The family of a college student who killed himself live on the internet say they’re horrified his life ended before a virtual audience–and infuriated that viewers of the live webcam or operators of the web site that hosted it didn’t act sooner to save him.
Others say the tragic occurrence serves as a stark illustration of the power of internet video–and the lure of instant notoriety it provides.
Only after police arrived to find Abraham Biggs dead in his father’s bed did the live web feed stop Nov. 19–12 hours after the 19-year-old Broward College student first declared on a web site that he hated himself and planned to die.
"It didn’t have to be," said the victim’s sister, Rosalind Bigg. "They got hits, they got viewers, nothing happened for hours."
Biggs announced his plans to kill himself over a web site for bodybuilders, authorities said. He posted a link from there to Justin.tv, a site that allows users to broadcast live videos from their webcams.
A computer user who claimed to have watched said that after swallowing some pills, Biggs went to sleep and appeared to be breathing for a few hours while others cracked jokes.
Some members of his virtual audience encouraged him to do it, others tried to talk him out of it, and some discussed whether he was taking a dose big enough to kill himself, said Wendy Crane, an investigator with the Broward County medical examiner’s office.
Some users told investigators they did not take him seriously because he had threatened suicide on the site before.
Eventually, someone notified the moderator of the bodybuilding site, who traced Biggs’ location and called police, Crane said. The drama unfolded live on Justin.tv, which allows viewers to post comments alongside the video images.
As police entered the room, the audience’s reaction was filled with internet shorthand: "OMFG," one wrote, meaning "Oh, my [expletive] God." Others, either not knowing what they were seeing, or not caring, wrote "lol," which means "laughing out loud," and "hahahah."
His father, Abraham Biggs Sr., told the Miami Herald he didn’t want to watch the video.
"We were very good friends," he said. "It’s wrong that it was allowed to happen."
An autopsy concluded Biggs died from a combination of opiates and benzodiazepine, which his family said was prescribed for his bipolar disorder.
"Abe, i still wish this was all a joke," a friend wrote on the teenager’s MySpace page, where he described himself as a goodhearted guy who would always be available for his pals, no matter what time of day.
In a statement, Justin.tv CEO Michael Seibel said: "We regret that this has occurred and want to respect the privacy of the broadcaster and his family during this time."
It is unclear how many people watched it happen. The web site would not say how many people were watching the broadcast. The site as a whole had 672,000 unique visitors in October, according to Nielsen.
Biggs was not the first person to commit suicide with a webcam rolling. But the drawn-out drama–and the reaction of those watching–was seen as an extreme example of young people’s penchant for sharing intimate details about themselves over the internet.
Montana Miller, an assistant professor of popular culture at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, said Biggs’ very public suicide was not shocking, given the way teenagers chronicle every facet of their lives on sites like Facebook and MySpace.
"If it’s not recorded or documented, then it doesn’t even seem worthwhile," she said. "For today’s generation it might seem, `What’s the point of doing it if everyone isn’t going to see it?’"
She likened Biggs’ death to other public ways of committing suicide, like jumping off a bridge.
Crane said she knows of a case in which a Florida man shot himself in the head in front of an online audience, though she didn’t know how much viewers saw. In Britain last year, a man hanged himself while chatting online.
Miami lawyer William Hill said there is probably nothing that could be done legally to those who watched and did not act. As for whether the web site could be held liable, Hill said there doesn’t seem to be much of a case for negligence.
"There could conceivably be some liability if they knew this was happening and they had some ability to intervene and didn’t take action," said Hill, who does business litigation and has represented a number of internet-based clients. But "I think it would be a stretch."
Condolences poured into Biggs’ MySpace page, where the mostly unsmiling teen is seen posing in a series of pictures with various young women. On the bodybuilding web site, Biggs used the screen name CandyJunkie. His Justin.tv alias was "feels_like_ecstacy."
Bigg described her brother as an outgoing person who struck up conversations with Starbucks baristas and enjoyed taking his young nieces to Chuck E. Cheese. He was health-conscious and exercised but was not a bodybuilder, she said.
"This is very, very sudden and unexpected for us," the sister said. "It boggles the mind. We don’t understand."