What would you do if you saw the following status post from a friend on your Facebook feed?
"Took all my pills be dead soon bye bye everyone."
Simone Back, 42, of Brighton, UK, updated her status with that disturbing message at 10:53PM on Christmas Day 2010. On January 6th, The Daily Mail reported the story of Back's suicide. The charity worker had a history of depression. The paper spoke to her mother, Jennifer Langridge, who pointed out that her daughter had 1082 Facebook friends but not one of them responded to her cry for help in-person or contacted her mother.
Back's last status update was, in fact, seen by a number of her Facebook friends. Some responded with nasty comments but no one took her threat seriously enough, cared enough, felt comfortable intervening, or knew what to do. According to the Daily Mail report, "Facebook friends from out of town begged online for her address and telephone number so they could get help, none of those who lived closer did anything to help."
The bystander effect
In 1964, forty years before Facebook existed, a 29-year-old woman named Kitty Genovese of Kew Gardens, New York was returning home in the early morning hours from her job as a bar manager. She cried out for help from her sleeping neighbors when an assailant stabbed her twice in the back. "Oh my God, he stabbed me! Help me!" she screamed.
Before Genovese stumbled to her apartment building, her assailant raped and stabbed her several times more and robbed her of $49. This all took place over the course of an hour. One eyewitness eventually called the police but Kitty Genovese died en route to a hospital.
News reports afterwards suggested that 38 neighbors heard or saw some of what happened that night. This led to public outcries over their callousness. Later, it was estimated that actually about a dozen people had sensed something was wrong and failed to act, attributing the disturbance to a lover's spat or drunken brawl.
Social psychology courses often use the Kitty Genovese case as an example of the "bystander effect," a construct that explains the phenomenon of people not responding to a victim---usually because they feel someone else will do so or they think that someone is better equipped to respond than they are.
Perhaps that's similar to what occurred in the case of Back's suicide threat on Facebook. In many instances, Facebook friends feel more distant than real friends, not knowing exactly how to respond to someone in distress because they really don't know the individual that well or aren't sure about their role.
Am I my brother's keeper?
Admittedly, a suspicion may be wrong and determining whether and how to respond can be a tough call. Some Facebook friendships are very distant acquaintances, at best. But when we live in the same virtual community, we are neighbors. When you have any suspicion that someone's health or safety may be compromised, it's always better to say something than regret doing nothing.
The day after the tragic shootings in Tucson, this issue of responsibility for our friends and neighbors has to weigh on our minds even heavier than usual. If a friend, acquaintance, relative or neighbor had noticed the writings on Jared Lee Loughner's MySpace page or his videos on YouTube and called them to someone's attention, might this horrible tragedy have been averted?