The last moments of Abraham Biggs' nineteen years of life were broadcast live via the Internet on Justin.tv.
Biggs, a Broward College student who reportedly suffered from bipolar disorder, had posted a suicide note on BodyBuilding.com before overdosing on a combination of opiates and benzodiazepine tranquilizers in front of his webcam.
Just as shocking as Biggs' decision to end his life publicly was the fact that strangers encouraged him to do it. Some in the virtual audience texted entries like "lol" (for "laughing out loud") and "hahahaha."
Other viewers did contact the Web site, and police were eventually notified. They found Biggs dead 12 hours later.
The lesson in this tragedy is the same whether we think about the lead actor in this made-for-the-Web reality drama or his viewers. All were lost in a hall of mirrors that deprived them of real human connectedness. When Biggs shared his overwhelming desperation with strangers, and when those strangers treated him without humanity, they were laced together-each and every one of them-in the peculiarly potent kind of depersonalization that today's technology breeds.
When we broadcast our life stories over and over again-whether on Justin.tv or Facebook or YouTube-we run the risk of slipping the bindings of our real feelings and experiences and becoming, in some small or greater way, actors in our own lives. And as actors, some number of us will feel free to do and say things that are not a reflection of our true, deep character, but of the characters we have created for public dissemination.
Abraham Biggs may have committed suicide alone, without an audience. But broadcasting his overdose may have made it seem just a little less real to him, a little like acting out his own death without having to really die, like an actor reading a script who stands up after the death scene and walks off the stage. And those who watched and did nothing, or who watched and laughed out loud, or watched and egged Biggs on, might never have behaved that way were a person standing in front of them ready to end his life.
While some may have believed Biggs was faking his death, I believe others were rendered inhuman by the fact that a camera turned the last pages of his life story into entertainment.
We are past due for major research into the psychological effects of the Internet on human emotion, behavior and relationships. With tens of millions of Americans participating in online social networks and dating sites and photo sharing sites and (perhaps most toxic of all) Second Life, some percentage of users may be gradually disconnecting from themselves and others and reality.
Maybe it isn't too big a leap to wonder whether that's one reason Americans seem increasingly drawn into "bubbles" of fiction that eventually burst, causing real suffering. Think about the near-delusional thinking that fueled the Internet stock bubble and the real estate bubble. Think about the fact that our government is now injecting staggering amounts of capital into failed businesses to make them look like real businesses, in hopes that they will eventually become real businesses.
Biggs' story is shocking because it captures the last minutes of a good and decent young man's life. It is all about private suffering turned inside out into a scripted, public spectacle in which the pain was meaningless to many of those made privy to it. The Internet wrung the truth out of it.
We'd better find out-and soon-how "connecting" through today's technology may be disconnecting us from ourselves and from others.
Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatry correspondent for FOX News Channel and a New York Times bestselling author. His newest book, "Living the Truth: Transform Your Life through the Power of Insight and Honesty" has launched a new self-help movement. Check out Dr. Ablow's website at