Things were not going well, for Simone Back, 42, of Brighton, England. A relationship had gone wrong, and she was pretty broken up about it.
But at least she had friends to fall back on. Some 1,048 of them, in fact. For that is how many people had identified themselves as her friend on Facebook.
So when, at 10:53 p.m. local time on Christmas Day, Back logged on to her Facebook page and posted “Took all my pills be dead soon bye bye everyone,” you would expect that that thousand or so friends would move to abort her suicide, comfort her, convince her to remain in life.
Nah. They let her die.
Seven minutes after Back posted her suicide note, a friend posted to her Facebook page: “She ODs all the time and she lies.”
In the coming couple of hours, some 148 messages were exchanged on Back’s site between Back’s friends. Most of them dissected her relationship status.
Samantha Owen of Southampton, described as an offline friend of Back’s, said:
“Everyone just carried on arguing with each other on Facebook like it wasn’t happening. Some of those people lived within walking distance of Simone. If one person just left their computer and went to her house her life could have been saved.”
“She sent the last message via mobile so I just imagined her sitting there, taking the pills, and listening to her phone ping as all these horrible messages came through.”
An hour after Back’s note was posted, a friend wrote: “Did you catch the part about Simone taking pills?? the ‘bye bye’ part?? Did anyone go by personally and check on Simone. or call 999?? what’s wrong with you people?? is the gossip really more important than her?” To this another friend replied: “She does it all the time, takes all of her pills,” adding “she’s not a kid anymore.”
Seventeen hours after Back posted her note, someone texted Back’s mother and informed her of it. Disabled, she was unable to check on Back herself, so asked the police to do so. They broke down Back’s door and found her dead inside her house.
MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle says, “this story just breaks my heart.” According to Turkle, people are still feeling their way into being what an online friend should be. “It’s almost the real thing. It can feel like the real thing. I’m sure when the going was not tough, this woman felt very sustained and connected. But when the going got tough no one was there.”
Samantha Owen, Back’s offline friend, told the Telegraph: ”Facebook has to take some responsibility for this.”
Well, no. Not really. Facebook is just a tool. The responsibility lies with those who signed on to be this woman’s friend. And then twiddled their keyboards while she died.
It may be correct that, as Owen states, Facebook is “raking in the money and spending nothing on protecting people who use it,” and that “I tried to get in touch with Facebook to get them to take the site down but it is almost impossible to find contact details[;] they should be visible on every page.” But the fact remains that Facebook’s swollen coffers and site design, and the continued visibility of Back’s page as she died, did not constitute the problem. The problem was that the woman lay dying while her 1048 online friends did nothing.
And it’s not like such a phenomenon is unique to Facebook. I have been haunted in the seven years since I read about it by the death of Brendon Vedas of Phoenix, Arizona. On the evening of January 13, 2003, Vedas, 21, known as “ripper” online, ingested for his online friends large amounts of klonopin, psychedelic mushrooms, methadone, clonazepam, vicodin, temazepam, propranolol, marijuana, and rum, live, via webcam and internet chat, until he passed out, and died.
You can read a transcript of the Internet Relay Chat session here. Vedas’ friends can be found there urging him on: “eat more,” “I eat that every morning,” “you pussy eat more,” “fucking eat it,” “takea thousant!” People knew what might happen: “dont OD on us ripper,” “i wonder if we’ll see ripper ever again,” “don’t make me tape this video stream and ebay it later.” And then when it did—”its sad to see you die like this”—they declined to follow Vedas’ instructions on what to do if something appeared to go wrong: call the authorities and give them the license plate number of his car, parked in his driveway. One friend did call 9-1-1, but then thought better of it midway through the call, and “talked my way out of it.” Vedas’ mother found his lifeless body the next morning.
Sociologists speak of “the bystander effect,” wherein if a group of people perceive that something is Wrong, they look to others to determine how to act. And if nobody moves to do anything, then nobody will continue to do anything. This, I gather, is known in the trade as “pluralistic ignorance” and “diffusion of responsibility.” I call it not acting like a proper human. The intertubes shouldn’t make it easier to behave in this way. But I guess it does.
In my decade or so on these here tubes, I have taken some heat, from time to time, for treating people who online have become my friends, like my friends. Such an attitude is Stupid, I have been told, if not Wrong. “They’re just words on a screen,” come the sneers, “it’s not like it’s people you really know.”
Well, no. Words are words. And friends are friends. And, as Pike Bishop put it, “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”