When Howard Beale vowed to kill himself during his evening news broadcast, it was a scandal, a ratings bonanza, an outlandish skewering of an amoral and sensationalist medium. But reality, to say nothing of reality TV, long ago matched the most fantastic satirical excesses Paddy Chayefsky’s imagination could conjure and, barely pausing to savor the triumph, went on to make them seem tame, even quaint.
Maybe that’s why when Kevin Whitrick, a 42-year-old father of twins, hanged himself in front of a webcam streaming live to a chatroom audience last month, there was a familiar feel to the minor buzz that ensued. One more box dutifully ticked off on an endless list of inevitable firsts: First Asian president of the International Cricket Council; first corporate-sponsored facial tattoo; “Britain’s first cyber-suicide. People kill themselves. People chat on the Internet using Webcams. Sooner or later, someone was bound to put them together.
Thus far, nothing to take us out of “slow week at News of the Weird” territory. It’s not a Kitty Genovese redux: In a chatroom whose purpose was to allow members to mock and insult each other, I doubt the people “egging him on” believed they were watching anything but a prank or a bit of performance art initially, and police were promptly summoned once it became clear the man was serious.
What is genuinely interesting here is that the man was indeed hanging about in a well-populated “chatroom whose purpose was to allow members to mock and insult each other,” which at the time of his suicide provided him with an audience of (reports vary) between 50 and 100 viewers. They’re apparently known as “insult rooms,” and there seem to be quite a few at PalTalk, the site where Whitrick broadcast his final moments. This page looks to be maintained by one of the rooms’ regulars—who, if their news update is to be believed, spend a fair amount of time carrying on like demented adolescents even beyond the ritualized savaging (some of which takes the form of terrible, terrible battle raps).
This I find intriguing. Sure, flame wars have been around since the early days of the Internet—and before that on the old dial-up BBSes. Hell, I’m sure if we could track down a copy of the second mimeographed ‘zine ever published, half of it would be devoted to an attack on the first. I don’t know how you write Pwned! in smoke signals, but I bet someone did. But those arguments were, first, always at least ostensibly about something. People generally at least acted as though they were slagging each other in the course of a dispute over something other than how much the other party sucked. Here, the point is just to subject others to abuse, and be subjected to it in turn.
Maybe most interesting is that this ideal Platonic form of flaming has arisen, and is flourishing, in fora that make use of audio and video, rather than pure text chat. Which is odd given that we’ve heard so much over the past couple years about both research and highly intuitive theory about how this kind of behavior is supposed to be encouraged by the anonymity and remoteness of textual interaction and moderated by more face-to-face interaction.
My only guess is that maybe the type of quasi-anonymous, quasi-engaged interaction enabled by remote video chat actually hits a psychological sweet spot of sorts: It’s intimate or proximate enough that you get the kind of visceral frisson from a hostile exchange, that fight-or-flight adrenal rush, that isn’t going to emerge in some Usenet debate on the relative merits of Windows, Linux, and OSX, however hairy the “holy war” gets. This is, indeed, the very sort of reaction that checks in our ordinary face-to-face reactions the kind of nastiness we (certainly I) are far more likely to fall into in print. At the same time, this is—perhaps in light of Whitrick’s case we ought to amend that to “seems”—a relatively consequence-free kind of interaction. As has not traditionally been the case with hostile exchanges between two people who can clearly see and hear each other, neither party is in any position to haul off and sock the other. They may not even know each other’s real names. And if, as will generally be the case, they’re separated by hundreds or thousands of miles and not bound together through any other social, familial, or professional networks, it may not make a whole lot of difference even if they do. This is what I mean by “quasi-anonymity”: When we normally talk about a condition of anonymity or publicity, we focus on whether certain kinds of information, such as our names or faces, are available to others. But we care about this for the practical reason that we expect to be held socially accountable for those of our actions connected with our names and faces. Under quasi-anonymity, those historically tightly linked conditions come apart. And you can see that setting up a situation where people get a rush from what feels like—we’re wired to experience as—a dangerous and tense situation, but is actually pretty safe. Like boxing or bungee jumping, only more so.
If there’s something to this, it will be interesting to track how online interaction changes as video capability becomes standard on new computers. Much of it won’t, of course, since text is still more convenient for a lot of purposes. But for the areas that are affected, you might see a two pronged effect: A broad moderating one, but a countervailing tend toward more venom in certain clusters. That also, alas, means we’re likely to see press framing gobsmackingly obtuse questions like: “So what do you think about chatrooms – are they a good or a bad thing?” or even, God help us, “The Internet — good or bad?” And how about that “human condition”? Thumbs up, thumbs down?
Update: Speaking of quasi anonymity, the first comment on this post was a little vertigo inducing:
“DON’T give me that, you snotty-nosed heap of parrot droppings! Shut yer festering gob, you tit — your type makes me puke!” It’s a good thing I can’t see you right now, else I’d haul off and sock you.
And if that hot chick sitting next to you on the couch at Tryst knew what kind of vacuous piffle you wrote on your blogs, I’m sure she’d reach over and sock you one too!
I looked around with what must have been an amusingly befuddled expression and noticed a guy a couple tables over, who’d apparently recognized me and surfed over to the blog, chuckling in my direction.