[First published in The Salisbury Review]


The kid put a shotgun to his head, fired – and missed. He lay there twitching, his mouth and chin shredded. A piece of his forehead hung off. He rolled his head about, dislodging gore, opening what was left of his mouth. He still had a tongue. I slammed my computer shut. He failed; but I’ve spent the last few weeks sitting at my computer watching kids succeed. A boy leaps through a window while his brother juggles bowling pins; a girl with braids edges off an overpass; three different kids slump over as their brains hit the walls. They film themselves with webcams and post their deaths online, in real time. Lifecasting, it’s called – or in this case, deathcasting.

Marcus Jannes’s crooked camera shows a clean, well kept room – aloe plant, flat-screen TV, playing cards on an IKEA table, two sheepskin rugs, a tapestry of stars and squiggles, and, hanging from the door frame, a wire noose. After eight seconds, Marcus flashes into view, robotic, businesslike – it’s an illusion the web feed creates, filming every two seconds. We see him from behind: a tall, thin kid lost in baggy sports clothes. He opens a bottle of olive oil, lubricates the noose, massages his face and neck. He turns to face the computer, and we see his shirt: ‘JUST DO IT,’ it screams in white letters. He puts the noose over his head, and, still holding it, squats down to face the camera. He lets go and slides his legs toward the camera.  His shoulders hunch. He grabs for the noose. His body shimmies round until he’s face down, diagonal to the floor. One vertebra sticks out oddly. His body writhes, twitches, convulses – and then his pelvis starts thrusting. His face bloats: blue, purple, black. Both arms jerk at the noose, doubtless a reflex by now. His shoulders, oddly high, suddenly drop. The black drains from his face. His body relaxes, yanking his neck out like a turkey. His right arm shudders twice. And he hangs there for forty minutes, until the cops burst in, notice the camera, and turn it off.  

He died on October 10th. He was, he writes, ‘a guy, 21. I have a good life … studying … my own apartment … I have Aspergers … I am vulnerable (emotionally) …. I have poor social skills and that has made me … somewhat lonely … I had a fairly good upbringing … Makes no sense that I want to kill myself? Nah, I know. haha :P’ The emoticon represents a face with its tongue hanging out, as if he were already dead.

Common to his generation, Marcus Jannes laid himself bare to the internet ‘community.’ He detailed his suicide plans, almost blow by blow, on Flashback, Sweden’s largest chatroom. ‘I’ve made up my mind to kill myself by hanging … tried to strangle myself to get the feel of it .… some blood vessels cracked … didn’t seem so bad … Took some pain killers a few minutes ago … waiting for them to set in.’ He was posting – and fielding abuse – up until the minute of his death, when he wrote, ‘I’ve started to change my mind so I better hurry up .… All right, let’s do it,’ and instructed his audience how to ‘copy and paste the link’ to watch the show.

For this ‘community’ was, in fact, a hungry, bloodthirsty audience. They egged him on, and pelted him with abuse. ‘Attention whore,’ sneered one. ‘You will never dare you are too cowardly,’ needled another. ‘Haha,’ Marcus replied. ‘It remains to be seen, both for me and for you.’ ‘Good luck then,’ they replied, or ‘I recommend the original [method of] … hanging.’ Marcus posts back that he has no rope, so will use network cable — a true product of the technological age. Some were less helpful. ‘You know you will shit yourself;’ ‘wow another pathetic soul who chooses the fagot’s resort … you could easily have built a bomb … and died an honorable death.’ Or rather redundantly: ‘go and hang yourself.’ Which he did.

Almost more ghoulishly, Abraham Biggs’ audience, an estimated 1,500, sat through twelve hours of his slow death from Xanax. They did nothing but hound him alive and mock him dead. He bared his nineteen-year-old soul in a cri de coeur that I’ve reluctantly edited. ‘I hate myself and I hate living. I am an asshole. I have let everyone down and I feel as though I will never change or never improve. I am in love with a girl and I know that I am not good enough for her. I have come to believe that my life has all been meaningless. I keep trying and I keep failing .… I do not want my mother or father to think that it was anything they did …. My father … tried to give me every opportunity …. I let him down .… I am in college but barely… I have a job but I am always broke … I hope that my parents know that I f****d up not them. It is my fault I screwed up my own life .…. Please forgive me …. I tried so hard.’

‘Do it,’ his audience jeered. ‘Do the world a favour,’ they taunted.‘Stop wasting our time.’ But they had time to watch for twelve hours until Abraham lay motionless: a skinny kid in tighty whites, curled up fetal on his narrow bed, facing his wall of childhood posters. His back was to the audience. His hipbones stuck through his little boy’s underpants. He had kicked the duvet round his knees and tucked his long, elegant feet in on each other. He had posted his suicide note at three AM. His audience watched, joking online, until the next afternoon, when two fat cops broke in and started jabbing the corpse with their guns. Then the audience – some of whom had assumed it was a hoax – began bleating OMG, OMFG (Oh my f***ing God), and LOL (laughing out loud). And the video went, as they say, viral. By then Abraham’s death was entertainment, and one audience member deemed it ‘massively boring.’ 

Abraham’s MySpace page is still up almost two years later. His pictures show a handsome boy with a strong jaw and sad eyes, striking tough-guy poses in sunglasses, leaning over a velour sofa to hug his mother, embraced by a rotating cast of girls. His last post reads, ‘I’ve finally got closure.’ Friends still message him, as though the grave had a social network. ‘RIP!!!’; ‘rest in peace baby <3 [a heart] I miss you and love you.’ But the page also hosts a running screed of anonymous vitriol: ‘Look at the butthurt over some dead n……r;’ ‘I like how he got a fail at life’ — with a link to the video of his death.

Similarly, Marcus Jannes’s Facebook page was still up in November. He’s young for his age, under blond eye lashes and a high forehead. His four hundred ‘friends’ are still friending off into the void: one wonders forlornly why someone so popular would kill himself. But, as was the case with Abraham, another facebook group existed by this time – a fan page of those who’d watched his death. As one posted, with an ex-post-facto flicker of humanity, ‘idiots don’t realize that internet not just … videogame.’ 

But to many it is just a videogame. And I have inadvertently joined a vast audience that feeds off human misery and degradation. A swath of the internet consists of gladiatorial pornography – sites with names like orgrish, realgore, viraldeath, and LiveLeak. Here the kids’ deaths play for years, vying with snuff flicks, Jihadi beheadings, car crashes, road bombs, suicide bombers. Even YouTube caters to the blood lust – though, for the most part, the site polices itself, removing the more ghastly videos after a few days. That leaves the more mundane street fights, girl fights, school fights, and happy-slapping.

Marcus’s hanging received 82 pages of comments in two days. Some read like reviews: ‘I thought it was going to be graphic’; ‘It would have been a better video if he set it to some upbeat music;’ ‘This brightened up the work day;’ ‘It gets your adrenaline going;’ ‘I would have paid to see that.’ Others show a quickly stifled twinge of fellow-feeling. ‘…. now I’ll have to go and smoke a massive spliff to purge my memory of this.’ Many respond with a shaky grasp of reality but a keen grasp of modern celebrity, as if Marcus killed himself for the ‘hits’ — ‘I’ve never seen someone literally die for attention;’ ‘At least he got his face in the news – in various skin tones;’ ‘Got his 15 mins of fame but pitifully sad;’ ‘well if he wasn’t popular, surely he is now;’ ‘hope they revived him so he can go back… and review what his friends thought.’ And over and over they scream: ‘drama queen;’ ‘Attention Monkey;’ ‘attention whore.’ Some assume the video is a hoax. Others – savvy consumers – suspect advertising or product-placement, ‘fake! nike commercial?’ The tee shirt sparks endless amusement: ‘Change his shirt to ‘Just did it.’ ‘Just DON’T do it!’ ‘The shirt made him “do it.’’’ Others try more inventive jokes: ‘I guess he couldn’t find anyone to hang out with;’ ‘maybe he felt tethered to his problems;’ ‘I love the color changes;’ ‘that reminds me, must buy beetroots.’ Many wonder why someone with such nice clothes, such ‘a fly pad,’ such a big television, would kill himself – and ask: ‘Can I have his TV.’ A few offer the facile sympathy of the internet: ‘Tragic’.

This is no ‘wise crowd,’ as James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of the Crowd, would have it, democratizing knowledge through Wikipedia or Google. This is a gladiatorial mob, baying for blood. Nor are these sites some outer limit of human perversion: just look at Reality TV. This is merely a lurid display of how Web 2.0 has changed our culture – coarsening both the actors who display themselves and the audiences who watch them. This technology has degraded a generation’s perception of reality, allowing it to view others as so much spectacle, so much entertainment. In so doing it has unleashed appetites civilization strives to restrain.

It has turned the construction of self into a public project. Brought up with MySpace and facebook to externalize their identity – to ‘share’ their most intimate photographs, to rank their friends and lovers as they do their movies and music, to ‘post’ their banal doings and emotings, to announce their sexual status and daily plans, to vie for the most ‘friends’ like celebrities, and all for public consumption and comment – this generation, more than any before it, lives in public. They die in public too.

There is no death on the internet – only entertainment. No reality; just movies. No self, no identity; just image.

Source: The Salisbury Review

Leave a Reply