NY Times – The Global Sympathetic Audience

NY Times

My NY Times article about Twitter and the entire suicide issue is finally published. It is online, and looks to be in print tomorrow, November 4th. Below is the article, but it can also be found on the NY Times site here. There are a few inaccuracies. The police didn’t find me in my car the next morning, and I’ve had no contact with any law enforcement about this incident (others did by calling them and reporting the incident though). On the site, it doesn’t look like they used any of the photos we took the day of my second break-in.

Currently, I am still without a computer as well, but I hope to have enough money by the middle of the month to get one. The donation link is still available as well.

Before I publish the article, I want to take this time to give an update on what has been going on. My job in the north bay found out about my recent break-ins. My boss donated towards my fund, and other various donations have been coming in.

I decided that the best way to start over, since I was down to 2 outfits and the clothes on my back, was to move outside of the city and find a place to live. I found a beautiful house that was renting out rooms. Check out my Flickr page for some pics.

The rent is VERY reasonable, but coming up with the first/last/deposit/etc was a HUGE drain on my finances. In the end I believe it is worth it, and putting off my goal of buying a new computer has suffered, but I am now safe and sleeping on a real bed (it’s a queen sized double high air mattress).

It feels good to be out of my car and sleeping in a real house. I’m using my only piece of technology left to watch lots of YouTube and other videos on my iPhone.

Other then that, I’ve been better. Things are looking up and moving forward. With all of that being said, here is the article after the jump:

The Global Sympathetic Audience

ON Aug. 1, Nick Starr, a 27-year-old computer consultant from Tampa, Fla., was tapping text messages into his cellphone, telling hundreds of his virtual friends about his day.




Mr. Starr was using Twitter, a relatively new program that allows its mostly young members to post “miniblogs” — running diaries about the mundane details of their lives, in entries of barely two sentences.

Mr. Starr, who was driving around near his hometown, wrote in Twitter’s characteristic staccato, stream-of-consciousness style about picking up some chicken wings and getting a new haircut. Then his postings took a darker turn.

At 6:02, he sent out a note about a nearby bridge: “Maybe I should jump from it?”

At 8:17, bemoaning his lack of close friends, he speculated about being the first “Twitter suicide.”

At 9:39, there was a final note: “Alright this is it. Parked my car. I wish everyone who ever was nice to me well. See you in the next life.”

Mr. Starr didn’t jump from the bridge, the Sunshine Skyway across Tampa Bay. The police found him asleep in his car the next morning. But the incident didn’t go unnoticed among Twitter users: Mr. Starr’s iPhone was jammed with text messages from people frantically trying to reach him. Some had alerted the local police.

“It got to the point where I didn’t know what to say,” Mr. Starr said in an interview.

Since the introduction of connected computing, real-life events have played out over networks. In 1990, Blair Newman, a member of an early online community, the Well, committed “virtual” suicide by deleting all his posts there; several weeks later he killed himself.

What is different about “quick blogging” tools like Twitter (which imposes a strict character count so it can be easily used on a cellphone) and Tumblr (which allows longer messages as well as photographs) is the degree to which people use them for spontaneous and almost continuous communication. Mainly, they describe the minutiae of their day, but when their lives take more dramatic turns, they often take the network along in real time.

More than 400 people, for example, were part of Mr. Starr’s Twitter network, and his suicidal thoughts suddenly appeared on their cellphones or instant-messaging services. In addition to Mr. Starr’s posts, Twitter members have been able to follow other members’ painful, step-by-step descriptions (the individual posts are called “tweets”) of depression, bouts of binge-drinking and bad break-ups.

One blogger and Twitter user, Leisa Riechelt, wrote in an e-mail message that “quite a few of us have been guilty of some emotional, late night, drunken twittering. Some go back and delete the Twitters the next day, others just leave it on the record.”

But Ms. Riechelt, 32, thinks the microblog experience is valuable for those listening in on personal details, sharing in what she calls “ambient intimacy.” She writes that while others may ask: “Who cares? Who wants this level of detail? Isn’t this all just annoying noise?” she counts herself among those “who find great value in this ongoing noise.” She added, “It helps us get to know people who would otherwise be just acquaintances.”

CERTAINLY, the creators of Twitter, which was introduced in 2006, thought of the technology more as a curiosity for the digital age and gave it a flippant name to match. Users were supposed to answer one question and one question only: “What are you doing?”

Biz Stone, a founder of Twitter, said its use has “dramatically morphed” in its brief history. “People put everything out there,” he said.

Despite the personal turn that many Twitter posts have taken, 90 percent of users agree to have all their posts available to the public — including Mr. Starr, whose entries, including his ghoulish words on Aug. 1, are available at twitter.com.

“There is value to that,” Mr. Stone said. “A sort of social alchemy happens. You put this stuff out there and you don’t know what happens. You might make a friend, get a job or a date.”

One highly connected user of Twitter, Chris Messina, a consultant to businesses and nonprofit groups on how to build online communities, spoke from the perspective of one who writes the posts, rather than one who reads them.

“You can be overwhelmed with feeling alone when you’re used to being connected all the time,” he said, calling Twitter entries “sonic pulses that let us know, hey, we’re really not that alone after all.”

He described how in April he and his partner, Tara Hunt, “had a big fight after we’d been drinking and then she Twittered that she was leaving me.” Because her message went out very late, most of the Twitter users who read the posts were in Australia. Many e-mailed Ms. Hunt to ask what happened. Those messages helped persuade the couple to reconsider. “I don’t know what might have happened if people who care about us (for reasons I can’t necessarily fathom) didn’t intervene and diffuse the situation,” Mr. Messina wrote in an e-mail message.

Ms. Hunt put it this way: “We realized in that moment that Twitter wasn’t a fun game, it was our social safety network connection. After that, you watch what you tweet. Or you also know that if you really need help, you are just a tweet away from it.”

Another couple that has shared its breakups with the online world are Jakob Lodwick and Julia Allison, often via Tumblr. Mr. Lodwick, 26, who is the founder of Vimeo, a video sharing site, said that exposing his life had practical value.

“For example, if I get in a fight with Julia, I’ll take a picture of her with my iPhone and send it to my Tumblr with the caption, ‘She is mad at me,’” he wrote in an e-mail message. “This saves me from catching up one-on-one with my friends and family. They just know we had a fight. So next time I talk to them directly, they are already caught up with me, and the conversation picks up from there.”

Mr. Lodwick, who earlier in his short career was a founder of the successful Web site College Humor, and Ms. Allison, a dating columnist for Time Out New York, both chronicle their turbulent relationship on personal blogs and elsewhere online. The media gossip site Gawker is addicted to the soap opera, which the couple appear to stoke for their own self-promotion. “Some people follow us as fans,” Mr. Lodwick noted. “I guess people like stories.”

NOT everyone sees the Twitterization of social interactions in a positive light. Shelley Powers, a computer programmer who writes books and a blog, Burningbird, about social networking, said she followed the Nick Starr story as it unfolded online.

“He has a bummer day, talks about it on Twitter, it’s on Digg and then MetaFilter,” she said in an interview. She calls the entire experience “artificial intimacy” and wonders if people were “concerned about it, or were they titillated.”

People in the social networking world, she said, are in a quest for constant communication. “It began with blogging, then blogging with comments, then instant messaging,” she said. “It keeps getting a higher and higher level of interconnectivity, and it becomes almost addicting.”

When Mr. Starr awoke the day after his suicidal posts and began reading the messages left on his cellphone that night, he felt simultaneously touched and mortified. Many Twitter users who knew him personally were frantic to speak with him. Some he had never met were frantic to have him type something, anything, to confirm that he was alive.

One friend, Drew Domkus, reached out to Mr. Starr’s friends in the area and to his parents, reaching his mother in Tampa. He also contacted the police. “I even sent them a photo of his car showing his license plate,” he said.

Mr. Starr contacted Mr. Domkus the next day, but, feeling embarrassed by his posts, waited for weeks before posting an apology of sorts to his virtual friends.

“It certainly is bigger than you think it is,” he said about his Twitter circle of friends. “Even if it is only 500 people, that is 500 people who are human and care, and get concerned. It is community because they are people you choose, you end up caring about them, you become a part of their life.”

After that long night contemplating suicide, Mr. Starr said he began going to counseling. He also decided to move to San Francisco, where many of his Twitter friends live. “I won’t just be connecting with people on Twitter, but in real life. I don’t have a ton of people who I can talk to here,” he said, referring to his life in Florida. “That’s probably why I went online.”

As he drove across the country late last month, he kept Twittering. Arriving in San Francisco late Saturday night he sent out another message to the world: “Do I have to pay the parking meter this late at night?”


6 thoughts on “NY Times – The Global Sympathetic Audience

  1. I know this is going to sound dumb, but what are you doing with an iPhone if you finances are so tight?

    Anyway, glad to head/read that you didn’t jump from the bridge. Always remember there are millions of people out there who you don’t know – but they all don’t want you to kill yourself. And that’s true for everyone (remember that – everyone is NOT alone)

    Good luck with your life.

  2. I’m so happy you found a nice, warm, safe place to rest your head. I hope your commute to work isn’t terrible also. We don’t get out to CA very often, but when we do, we always complain about the traffic. Good luck – I really feel things are on the upswing for you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s