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Boy Commits Suicide After Reaching Out to On-line Community

Most who champion on-line chat rooms and message boards argue that such technology encourages community. The question, however, is just how healthy on-line community really is. Emboldened by anonymity, people often say things to others that they would never say face-to-face. Armed with a certain sense that "this isn't really the real world," people have little concern for the consequences of their actions or words. To put it simply: pseudo-, virtual community can often bring out the worst in us.

Consider the devastating story of Abraham Biggs.

The message board section of Biggs' favorite site, BodyBuilding.com, was his source of community—even family. The 19-year-old college student posted at least 2,300 messages, many of them chronicling his personal struggles. On November 19, 2008, after several messages that hinted at his desire to commit suicide, Biggs posted one final note, swallowed a medley of pills, and directed his on-line community to watch his death on a live video website.

What is especially horrifying is what investigators discovered after the suicide. Many in Biggs' on-line family had actually encouraged him to take his life. In fact when officers finally found where Biggs was located, 181 people were watching the video, many of whom were typing "LOL"—"laugh out loud"—on the screen.

In an interview with the New York Times about Biggs' death, Jeffrey Cole, a professor who studies technology's effects on society at the University of Southern California, said, "[Online communities] are like the crowd outside the building with the guy on the ledge. Sometimes there is someone who gets involved and tries to talk him down. Often the crowd chants, 'Jump, jump.' They can enable suicide or help prevent it." In the same interview, he later adds: "The anonymous nature of these communities only emboldens the meanness or callousness of the people on these sites. Rarely does it bring out greater compassion or consideration."

When The Associated Press spoke to Biggs' father about the tragedy, he said, "As a human being, you don't watch someone in trouble and sit back and just watch."

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