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The Reign of eTerror: Are Blogs Responsible For Suicide?

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I'm so glad there weren't any blogs in 1999. Otherwise they'd have been blamed for Colombine.

But in all seriousness, last weekend it was reported that the death of advertising mogul Paul Tilley (The alleged Brain behind The Dell Dude and "I'm Lovin' it," if you can believe that) was ruled a suicide. In the wake of the disturbing end to a career filled with ridiculous, though culturally significant ephemera, an unlikely culprit is being blamed for the man's decision to off himself: Bloggers!

Advertising blogs churn out some of the Web's more scathing, and personal, vitriol. Recently, the bloggers absorbed some body blows of their own. Visitors to AgencySpy and AdScam, two sharp-tongued blogs written by advertising industry insiders, posted comments blaming the sites for contributing to the suicide late last month of Paul Tilley, 40, the creative director of DDB Chicago. In so doing, bloggers and their readers added another chapter in a long debate about how, or whether, to manage anonymous posts that seem aimed at shredding a person's reputation.

"We're certainly used to criticism in the agency business," said Nina DiSesa, chairwoman of McCann Erickson Worldwide's New York division, who posted comments on AgencySpy.com in defense of Tilley, whom she called a friend. "But when blogs attack someone personally, without justification, and they do it anonymously, it's just wrong."

That's a weird constuction - How in the hell do you determine that an attack was "unjustified?"
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Tilley... apparently jumped Feb. 22 from an upper floor of the Fairmont Chicago hotel. The Cook County medical examiner ruled his death a suicide.

I assume they checked to make sure he wasn't a stock broker in 1929 before issuing this verdict.

I'm sorry, that was just mean. Which coincidentally is what the people being blamed for his death are accused of.

After Tilley's death was reported, comments beneath the AgencySpy blog posting turned sharply to recriminations from people identifying themselves as friends, colleagues or relatives of the DDB executive. "You should all be ashamed. Because you contributed to this," said a message from someone who signed as LSA. A similar post on AdScam said, "I knew him. And I know that the vile attacks inflicted on him by you and others tortured his soul. He told me so."

I know that his loved ones are upset. And I understand their desire to find a cause for the tragedy that removes responsibility from the deceased. For those left behind, suicide is a confusing and terrifying event that cuts through friends and family groups like black plague. Survivors are left without any closure or reason, even if (as is the case in many suicides,) the victim had expressed a desire to die. But, the thing that the survivors of suicide have to accept is:

Suicidal people are mentally ill.

I'm willing to admit that in some cases, the decision to end one's life might be made rationally, and of sound mind. But we're not talking about terminally ill people making a choice to end their suffering, or some similar circumstance in which death by one's own hand might be infinitely preferable to any available alternative. We're talking about people with no perceivable reason to want to die, people who are surrounded by friends, who have the careers they want, people who, in short, should feel they have much to live for and yet, sadly, do not.

Such people are, sadly, mentally ill.

People who aren't suicidal simply cannot imagine what it's like to want to end your life. Quite the opposite, we tend to desperately cling to whatever hunk of life we can grab. It's this ingrained attachment to life that keeps people fighting, desperately, in the face of terminal illness, even if they know they're doomed. It's this attachment to life that led famine suffering Huguenots in France to create a recipe for turning leather shoes into food. The fact is, most people tend to love being alive and fear the end, and as a result, we simply cannot understand what it's like not to feel this way. It's that inability to understand that makes it so difficult to talk to mentally ill friends and family who have expressed a desire to die. We're confused and fearful, but we're also annoyed and frustrated.

And if someone goes through with ending their life? Add pain, loss and guilt to confusion and fear. So, there's an understandable desire to find something, anything to place the death in a different context, to give it meaning. But just as it made parents feel better by blaming "Satanic" Rock music for the deaths of their teenage children back in the 70s and 80s, blaming vitriolic bloggers and commentors for Paul Tilley's decision to kill himself might make his loved ones feel vindicated. However, it's nothing more than unproductive scapegoating.

I don't pretend to know Tilley or any of his friends or family, but if he was like other such people who have made the tragic decision to end their lives, I'm willing to bet that he expressed a desire to die numerous times prior to his taking that last leap out his office window. Unless such commentors knew about his personal life, or were friends of his, how could they know he was suicidal? And if they did know, then they're guilty of accessory to murder. The fact that no one is suggesting they be charged is telling.

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As if to admit the speciousness of the assertion that blog commentors were to blame, an unfair correlation is drawn to an even greater tragedy:

[from the News Observer article]

Tilley's death occurred several months after news of the suicide in 2006 of Megan Meier, 13, a Missouri girl who took her life after being the target of insults on MySpace.

This is a gross mischaracterization of what actually happened. LAist's own Elise Thompson wrote about this last December, but to summarize that sorry story, Megan was a lonely girl who was driven to suicide by constant online bullying and harassment. Here's the twist - the culprit was the mother of a former friend, a repugnant woman named Lori Drew who created a fake myspace profile in which she pretended to be a boy named "Josh." She "romanced" Megan and then cruelly dumped her, following this up with coordinated online harassment between "Josh" and other myspace "friends." Ultimately, poor Megan committed suicide. She was 13 years old.

Think about that - a grown woman harassed a 13 year old into an early grave. And it gets even worse. Click the link for the latest horrible details. Long story short, here is someone arguably guilty of murder. Tilley, on the other hand, not so much the same kind of situation:

[from the News Observer article]

Before his death, Tilley had come under particularly harsh criticism on the blogs. AgencySpy, which is written by an anonymous advertising industry employee, was perhaps the most biting. In a posting Feb. 19, the site quoted excerpts from an internal e-mail message Tilley had sent to subordinates. "Too many of you are only doing good work. And some of you are doing work that simply isn't good enough," he had written.

AgencySpy wrote that Tilley "needs to go back to management 101," adding, "At one point, Paul thought he could make it as a game show host. Doesn't one need to be charming for that?"

The site then published 12 comments peppered with personal insults aimed at Tilley -- among them an insult signed by George Parker, author of the blog AdScam.

Look, I don't want to make fun of Tilley, especially considering how he died, but if that's "mean," then the spank rag I used in junior high is an Abortion clinic.

Tilley was a public figure who was viciously mocked on a blog having to do with the industry in which he was a public figure. People who become public figures have to expect such things to happen - indeed, what Tilley received was laughably tame compared to what happens with the true ugly darkness in humankind reveals itself. For proof, check out this tidbit from last year:

Today CBSNews.com informed its staff via email that they should no longer enable comments on stories about presidential candidate Barack Obama. The reason for the new policy, according to the email, is that stories about Obama have been attracting too many racist comments.

You read that right - CBS stopped allowing comments because of the racist scum that crawled out of the online sewers.

To Tilley's friends, I offer the sincerest condolences from a man who didn't know the deceased. But even as I feel terrible for their loss, I just can't help but feel their attempt to blame his critics is nothing short of desperation. Tilley killed himself not because of laughably tame criticism, but because he was sick. The lesson to learn from his untimely death isn't that TEH BLOGZ are evil, but that suicidal people must receive the treatment they desperately need, so that they can be helped before it's too late. With luck, his tragedy can help to prevent others.

That said, there is one aspect of the story that bears further examination. Online anonymity. This isn't the only time there's been a kerfluffle about online conduct, and states are exploring various ways to deal with it. Lawmakers in Kentucky have devised a short-sighted plan to make anonymous posting illegal.

Kentucky Representative Tim Couch filed a bill this week to make anonymous posting online illegal. The bill would require anyone who contributes to a website to register their real name, address and e-mail address with that site.

Their full name would be used anytime a comment is posted.

I don't think you need me to tell you how retarded ill concieved and thoughtless this proposed law is. Forcing people to use their real name on all posts sets an unfair double standard for online conduct. Lest we forget, having a pen name, either to offer limited protection of privacy, or perhaps to circumvent the sexism of the publishing world (George Sand, anyone?) is a tradition as old as writing itself, and there's no reason we ought to abolish the practice just because there are wretched, ignorant assholes who see the Internet as their chance to settle some scores in the most cowardly fashion possible. Besides, people should have a reasonable expectation that their reading habits, or their opinions, won't lead to them losing their jobs. Who wants to be fired because they said "I think President Bush is a liar." on Daily Kos, right?

This kind of law will essentially end that. But it's worse - there are plenty of online services where having a degree of anonymity is not only expected, but required for the good of the customers. Dating services, for example. Who wants to be forced to use your full name every time you communicate on match.com? Wow, a chance to be tracked down without my permission? No thanks. I'll stick to the dive bar scene, thank you.

However, it is fair to say that a reasonable expectation of privacy shouldn't simply be blanket cover for getting away with saying terrible things without being caught. Anonymity is essential in many cases to facilitate the free exchange of ideas, but ultimately, if you're willing to say provocative things (and especially if you're a racist, homophobe, sexist, or other variety of shitty, worthless human being,) you shouldn't be able to get away with hiding from your own words like a coward. If, when push comes to shove, you aren't willing to stand by what you say, or adult enough to theoretically accept identification with your views, or you should keep your trap shut.

So how do you balance the right to privacy, and the right to express your onions without punishment, with the greater obligation to prevent our rights from being used to cover viciousness and harassment? Well, as you can guess, LAist (as well as numerous other sites) have a decent compromise. We require anyone who comments to register. You want to comment, you have to put yourself on record. You're still allowed to use a pseudonym, and protect your contact information, which is good. There's no reason an argument in our comments should turn into a fist fight in public.

But you can't just say something terrible and then disappear back into the fog. Of course, I also believe a blog should have a legal right to protect their registration list. If a crime has been committed, if the authorities want to know who posted a particular comment, then they can get a damn warrant. (Indeed, LAist has already been slapped with one!)

In the end, it protects the privacy of commenters, but also deters essentially consequence free bigotry.

What do you think?

Photo "I'd Rather Be Blogging," by Slice.