created a planet of webtarded attention-whores who’d happily cheer on a blogged suicide is a fairly complex chicken-or-the-egg issue.

In the case of Abraham Biggs Jr.’s suicide, some onlookers attempted to talk him out of doing it while others cheered him on. And some watchers notified a moderator, who helped police identify Biggs’s location. This behavior isn’t very different from a crowd beneath a man threatening to jump on a ledge, where a few jerk-offs may strike up a “Jump!” chant while other good Samaritans alert the authorities. By offering a vacuous v-logged rewrite of her hero Chuck Palahniuk’s latest novella Snuff, 90DayJane found she was just feeding the sex-and-death obsession of the culture she’d hoped to critique with her self-described “art project.” The cult of instant gratification predates the appearance of the Internet and is probably hardwired into everyone growing up in a technologically advanced consumer culture (“If we don’t see that chick’s rack in T-minus fifteen seconds, I’m changin’ the effin’ channel!”). All of the free infotainment constantly at our fingertips in the online age has only increased our lack of patience. Frankly, I couldn’t have sat through 90DayJane’s Blog of A Thousand Cringes if she’d promised to dip her naked body in an egg wash, cover herself in Panko flour, and hop in an enormous vat of boiling oil on Day 90, doing away with herself and creating a yummy blogger-fritter in one fell swoop. Perhaps if she’d chosen “9DayJane” as her nom de plume, I could’ve stuck it out.

The online generation’s chance to become a microfamous Webtard or an Internet porn star is a shift in degree only. A certain percentage of girls with low self-esteem have always given up their body in exchange for attention (rarely as literally as 90DayJane claimed she would). There are other effects of growing up in the online age, overlooked by pundits who suggest it primarily causes the blurring of concepts like real vs. unreal and right vs. wrong. Teens may be forced to confront online ethical quandaries on a regular basis, but they have also developed the tools to settle questions about cyberspace morality faster than the rest of us, as Danah Boyd, a fellow at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet & Society, points out in an MSN.com article entitled “When You Don’t Want to Be Facebook Friends.” On social networks, the boundaries are essentially the same as they are off-line. But identifying them is always easier than adhering to them.

Most political philosophers argue that if there were no laws we’d have a “Hobbesian state,” i.e., might makes right. In the U.S., the courts have repeatedly held that Congress has little jurisdiction over the behavior of individuals in cyberspace and can only regulate E-commerce. This means there was nothing technically illegal about an obvious ethical violation like former Florida Congressman Mark Foley’s chat-sex with underage congressional pages. Besides the fact that the Internet is largely self-policing, it’s a friction-less environment, making it ideal for harming yourself before an audience or harming someone else without fear of repercussions. It always requires less courage to be an asshole online than it does face-to-face, and the cyber-Mark Foley in all of us is never far away. And I’m not saying that just because I commented on 90DayJane’s BlogSpot asking her to “show some titty” and am still desperately hoping Owen Wilson takes up blogging.