08.31.10

Anatomy of an Internet Suicide

When a Reddit user recently challenged the online community to give him a reason not to kill himself, their responses either failed to stop him—or pushed him over the edge.

On Friday, August 20, at approximately 5 p.m., a 24-year-old Reddit user named Diefex signed in to the popular social news community in search of a reason not to kill himself.

"Give me one reason why I shouldn't end it right now," he wrote. "Go."

"Just one?" asked pyxlated.

"Yes, I just need one legitimate reason," answered Diefex.

"Give me one reason why I shouldn't end it right now," he wrote to the online forum. "Go."

"Because you will never again eat good food, have an orgasm, find something amusing, create something, help someone else, or sit around with the luxury of asking whether or not you want to live," answered pyxlated, whose real name is Eran Cantrell.

Other users chimed in. One warned it was "a coward's way out," another "extremely selfish." But not everyone was kind. Others, whose comments have since been deleted by their authors, posted messages along the lines of “DO IT FAGGOT'," according to Cantrell, who saw the since-removed posts.

Before they were wiped from the site, users ganged up on the discouraging comments and “they were heavily downvoted immediately," says Cantrell. (A “downvote” is the Reddit community’s way of making unwanted posts disappear, or at least pushing them below more qualified comments.)

Despite all the comments encouraging the young man not to give up on life, Diefex couldn’t be talked down from his proverbial ledge. Less than two hours later, the community would later learn, he made the irreversible decision to take his own life.

Outside of Reddit, Diefex’s name was Robert C. Duncan. To his friends and family, he was Bob, a young man from the Philadelphia suburbs who just celebrated his birthday on August 12. He was a creative type who made art and electronic music, which he posted on his MySpace and YouTube accounts. In previous posts on Reddit, he spoke of his struggle with medication, depression, and his disapproval of organized religion.

Five days after Diefex went dark, Reddit moderator Taylor Paiga received a message sent from someone who knew Diefex in the non-Reddit world. The message "was unlike any other" Paiga had ever received. It was from Diefex's mother, who had found the site and logged-in, searching for answers.

"Son's last questions," read the subject line.

"I am looking for past postings by my son, who died on Friday. I just want to know what he wondered about. I am his mom. Is there a way to find what he has asked? He loved this site."

When he read it, Paiga said he was "absolutely heart-broken."

“As a son who has a close relationship with my own mother, I could barely grasp the pain and sense of loss that she must be going through,” he says.

He replied to Diefex’s mother, offering to help, but she never wrote back.

To alert the community of what had happened, Paiga posted a screenshot of her message with the title, "Reddit, we lost one of our own last Friday." In the post, he reminded everyone of an entire subreddit (a sub-section, in Reddit-speak) for those contemplating suicide— r/SuicideWatch—which exists to help people having suicidal thoughts to get help and talk about their problems.

The following day, alerted to the site’s existence by his wife and in search of his son’s last posts, Diefex’s father, Rick Duncan, logged in. Reading through the messages left under his son’s last post, Rick grew frustrated with some of the more ill-advised suggestions.

“Some posts were like, ‘Hey, just do it, just do it,’” says Rick. “It was just a little frustrating that when somebody writes something like that on there…that’s kind of insensitive.”

So he decided to weigh in.

"This discussion was started at about 5PM ET on Aug 20 by Diefex, someone who was very serious about asking this question," he posted on Reddit, under username rsduncan1.

He wrote that while many of the Redditors answers to his son's question were "very considerate and provided good advice," others were "coarse and unfortunately, ill-advised.”

rsduncan1 went on to explain the nature of Diefex's "very serious poll," and confirmed that Diefex, a.k.a. Bob Duncan, was his son, and that at 6:45 p.m. on Friday he had taken his own life.

To honor the family’s loss, he asked those who had mocked or ignored his son’s pleas to consider the consequences of their responses the next time they see a post like Bob's.

"Do your best to help this person by finding out who he is (Google diefex, for example)," Rick wrote. "And [try] contacting authorities."

“I know it didn’t cause him to do it, he probably had made up his mind before that, but when you see a question like that, it’s just…wow. Most people responded nicely, but it would’ve probably been better if people were a little more caring, or understanding.”

Paiga says this is one of the biggest problems with Reddit and other internet forums: “The ability for users to create fictitious scenarios in order to garner attention or create drama”—users known as trolls. Even still, he says, "Reddit is very good at accepting suicide threats as being legitimate cries for help.”

Elana Premack Sandler, a prevention specialist at the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, says that posting in an online community isn't always a bad idea, and can be a way of reaching out for help. "Decreasing isolation, which is one potential result of being a part of an online community, does help decrease suicide risk,” she says. "Unfortunately, unlike calling a hotline or speaking with a mental health provider, the responses one may receive are not moderated by any code of safety or ethics." Sandler also thinks Reddit should consider a means to track down a person expressing suicidal risk, noting that Facebook allows this via its report tool.

Paiga told me that "despite interacting with complete strangers, the [SuicideWatch] subreddit provides extremely compassionate responses, oftentimes offering to call or chat with the person who is thinking about suicide, in order to further look out for those who are questioning their will to live."

Eran Cantrell, for her part, says she would have offered Diefex the same promises of good food, orgasms, and continued creativity if she could do it over again.

“Enough people try to promise that life will improve, that it's full of happiness if only you look hard enough, but nobody can promise such things,” she says. “To someone who feels so hopeless, platitudes have a way of falling flat, and I've found can push them even deeper into depression. Only the barest pragmatism will ring true, and then only if the person is receptive, which this user clearly wasn't. I did what I could.”

As for the tone of the comments, Cantrell thought they “were compassionate and offered some great reasons not to go through with it.” In general, she says she’s proud of his fellow Redditors "for the compassion they showed," noting that it was "more than would have been shown elsewhere."

As for her centrality to the situation, she admits, “It’s a little surreal.”

A little over 10 days after his son’s death, Bob's father is back on Reddit searching for a way to make permanent the collection of tracks Bob had uploaded throughout the Internet.

"I knew some of these existed,” he wrote in a comment three days ago to a user who had collected a handful of links. “Now I need to learn how to download Bob's songs onto a CD or on my computer. Anyone know how?"

A number of Redditors have offered up ideas, and one user, j1ggy , seems to be leading that effort over the past 48 hours.

Rick says he believes that 99 percent of the site's users are well-intentioned as he's received help and dozens of condolences from complete strangers.

There will be a memorial service in Philadelphia on Sunday, September 5, where friends and family hope to remember Bob for the soft-spoken musician he was.

As for a message to others who may one day find themselves in a thread such as Bob’s, his father told me, “I know that there’s a lot of discussion on Reddit, on all sorts of topics, and people like to be funny, or smart, or whatever. But when it gets to something like this…it’s a pretty serious thing. I’d just like to see everyone take it a little more seriously.”

The SPRC offers a "Postvention Manual," ( PDF) outlining what to do after a suicide occurs in an online community such as Reddit.

Editor's Note: The original version of this story stated that the deleted Reddit comments had been removed by the website’s administrators. They were removed by the authors themselves.

Brian Ries is a Philly-born senior editor at FREEwilliamsburg.com and tech and social media editor at The Daily Beast. He lives in Brooklyn.