Over the last 10 years we've spent been studying self-injurers (SIers) who post on the Internet. Our book, The Tender Cut, draws on over 135 in-depth life history interviews with self-injurers located all over the world, but also on virtual participant-observation in many SI cyber forums including blogs, bulletin and message boards, listservs, groups, and chat rooms, incorporating tens of thousands of Internet messages and emails including those posted publicly and those written to and by us.
Over this period we've watched the Internet grow and develop from a nascent state, blossoming into a postmodern, disembodied forum populated by millions of users. Along the way it has gone through many sociological changes and developments.
We first started looking online for information and people interested in self-injury in around 2000, when people mentioned they were Googling the topic (self-harm, self-mutilation) to find out about it. A smattering of sites gave definitions of the behavior that were loosely medically-based, but usually posted by self-injurers featuring the early information they could gather about the subject.
Some had dire warnings with bold, flashing images on screen featuring dramatic colors and scary graphics, suggesting that readers might find further reading about the topic offensive, dangerous, or triggering.
Others were expressive and lonely, containing poetry and art by self-injurers who sought to share their means of self-expression and inspire others to do likewise. A few were groups, loosely organized as listservs, where people posted about their self-injury and others responded, sometimes posting photographs. All were open and easily accessible to anyone, as they sought to attract the interest and attention of others.
These sites were as unregulated as they were unrestricted. Often, newcomers wandered into these sites without fully realizing their nature, finding them by Googling words such as self-mutilation or self-harm. A short exchange, from 2004, shows this kind of misunderstanding and its correction:
Lildevil: I"m leaving thats it I quit there is no one there to help me any more.
FreedomFire [listowner]: Help you? This is not a help community.
Others, following the early casual nature of these spaces, seemed to permit the possibility of encouraging participants to one-up each other in their posted photos and graphic descriptions. They would complain about their urges to self-injure, their giving in to them, and then write about how they were bleeding over the keyboard as they composed their messages. Some took pictures of their cuts and posted them immediately. People's responses varied from those that were supportive and sympathetic, to others that competed, asking things such as, "You call that a cut? What'd you use, a paper clip?" This tacit encouragement of self-injury was often accompanied by "flame wars" (eruptions of open hostility) in which participants argued with each other, sometimes degrading into personal attacks. One prominent site saw a cyber "snark" (biting cruel humor, often to attack) occur among a private group of moderators that spread to other members, in which they privately criticized each other. The effect of these practices was to drive vulnerable people away from many of these cyber spaces.
By the middle-to-later years of the twenty-first century's first decade, the preponderance of individual sites began to give way to more organized groups and bulletin boards. Some of these were broad in their focus, encouraging people to participate who engaged in widely varying forms of behavior, from eating disorders, mental illness, suicidal ideation, and others, to those that were narrow, strictly oriented toward self-injury. Some even focused themselves further on self-injurers over 30, or toward those strictly in recovery. Many started to restrict entrance to members.
By the end of the decade, three types of forums could be identified. At one end of the spectrum lay the most highly regulated groups. Some of these were affiliated with (and often founded by) self-injury clinics or therapists. They were strongly moderated by a host of members (replaced by others over time) who had proved themselves to be regular participants, encouraging and supportive, and willing to give advice and to create community for others. Strictly recovery-oriented, they turned people away who still relied on this behavior as a way to cope with life's problems. Employing firm "no trigger" policies, they had codified rules. One moderator posted the following policy:
The reason that this group exists is to help people in recovery. All members are asked to identify the alternatives s/he tried to use to avoid using SI as a coping mechanism. For those who are not ready to embrace recovery, this is the wrong group.
Words such as "cutting" or "burning" were banned. Using initials or acronyms instead of real words was mandated, such as SA for sexual assault, ED for eating disorders, and SI for self-injury. Violators were subject to prompt expulsion. Past injurious behavior could not be mentioned, nor could implements for injuring.
Moderators and members of such highly regulated groups accepted people's slips into self-injury as long as they only discussed their feelings about it and not their injurious acts, and as long as they remained staunchly committed to quitting. Members, considered fragile, talked openly about their lives, their experiences, and their feelings in the confines of this relatively safe environment. When triggers or violations occurred, members often consulted with or complained to the moderators in a private forum. These people, in consultation with the list owners, then adjudicated conflicts privately and took action. Highly regulated groups, small in size, were often very cohesive, having a cohort of active members who posted regularly. Participants tended to remain involved over several years and face-to-face reunions, often of past clinic inpatients, were sometimes organized.
At the other end were communities that avowed and embraced their self-injury in much the same way as the pro-Ana (anorexia) and pro-Mia (bulimia) sites. These pro-SI groups represented those who were longer-term or more seriously committed self-injurers, often some who had lasted through the "new frontier" period, and represented a smaller, more hard-core group. They often espouse a loosely pro-SI orientation that began by accepting it as a lifestyle choice. They compared self-injuring to other coping mechanisms, such as alcohol or drugs, but considered it preferable because they felt it lacked the addictive and medically damaging consequences. Their bodies were their own, they reasoned, and their injuring only hurt themselves, not others. The behavior was deviant, but not illegal. Since they needed it and it helped them, they took a positive attitude toward it. Especially for those who were trapped in family, living, or socioeconomic difficulties, self-injury represented a way to escape or to assert a measure of control over themselves. One poster noted that self-injury was one of her most reliable and only friends:
Cutting is the only thing that likes me right now. And it's not killin' me yet, and definitely not killing me as bad as being anorexic is. And it's my way out. Nobody has to know. It's just between me and the box cutter, or the exacto knife, or the scissors.
Pro-SIers rejected the stigma, considering it society's problem, not theirs. Some took a long-term view and believed they would never give it up, while others just lived in the moment. Self-injury represented a means that enabled them to exist in the world.
By the mid-2000s these sites started to be cast off by host servers. The condemnation that led to this censorship made membership problematic for participants, who had to migrate continually to new sites, keeping each other informed about cyber places to go through non-judgmental groups and email communication with others. Like members of the pro-ED movement, they were nomadic.
In the middle of the spectrum were groups and boards that were more moderate in their orientation and control. The mid-2000s saw most sites falling into this category, offering a broader orientation toward self-injury and supervision. They served to mediate interaction but not stifle communication. These ranged from sites that were generally recovery oriented to those that were somewhat but not too venting. People flocked to these who found the unregulated groups too triggering and the highly regulated groups too stifling. They had everything, from people who loved cutting, to those who were ambivalent about their self-injury, to those who had quit. If people wanted to stop, there were those who would support them. If people wanted to continue, others would accept them. One member described the moderate regulation and approach to self-injury in her site as embodying a philosophical orientation dedicated to the view of self-injury as adverse behavior that ought to stop, but which fell short of demonizing the behavior or the individuals who engaged in it.
A new member made sure to initially ascertain that people could still discuss their troubles:
Hello my name is Sheila and I am not new but I've been in a hospital for the past 2 weeks. I was trying to work up the courage to talk to people about it but I've already been deleted from one group and would not like to be deleted from anymore. i need people to talk to, do I still have your support?
A moderator replied:
Welcome to the group. I hope you find some comfort here in being with people who really do understand where you are coming from. We are all in different places, but have many things in common. We are not judgmental and try to be supportive.
Many people ask us what effect the Internet has had on self-injury. Has it contributed to the dramatic spread of self-injury that we have witnessed over the last decade? We think mostly not. In talking to hundreds and thousands of people, the primary ways that self-injury seems to have spread is through the media and by word of mouth. People who populate self-injury cyber forums still represent a very small fraction of those who cut, burn, and brand, but they are usually those who do it more or who are finding it becoming more important to their selves. They don't usually go to the Internet to find it; they go there after they have become attached to it.
These cyber worlds of self-injury represent subcultures, where people of similar preferences are freed from the need to conceal their deviance. The various philosophies framing these groups mean that people who are loners in the real world can discover a range of communities, even dropping out of some groups and joining others as their self-injury careers evolve and progress. As such, they are enormously helpful, educating people, giving them access to knowledgeable others who can accept the kinds of talk about their self-injury and the problems underlying it in ways that people who do not self-injure, or who know them in their everyday lives, cannot. They are there to offer support and advice for people who want to quit, for those who merely want to share, as well as for people who reject society's social condemnation of their behavior. They are there to educate those who self-injure as well as those who do not.