Noam Cohen wrote a New York Times story, The Global Sympathetic Audience in the Fashion and Style section, about caring for strangers over the net. (By the way, online sociology and psychology is fashion now? Hmmm. Still an orphan subject.) “Audience” not “community,” you’ll note, which was accurate and to the point in that context. I enjoyed the article for some noteworthy Twitter support stories, after it started off with a weird reference that is close to home.
Weird to read, because as a long time member of The WELL it is freaky to see Blair’s – or would that be Mr. Newman’s – suicide cited in the Times so many years later, without any details about the impact on the then emerging community at The WELL, or his peculiar role there.
As a newbie on The WELL at the time, I was shocked by the diverse set of reactions to Blair’s initial destruction of so much conversational content. The anger was the eye-opener. The violent disapproval quite few members expressed at his “vandalism” of hundreds of his own posts – not seen as a “suicide” until later at Blair’s death – confused and startled me at the time. What was only later seen as a “virtual suicide” pissed people off to a degree that presents a stark contrast to the Twitter support dynamics cited in the article.
People will likely tell a stranger not to commit suicide. However, if the “cry for help” is less obvious, people are sometimes judgmental, sometimes supportive. Your own global audience may be sympathetic to a specific action you describe, or they may be inappropriately harsh and critical because the stakes and the context is not clear or not universally agreed upon.
Howard Rheingold’s classic account of Blair’s death gives some of the context from up close (scroll to the bottom of that section). Guilt and blame fueled widespread rage. Newer members like myself were astonished at all the hidden subtexts and alliances that emerged. As Howard said, “the feelings ran just as high during the virtual part of the grieving rituals as they did during the face-to-face part — indeed, with many of the social constraints of proper funeral behavior removed, the online version was the occasion for venting of anger that would have been inappropriate in a face-to-face gathering.”
There are many stories from The WELL where people were sympathetic and deeply kind to strangers. There have been others where the kindness was not timely or well-distributed, and this was one of those. It’s a famous example, here in the times it was boiled down until all the humanity and insight was removed.
I’m thinking about the man’s family too — how odd years later to have a son or brother famous only as a suicide who deleted first. And my posting this may only make that dynamic a little worse, I know. I am sorry for extending any pain.
Our power to be kind is clearly equaled by our power to be cruel, using any technology we invent. It’s odd to see this complex, troubling example used in conjunction with the global kindness of strangers, but with a little context, it reveals the other side of the problem of seeking support from distant friends and kindred strangers.