Recently a company in the Netherlands known as “Moddr.Net” released a software application allowing users to commit “virtual suicide.” Their free product, the “Web 2.0 Suicide Machine” allows users to permanently and irrevocably delete their accounts from social networking sites such as Facebook, Myspace and Twitter.
The virtual suicide machine launches a series of scripts which Moddr.Net has created which log into various social networking sites and deletes all network contacts. In addition, the script blocks further access to the account by changing the prior password and by not providing the new login credentials to the individual committing virtual suicide.
Many have found the site and its associated videos humorous. Others, including lawyers for Facebook are clearly NOT amused. They have sent a cease and desist letter to the owners of the virtual suicide machine in which they have alleged a rash of civil and criminal offenses.
The owners of the virtual suicide machine, despite the cute name and logo, actually do have a serious point which is this: web 2.0 can be all consuming. Many of all ages are spending dozens of hours online each week tweeting about everything from what they ate for lunch to the color of their mother-in-law’s shoes. The fact that Web 2.0 turns everybody into a broadcaster means vast amounts of information are being produced and then ultimately consumed by those engaged in these virtual spaces. The point made by the creator of the virtual suicide program is that by spending so much time online and in virtual communities, people are losing out on real world interaction–a trend which has caused Moddr.Net and others concern.
It should come as no surprise that Facebook would reply with a letter threatening to sue the Web 2.0 Suicide Machine. After all, Facebook’s growth projections and core business depend on getting more and more people to sign up for their service. Encouraging people to leave Facebook–especially if the trend were to catch on–could hurt the company’s bottom line. Thus the genesis of the threat of legal action.
Of course in 2011, virtual suicide remains distinct and distinguishable from “real” suicide. In today's world, while a person’s online accounts may be closed as the result of a “virtual suicide,” the real human being lives on. In order to prevent or discourage suicide, the law in many jurisdictions around the world has made it a crime to promote, aid or abet in a suicide. In California, for example, Penal Code Section 401 notes:
Every person who deliberately aids, or advises, or encourages another person to commit suicide is guilty of a felony.
Since the Web 2.0 Suicide Machine only encourages the destruction of the “virtual self,” as opposed to the human or biological self, it would be nearly impossible to prosecute somebody for a violation of the above penal code section. While virtual suicide might be legal today, could it however become illegal in the near future?
The Rise of the Virtual Self
Social networking sites are growing exponentially and as of 2011, Facebook had more than 600 million members. Some are so motivated by the Web 2.0 phenomenon that they remain plugged in nearly 24/7 and often participate on a variety of mobile devices. In fact, there are more than 100,000,000 people who use a mobile version of Facebook on their wireless phones.
In a recent interview, a Facebook executive noted his vision was for everybody on earth to have a Facebook account. Consider the implications. In effect, Facebook will become the default global citizen database. Those that did not participate would become non-existent in the eyes of the world, an act akin to committing “social suicide” as one researcher in the UK has commented. Advocates and frequent users of Web 2.0 have even commented that they would not trust somebody who did not have a Facebook account.
The rise of social networking means that increasingly people are turning to the Internet and social networks as the “go-to” destination of choice to learn more about other human beings. In New York City, for example, it is quite common to “Google” your date before you actually meet him or her. If you don’t find any information, then a red flag may be signaled that there is a problem. In many parts of Western Europe, North America and Asia, there is tremendous social pressure to use Web 2.0 technologies and those that resist face significant peer pressure and ostracism from friends and family. There are many reasons people do not partake in the social media revolution including privacy concerns, the amount of time required or the longing for real-world human connections. Increasingly, many are also re-evaluating the need, use and wisdom of these Web 2.0 platforms.
Some individuals have rallied against Facebook, rhetorically asking whether or not Facebook is the devil. Others are decrying “down with Facebook” in response to the site’s popularity. Despite these protests, most people in the developed world are charging towards social media like lemmings into the sea. This has created the rise of the “virtual self,” an online representation of a human being. The virtual self, via Web 2.0, can be highly developed with associated writings, photos, music, videos, location and extensive information about an individual’s community, work, family and friendship associations.
The virtual self provides curious outsiders a sense of comfort that they know an individual reasonably-well and thus can accurately predict whether the individual will be friend or foe. Much of the innate feelings hark by to times of tribalism and clans, brought forth to the 21st century. Our primal fear of the different or the distant makes social networking a form of communal comfort. Therefore, people who “opt-out” of social media are considered strangers, distant, weird and perhaps even untrustworthy. After all, what do they have to hide through their non-participation?
When the virtual self becomes omnipresent, will virtual suicide still be tolerable? Legal?
As expectation mounts for all in the "real world" to have a virtual self, there will be profound changes in society from a sociological, psychological and anthropological perspective. Though the idea of the Web 2.0 Suicide Machine was created on a lark, there may be an important message garnered from the project: that is we are becoming overwhelmed with virtual connections and online information in a way which prevents us from having, more meaningful in-person human to human connections.
As peer pressure increases and the expectation for the presence of a well-established virtual self grows, those who opt out of these societal norms will face a host of consequences including isolation, distrust and perhaps even sanction. Will there be a law that requires all good citizens to participate in a virtual community, as doing so would be good for the “common welfare” of a society? Furthermore, as more and more government, commercial and social services move into cyberspace, will non-participation in virtual spaces even remain an option?
When the digital/virtual self does become omnipresent, as it surely will, what will be the ramifications of non-participation? Will it be possible or practical in the future to opt-out of having a virtual self? Since the presence of a virtual self will become the social norm, and perhaps a legally required one, will human beings be able to own and control their virtual lives? What rights, if any, will the real human being have over his virtual persona?
In a world in which all are expected to have virtual selves, how could “virtual suicide” be tolerated, legally or otherwise? Though the idea of a Web 2.0 Suicide Machine may be humorous today, as the virtual self becomes more relevant and central to our lives in the future, eventually society will condemn the idea of virtual suicide and may even rule it to be illegal.