19-year-old Commits Suicide on Justin.tv

[True or hoax?]

In a striking display of the power of live video, Abraham K. Biggs committed suicide on Wednesday while broadcasting himself on video site Justin.tv. As we understand it from various forum posts, the 19-year-old Floridian was apparently egged on by commenters on Justin.tv and fellow forum users on bodybuilding.com. Biggs overdosed on pills while on camera and appeared to be breathing for hours until watchers realized he might be serious, at which point they alerted the police. The video kept running until police and EMTs broke Biggs’ door down and blocked the camera’s view.

We confirmed Biggs’ death with the Broward County medical examiner. The Justin.tv video and many of the forum posts have been taken down.

When asked about the broadcast via email, Justin.tv CEO Michael Seibel said:

As for the broadcaster incident last night, we don’t comment on individual videos, however, our policy prohibits inappropriate content on Justin.tv. We rely on the community to flag videos that they feel are objectionable. Once a video is flagged, it is reviewed and quickly removed from the system if it violates our Terms of Use.

We won’t post the disturbing content here, but much of it is still online. Images of the broadcast have been posted here and here, and there’s also a suicide note from Biggs, who went by the screenname CandyJunkie. An account of forum users watching the broadcast and calling the police is here. There are also rest-in-peace comments on what appears to be Biggs’ MySpace page. The Justin.tv broadcast used to be here.

The contention that filming and uploading (and even hosting video of) a crime is a crime as well might not be valid, but given the very nature of live broadcasts, the issue becomes more complicated.

And it’s not as if technology enabled the taking of a life, or as if this hasn’t happened before. A British man hung himself last year after allegedly being goaded on by fellow users on Paltalk, another live video site. There was even a widely distributed movie on the topic of live-streamed killings released earlier this year called Untraceable. But last night’s incident raises a thought-provoking question regarding free hosting of live broadcasts — what could sites like Justin.tv possibly do to prevent live-streamed snuff films?

Justin.tv has already come under fire for another problem with live broadcasts — copyright infringement. The Premier League is reportedly threatening legal action against the site over unauthorized broadcasts of soccer games. Justin.tv, which is a free service, has maintained it complies with takedown requests according to the law — but with live broadcasts, the key event often ends before lawyers can get involved. Or in Biggs’ case, before people who care about him could get through.

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Tags: justin.tv, suicide

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Comment by Matt Johnston on November 24, 2008 at 11:50
Without being to check a pulse etc, I can't tell if a death on screen is faked or not. I see people being killed on TV all the time. I heard about this suicide and I wonder how many people were just sucked into the car crash Tv point of view. Is it fake or not? Does it matter?

Does it make you a scumbag if you deliberately viewed a suicide, real or not?
Comment by Ivan Pope on November 24, 2008 at 11:48
Dave - yes, I almost let myself get drawn into the 'culpable' issue, but decided to leave it alone. Nasty business, but that's life ...
Comment by David Brown on November 24, 2008 at 11:44
Hey Ivan,

Surely what went down wasn't just failing to intervene ...there was also contribution.

The difference is that a journalist filming a suicide is unlikely to encourage the suicide to happen and therefore make the 'news' become a reality ...yet with streaming chat being contributed by strangers from around the planet directly on to Biggs's monitor, that appears to be what happened in this case

…and I have to say that indicates some level of culpability to me.
Comment by Ivan Pope on November 24, 2008 at 11:13
Matt - it's hardly a value judgement to ask if something happened or not. If it's faked, then it's not a killing or a death, and thus your first point is moot.
However, there is an interesting point (and it was really my interest in this story in the first place) about what it means when we see something online that is presented as 'live' death. Why is it an issue because we see it online. Does it affect the action. Does it diminish us.
And, more pertinent here, does the transmission of webcam images of death differ from news camear images of death? Does someone who watches a suicide online have any more responsibility to intervene than a journalist filming 'news' on the street?
Comment by Matt Johnston on November 24, 2008 at 10:35
Isn't the issue whether or not killing/death should be televised at all? Why are we required to make the value judgement of whether things are real or not? It's so easy to fake things (look at the SAW series), that it's easy to be sceptical.
Comment by Priya Bhakta on November 24, 2008 at 9:49
I was just looking over some research I did on youth suicide a while ago as I remember looking at pro-suicide sites as well as how other sites view suicide.

Pro-suicide chatrooms have been linked to at least 27 British deaths in the past six years.

Something I noticed a lot was that on any site, whether it a pro-sucide website or just a social networking/other site was that there is an ‘unreality’ surrounding the ideas of death and suicide on the idea with people casually discussing it and talking about ‘catching a balloon’ or ‘having a laugh up there’ – all of this goes a long way in starting to normalise suicide. The lack of seriousness regarding the issue prevents it from seeming absolute – as though the victim will come back or live on through memorial sites.
Comment by Ewan McIntosh on November 23, 2008 at 11:38
Most of us tend to treat the web with an initial scepticism before drilling down to see the facts, and then make a decision on whether the thing is honest or not. The main places we don't do that is where a strong brand is leading the way on the site/service: C4, BBC, Disney, Apple... I'd not even have watched this let alone work out if it was fake or real. There has to be some degree of culpability, or the very least screwed upness, to sit watching this, and come back to it, over a period of 12 hours.
Comment by Stuart Cosgrove on November 23, 2008 at 10:19
Suspect that in almost every case people assumed it was either a hoax (I did at first) and thefeore were not acting with informed knowledge of the events unfolding or with a genuine intent to cause harm or particpate in a gruesome act. I don't see the people, the world or the web as uniquely evil, although I suspect the tabloid coverage will.
Comment by David Brown on November 23, 2008 at 4:09
Seems to me that on one side you have a detatched, impersonal voyeurism 'entertainment' thing going down, but on the other side a very tangible and personally devastating outcome of words from strangers on the other side of the planet. So if people can be prosecuted for inciting/encouraging racial tension online, and if people can be prosecuted for assisting suicide ...is there culpability for the individuals who egged Biggs on?
Comment by Stuart Cosgrove on November 22, 2008 at 20:28
According to one web report in LA Times Tech Blog Abraham had started threads "relating to drug overdosing, including one from earlier this month, which he titled "I'm gonna have 40 2mg bars of Xanax Tonight!"

After discussing his plan to take the drugs, he wrote at the time,"I got banned for a month for attempting sucide and my JTV account was deleted :-(."

So he had previoulsy been excluded from Justin.tv and allowed back online. Thus several people participating in the thread from Wednesday onwards had assumed it was indeed bravado or a hoax, contributing to "a general sense of skepticism even as Biggs, visible via his Web camera, lay unmoving."

Truly sad story.

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