4Chan: An online image and message board initially created in 2003 as the English-language alternative to Japan’s 2chan, a place to discuss anime and other aspects of Japanese culture.
Oldfag: a longtime member of an online community or forum, such as 4chan.
An hero: a pejorative term for suicide. According to 4chan lore, a meme derived from a widely-mocked, grammatically incorrect post on the MySpace page of a young man who killed himself, calling him “an hero.” Ex: “You should an hero” means “You should kill yourself.”
On November 30, a 20-year-old man identified as “Stephen” (his precise identity is unconfirmed) posted the following message on 4chan’s /b/ or random imageboard: “This is it. Tonight I will be ending my own life. I’ve been spending the last hour making the preparations and I’m ready to go through with it. As an oldfag who’s been on 4chan since 2004, I thought I would finally give back to the community. I am willing to an hero on cam for you all. All that I request is for you guys to link me to a site where I am able to stream it for you guys, then I will gladly fulfill my promise.”
In response to this post, another 4chan user set up a chatroom in which 200 viewers—the maximum number permitted—gathered to watch Stephen swallow unidentified pills and vodka before setting his toaster on fire and crawling under his bed as his dorm room went up in flames. “#imdead #omgimonfire,” he typed from under his bed as the room on screen filled with smoke. “I’m fuck3d.” The ordeal reportedly lasted for about 40 minutes, as the virtual crowd of onlookers taunted, teased, and egged on the man they’d nicknamed “Toaster Steve.” The livestream kept running as firefighters arrived at the man’s dorm at Ontario’s University of Guelph—and took Stephen to the hospital, where he is now alive but seriously injured.
Stephen was not the first to livestream a suicide attempt. In November 2008, a 19 year old in Florida invited fellow users on a bodybuilding website to watch him commit suicide in front of his webcam. The site’s moderators ignored his message, assuming it was a joke, while other users responded with insults and even encouragement. Nearly 1,500 people logged on to watch the teenager intentionally overdose on pills. Unlike Stephen, he was successful.
This isn’t a strictly American phenomenon. In November 2010, a 24-year-old Japanese man livestreamed his own hanging. Across Japan, and other parts of the world, there have been reports of groups of despondent strangers killing themselves after meeting online and forming suicide pacts.
The scenarios described above are enough to disturb even the most jaded. But the hardest part to comprehend is not that people would contemplate or attempt suicide. It’s that they decided to do it live on the Internet while hundreds of people tuned in to watch.
Did people watch because they thought it was a hoax? Does it matter? The story of Stephen’s suicide attempt highlights the sad reality that, at the same time the Internet has established itself as a trove of accessible information, it has also emerged as a dark and dangerous place for the mentally unstable or the simply vulnerable.
Experts agree that going out of one’s way to watch a person commit suicide—whether the viewer actually wants to see the suicide or doesn’t believe it will actually happen—is very different from ignoring cries for help out of the belief that someone else will do the right thing. Part of this has to do with the distance between the viewer and the event. Watching a horrific event on a video screen as opposed to on the street, viewers might be given the false impression that what they’re watching isn’t real. Even more disturbing, however, is the notion that those who gathered to watch Stephen or anyone else kill themselves did so because it was real.
“Younger people are now driven toward participatory culture, entertainment you can be a part of,” said Cole Stryker, author of the book Epic Win for Anonymous: How 4chan’s Army Conquered the Web. “A guy livestreaming his suicide, that’s extremely titillating. It’s not scripted, it’s not reality TV. This is reality in its most extreme form playing out before your very eyes. It would have been equally as fun if he had not gone through with the attempt, just the prospect. It’s a hell of a lot more interesting than watching reruns of Seinfeld.”
There is, of course, something about the culture of 4chan that makes it almost inevitably a venue where something like this might occur. A bare-bones, completely anonymous image- and message-sharing site created for the kinds of anime-loving Internet pioneers who were chatting online long before everyone and their grandmother joined Facebook, 4chan is like the virtual revenge of the nerds—a return to the freewheeling, Wild West-style Internet where there are very few rules and absolutely nothing is taken seriously. While there’s no real demographic data available, Stryker guesses that majority of 4chan users are males between the ages of 15 and 30. And suicide is just one of the many shocking 4chan spectacles, which range from bullying to stripping to killing pets on camera. “It’s the same thing you see in a real world playground environment, where kids goad each other on to do something extreme or transgressive,” he said.
“People will look back and laugh about [Stephen] even if he had killed himself, because this is a community that holds nothing sacred,” said Stryker. “There is this unspoken idea that if you participate in it you will be mocked and trolled and pranked.”
If Stryker sounds cavalier, it’s not because he doesn’t find it abhorrent that anyone could be entertained by another’s suffering. He does. He just doesn’t think it’s his position to “make some grandiose moral statement” about what goes on online, particularly on 4chan.
Psychologist Deborah Serani, on the other hand, thinks the 4chan incident and others like it are evidence of the moral decay of our society.
“This is something that’s part of our new normal,” said Serani, who specializes in depression and suicide. “We witness these terrible events from the comfort of our own armchair. We get to laugh at other people’s misery, and it’s really costing us our humanity.”
For the viewers, Serani suggests, there may be a sense of control gleaned vicariously by watching someone else engage in such risky behavior. Some people, she explained, watch horror films, no matter how terrifying, just to tell themselves what they would do differently in the same scenario. “There is a feeling of hostility that a lot of young people experience, which is, ‘I struggle in my own life and maybe my struggles are not so bad if I can witness something even more extreme,’” she said.
It was Serani’s own suicide attempt at age 19 that led her to psychology. She notes that depression among children and adolescents is at an all-time high—a trend she recently covered in her book, Depression and Your Child. She points to the far-reaching role media plays in our society and the premium placed on celebrity.
“Celebrity is the brass ring for young people,” she said. “It’s a combination of the mental illness of depression and the crashing of media and celebrity that made the perfect storm for this young man.”
Young people live their lives online, and if they’re feeling insecure or depressed, they express that online as well. While the Internet offers an endless supply of resources, support networks, and information for people looking for help, it can also be the perfect place to find the wrong kind of inspiration. So-called thinspiration blogs, Instagram accounts, and Twitter feeds encourage eating disorders with motivational quotes about losing weight and images of unrealistic model bodies. Similar forums exist for depression, cutting, and suicide, offering visitors advice on getting help as well as tips on self harm.
You don’t even have to venture into the dark world of 4chan or self-harm blogs to see the role the Internet plays in the lives of the potentially unstable. Just scan through Facebook and witness the streams of consciousness that range from restaurant recommendations to sad, angry, or desperate rants. A lot of likes or comments on a status about loneliness can be just as harmful as no response at all.
Researchers at Oxford University recently published a review on the influence of the Internet forums on socially isolated adolescents, concluding that Internet usage and risk of suicide or self-harm among vulnerable young people are absolutely linked.
The researchers found an increased risk of suicide among young people who used Internet forums which, they observed, tend to normalize self harm, offer tips on how to hide scars, and often increase users’ distress. The review also noted the heightened impact of cyber-bullying on susceptible youths. A 2012 investigation by the Australian website news.com.au suggests that the more extreme Internet trolls may not simply be socially maladjusted but that they may actually suffer from mental illnesses, and that a mentally unstable person’s capacity for empathy is chipped away by every hour spent online.
Lawyer Parry Aftab, a widely respected expert on cyber law, advises the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, MTV, and Facebook on how to combat cyberbullying. She points out that while 4chan, a forum infamous for digital abuse, might not seem like the place to go for sympathy, there is still camaraderie among its users. “This was his community and he was reaching out to his community to appreciate his pain and witness it,” Aftab said of Stephen. Many of the people who commit suicide online “are looking for that attention, that praise. That whole idea of ‘you’re going to miss me when I’m gone,’” said Aftab. “You won’t be missed unless you’re with people who knew you to begin with.”
Aftab agrees with Serani’s suggestion that the Internet fuels young people’s need for attention and their obsession with celebrity. And while depression often keeps its victims from thinking clearly, the Internet encourages impulsive behavior. The combination of the two can be harmful, even lethal, says Aftab.
“Everyone wants their 15 minutes of fame, even if it’s their last 15 minutes,” she said.
Luckily for Stephen, his impulse was thwarted before it was too late. He did get his 15 minutes, however, which is a long time in the non-stop, hyperactive world of 4chan. One week after “Stephen” announced his plan to “an hero on cam” for his community to see, scattered amid the deluge of porn and racist comments, are a few posts about “Toaster Steve.” The threads attached are short, the comments sarcastic, mostly wondering whether he actually died.