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Suicide Epidemics

January 24, 2008

The first days of the New Year almost got me blogging again – on themes of blogging, not blogging, the psychology of the perception of time spent not blogging and so-on. But for all the reasons I haven't blogged for six months these impulses never quite made it to the top of the to-do list.

As ever, it has been seeing something on the news, and reacting to it, that finally hit the blog reflex.

There has been a story, triggered by the most recent suicide, about a sequence of clustered teenage suicides in the Bridgend area of South Wales.

Because some of the people knew each other, and some of those communicated using social networks, there has been an 'Internet may be glamourising suicide' reaction from some quarters. Part of my initial reaction is, equally, to leap to the unconditional defence of social networks (e.g. "they're just a channel like phones, text messages, written notes, gossip, urban myth, newspaper coverage etc etc") against those who seem to want to lump them, or even 'the internet', into a single dark mass and find it responsible for all the ills of humanity. Part of that same defence is to say that we should be concentrating on why, if there are connections, circumstances have made young people so vulnerable to being 'infected'.

That epidemiological word immediately made me think of Malcolm Gladwell's 'Tipping Point' which talks about ideas as things that can be transmitted, like diseases, and can have real effects on those who are infected – for good or ill. Gladwell even has a whole chapter on teenage suicide in Micronesia during the 1970s and 1980s, long before the modern internet or social networks, creating a rate ten times that of anywhere else in the world. He observes that the manner and circumstances of those suicides were often strikingly similar – sometimes the individuals knew each other but sometimes a romantic mythology grew up around a case and the ideas then 'jumped' to another unconnected group via word of mouth or written texts. He also observes that there was something about being a teenager and male that made you particularly susceptible to infection… a feature of all but one of the Bridgend cases.

I'm aware that I'm talking in a rather analytical way about something that is very recent and very raw for families in that area and that these are all individuals with individual stories and realities – not some remote set of statistics in an old ledger somewhere. But I appreciate neither the way that some TV reporters seem to be manipulative in extracting and displaying 'real individual human emotion', nor the more cerebral one-dimensional attack on social networks. I think that's my main thought – these are people, let's not concentrate on the 'channel', let's try to understand how they were influenced by many things. Not least because that may help prevent a further spread.

But if we use the language of epidemics and recognise that social networks may have been the 'vector' for the disease in some instances, then my defence of them is no longer absolute. We may have to think of them as a new 'vector' in the way that all those airlines shifting large numbers of people around the world at great speed seem to have changed the model for the spread of more familiar types of infection such as flu viruses. That's a legitimate and proportionate interest.

Indeed everyone is interested right now in how ideas and dispositions propagate through social networks – especially those that lead to actual behaviours such as buying or voting. You can't move for social network analysis, social media mining, and theories of group mind. Social media didn't suddenly make all these things possible – specialists have studied these patterns in other media, not to mention direct personal contact, for many years and most of Gladwell's examples are pre-internet – but social media made the concepts easier to grasp for more people, they lay down easily detected traces of tangible evidence, and they have given the phenomenon itself potentially greater reach and speed. They have also caught the eye of people with serious marketing budgets, just as TV seems to be losing its giant's share of ad revenues.

So let's see more sophisticated reporting of cases like Bridgend – to reflect the sophistication of the work being demanded by the market.

Whilst we're at it, let's start tracking the spread of another meme. That's the one which goes, "Facebook/Bebo/Myspace (delete where applicable) continues to commit further atrocities on behalf of Satan". Social Networks or 'The Internet' seem increasingly to be being set up as the latest in a long line of technologically topical single issue/single solution analyses of what's 'wrong with the world'. Remember when it was television, or film, or the contraceptive pill, or the railways… ?


[BTW – I'm talking primarily about the GMTV school of reporting, as opposed to BBC News Online, even though the 'Internet of Satan' meme seems to afflict even the latter to a degree, albeit mainly via the words of the local MP.]

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