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24.01.2010 Feature Article

Facebook Suicide: Who is next to take the Noose?

Facebook Suicide: Who is next to take the Noose?
LISTEN JAN 24, 2010

Let's start with the ironies in this suicide report. I met Michael on Facebook about a month ago. He knew about my family and I also knew about his, but we didn't know anything about each other. He had met my youngest sibling, Esther Owusu-Konadu, who was named after his father, Mr. Paul Owusu-Konadu, a former boss of a government agency. My family has always had lots of respect for the Owusu-Konadus, particularly the former technocrat, whom I had heard my father describe as one of the few sincere and well-intentioned men left on this planet. I never had the chance to meet him but I was encouraged to model my life on his if I ever wished for anything good for myself and the world around me. So, in 1987 when Esther was born, as the last of five children, my father would decide to honour his friend by naming her after him. On that account, Esther was never a Tawiah, unlike her other siblings. She was too young to ask why but she has not let down the venerable Owusu-Konadu: She is the only girl among her five siblings to have received university education. She is also very well behaved.

My Facebook encounter with Michael was quite surrendipititious. I had stumbled on his name among a long list of friends in another friend's circle of friends. I sent an invitation to him, requesting him to accept me as his latest friend, at least on the social networking site. The response was almost instantaneous: “Michael confirmed you as a friend on Facebook.” So, we became friends and started being friendly to each other. That also gave me unrestrained access to the photos and other personal information about Michael. For the first time, I got the chance to see the photo of Michael's father, who is also Esther's father, and by extension, my father, too. I also saw his wife, who Esther reports has always been kind to her. Then Michael's sister. Then Michael's wife. Then Michael's children. At last, I had found all the faces in the family that I so much admired. Then, we started chatting, exchanging pleasantries for starters and sharing some personal information as young men. “So you are the brother that Esther has been talking about?”, Michael would query. “Oh yes, Massa. How is Daddy? I never knew Daddy had grandchildren already. You are my Boss,” I would submit. “Oh you are the Boss, you are older than I am,” he supplied. Then, we got serious and started talking family, where I told him I would be coming to Ghana soon, and wanted to know what Daddy would like for a present. Apparently, that was Michael's usual headache; he is never sure what to buy for his dad. So we agreed to do some independent thinking and later come up with something good enough for the 'old boy'. The next time I read from Michael, he had signed off from Facebook completely, citing addiction as the reason for his suicide.

The social networking site is yet to release figures on the number of users who have committed what has come to be known in cyber parlance as Facebook Suicide. But there are indications that lots of users are willing to place a noose around their necks, to terminate the virtual life they have built in cyber space. In Michael's case, he was responsible enough to have announced the day he would be deleting his account. He posted a message on his wall, thanking all his friends, who numbered some 200, for the relationship they had developed and the time they had shared together. He didn't offer any apologies. Instead, he was quite forthright about the reason for his 'suicide.' The next day, he could not be counted among the 321.1million users of Facebook; he had deleted his profile, together with all the photos of himself and his family.

What did Michael's friends have to say when he posted his suicide note? A few tried to persuade him, urging him to reconsider his suicide bid. The main suggestion was that he could control his addiction by limiting the time he visited the site. Another also reiterated the utilitarian nature of the site, stressing the gregarious instinct in man which makes it almost necessary to stay connected with people you know. That is what got Michael signing on in the first place. Yet, another tried to convince Michael to assess his bid in the light of the site's many other functional uses. It is not just about friends and their photos; now there is news on important subjects, both local and international. There are surveys and opinion polls. There are also advertisements and sometimes jobs. Many users, including me, have confirmed that they met their partners on the social networking site. Besides, it sometimes gives us reason to see and talk to people we would usually not pick up a telephone and call or even write an email to.

Facebook suicide is very much like other suicides. Usually a user would have weighed all other options to stay alive, suicide being a very unlikely prospect in the scheme of all things reasonable. So when he finally decides to take the noose, there is often a conviction behind the action - a conviction that convinces no one else, except the candidate. So, Michael succeeded in his bid, convinced that the undertaking was the best response to the problem. But unlike other popular suicides, Michael didn't care what his epitaph would read like, or what kind of dirges would be sung for him.

The danger we face in this generation is not just our devotion to intellectually unedifying pursuits like Facebook and Viagra-induced sexual rendezvous in threes and fours; the real danger is that we may spend more time on these things than on discussions on climate change. And intellectuals like David Suzuki are not happy. Perhaps, this is part of the reason why Michael wants no more cyber friendship. If you spend 30 minutes a day on Facebook, you would have spent some three hours in a week just looking at photos and just chatting away. In a month, you would have used more than 12 hours. The hours you would have spent in a year on social networking may be more than the total number used on other important things, such as reading the year's bestselling novel. And what do you get in return for all the time wasted? Nothing, except that you may have exhumed some old high school contacts you may have presumed dead, or reinstated some old foes in your affection. In the same way, you may have succeeded in inviting trouble for yourself, by making friends with traitors you sworn to extinguish from the surface of the earth. You wonder why you accepted their invitation in the first place. Of course, you can always delete them, but they may have already scooped so much from your profile. They are just not worth your time and attention. Ironically, because they also see your face in their book, they may also be thinking the same thing about you, and often that may have showed in your conversations. You disregard their invitation to chat or you respond to it very late, as if there is some compulsion. Or as an old university mate insinuated on her wall: Some people are incapable of love. She had about 330 friends on the site. Who was the message for? Well, the target was supposed to know. Why all this bother? A newspaper would be good company. Or simply sit still, put off that computer and spend time alone, weighing the potential in the many possibilities of advancement around you. You may as well shut your brain and just sleep.

Well, you can't always shut your brain when there is so much happening. Who married your secondary school sweetheart? Where is she now? What is she up to? As unnecessary and addictive as these social networking sites are, they fill the grey area in our brain. A video clip here, a funny photo there, there is something to cheer about after a hard day's work. But where does this useful social function slip into irrelevance? Like Michael, those who cannot be bothered anymore about the usefulness of a clearly useless resource have deleted their accounts, to engage their energies in more important pursuits.

Internet and technology connoisseurs continue to express shock at the speed of Facebook and its influence on the information superhighway. Hardly a day goes by that a newspaper or an online newsblog does not write about Facebook. There are issues of privacy as there are problems with addiction and anonymity. Others even worry about the psychological impact it has on some users. There is also the problem of office facebooking, which has caused many employers to restrict and sometimes prohibit the use of the facility at work. In many public information centres, such as employment agencies, and even in some public libraries, the Facebook page has been banned, along with pornography and other socially-offensive content. For instance in Britain, 70% of employers have either banned or placed restrictions on the use of the site. Why is the most popular social networking site, which is the 13th most visited search engine in the world, facing so much persecution from users and non users, and even allied sites?

Well, maybe Facebook is exactly what it was meant to be. Its founder, Harvard graduate Mark Zuckerberg, started it as a pastime, to enable him forget about a girlfriend who had jilted him. It was a joke with photos that caught on so fast in the Harvard community, and eventually the rest of the world. Now, Esther sits behind a laptop computer in Kumasi and types away greetings to folks around the world, giving them updates on what she has been doing, her relationship status and maybe the title of her dissertation, to invite ideas.

Is this such a harmful thing to do? Not to Esther, but to Michael it is not particularly rewarding for a busy brain to sit behind computers, befriending friends who are already your friends in real life, and making aliens appear as friendly as the neighbor next door. Michael didn't say how disappointing or dissatisfying any of his friends had been. But how far can anybody go with cyber friends when real friends in real life often do not help much? He also didn't say what he had gained from the venture. At 32 and a father of two, maybe he needs time to read a lot more and also help with chores at home, instead of making friends. In any case, who is interested in what he eats for lunch at work?

Well, Michael would soon learn that Facebookers are still interested in him, even after the suicide. The next time he uses his computer, he should type his name into the Facebook engine, and he would realize that the site is friendly enough to have retained some information about him. The photos are no more, but he cannot wipe it from the memory of Facebook and the 321.1 million users that he was once a friend to some cyber friends and other people's friends in cyber space. Now, that is Facebook.

Benjamin Tawiah, Ottawa
[email protected]

Kwesi Tawiah-Benjamin
Kwesi Tawiah-Benjamin, © 2010

The author has 235 publications published on Modern Ghana.Column: KwesiTawiahBenjamin

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