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29 June 2017 14:18 (South Africa)
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Final Facebook status: Suicide

  • Richard Poplak
    HEADSHOT_Rich-Poplak_orange.jpg
    Richard Poplak

    Richard Poplak was born and lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. He trained as a filmmaker and fine artist at Montreal’s Concordia University and has produced and directed numerous short films, music videos and commercials. Now a full-time writer, Richard is a senior contributor at South Africa’s leading news site, Daily Maverick, and a frequent contributor to publications all over the world. He is a member of Deca Stories, the international long-form non-fiction collective.

    His first book was the highly acclaimed Ja, No, Man: Growing Up White in Apartheid-Era South Africa (Penguin, 2007); his follow-up was entitled The Sheikh’s Batmobile: In Pursuit of American Pop-Culture in the Muslim World (Soft Skull, 2010). Poplak has also written the experimental journalistic graphic novel Kenk: A Graphic Portrait (Pop Sandbox, 2010). His election coverage from South Africa’s 2014 election, written under the nom de plume Hannibal Elector, was collected as Until Julius Comes: Adventures in the Political Jungle (Tafelberg, 2014).  Ja, No, Man was longlisted for the Alan Paton Non-Fiction prize, shortlisted for the University of Johannesburg Literary Award and voted one of the Top-10 books of 2007 by Now Magazine. Richard has won South Africa’s Media-24 Best Feature Writing Award and a National Magazine Award in Canada.

    Since 2010, Poplak has been travelling across Africa, seeking out the catalysts and characters behind the continent’s 21stcentury metamorphosis. The coming book, co-authored with Kevin Bloom, is called The Shift

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When a British woman committed suicide after posting a note on her Facebook page, the UK charity Samaritans teamed up with the social network site to provide help to those considering a similar path. But there are disturbing questions lurking at the fringes of the story. One might be: In a hyper-connected world, how is it that we’ve become so disconnected? By RICHARD POPLAK.

Simone Back, a 42-year-old British woman, wrote a final Facebook status update that was as simple as it was chilling: “Took all my pills be dead soon so bye bye every one.” Back was a charity worker with a history of depression; her final attempt, on Christmas Day last year, was apparently the result of a relationship breakup. Equally as troubling as Back’s message were the comments, by several of her 1,082 friends, posted underneath it.

While Back lay dying of an overdose, one of her pals wrote, “She ODs all the time and she lies”. A minute later, another posted, “I hope that she is lying about this or you're going to feel guilty tomorrow”. The following day, an indignant mate left the following message on Back’s page: “Did you catch the part about Simone taking pills?? .. the 'bye bye' part?? Did anyone go by personally and check on Simone.. or call 999?? what's wrong with you people?? is the gossip really more important than her??”

“She does it all the time, takes all of her pills. She's not a kid anymore,” came a riposte. “She has a choice and taking pills over a relationship is not a good enough reason,” came another. Back’s Facebook status had become a talking point, something to bicker over – in short, entertainment. The reality didn’t sink in until Back’s mother wrote, “My daughter Simone passed away today so please leave her alone now.”

One can be forgiven for considering the above exchange as the grim nadir of a civilised species. Have we become so disconnected, by virtue of being constantly connected, that real-life events play out on social network sites, insulating us from their reality? Or is it that snark and lazy judgements are the natural result of a performance-based culture in which we Tweet, blog or otherwise post the minutiae of our lives, to the point that our bowel movements and our suicides occupy roughly the same sphere of import? In other words, if absolutely everything has become “Recent News”, are we newly incapable of separating the wheat of seriousness from the chaff of nonsense?

Simone Back and her 1,082 “friends” do not form a large enough representative group to answer either of these questions definitively. Many, if not most, of those thousand or so people may not have seen the status update, given Facebook’s baffling manner of channelling updates through their news chute. That said, the incident does put certain cultural transformations in perspective. Even those of us bullish about the possibilities of social networking five years ago have seen our more outlandish expectations obliterated. Facebook, and now Twitter, have changed the way in which we humans communicate, and how we relate to the world around us. This sea change has caused personal, political and cultural paradigm shifts. On one hand, social networking has helped ferment revolution. On the other, it feeds the monstrous side of what so many are revolting for—the inviolable right of the Individual. If “I” becomes our most important consideration, we invariably become performers—the stars of our own Facebook page. Thus, the very essence of “community” dissipates. We live on a stage, and we die in the wings.  

There were, of course, instances of human unkindness before social network; cries for help have gone unanswered since the dawn of the species. But there is a note in this incident that resonates, something about the distancing effects of living (and dying) online that explains the plugged-in world we inhabit.

“I’d rather be an expert on me than on Cicero,” wrote Montaigne, who is often (and lazily) credited as the precursor of all things “blogospherish”. “I am loathe,” he went on, “to even have a thought that I cannot publish.” Today, our thoughts are published instantly. We have traded the luxury of self-reflection for the high of self-gratification. Every single time we post, we paradoxically become part of a vast community while becoming more of an island of aloneness. Back didn’t need more friends. She needed a good friend. She was never going to find that on Facebook.

To help avert a repeat of such an occurrence, Samaritans, a UK suicide prevention charity, has teamed up with Facebook, just as it’s done with Google, to try to catch such incidents before they occur. They trawl the Internet for cases just like this one, and make sure that people like Back get the help they need. In doing so, they have acknowledged the fact that too many of us are alone. This is not a new phenomenon. The tragedy comes from the fact that before Facebook, Back’s suicide note would never have seen the light of day. Instead, it was posted to 1,082 people as, perhaps, a cry for help. Or a way to get attention. The result, in the end, was the same as it has ever been – another unhappy person dead from an overdose. But one can’t help reading her poorly written note as a warning. “Bye bye every one.”

Every. One. DM


Further reading:

  • Facebook adds Samaritans suicide risk alert system  at BBC;
  • “Took my pills…” The Daily Mail.

Photo by TenThirtyNine.

  • Richard Poplak
    HEADSHOT_Rich-Poplak_orange.jpg
    Richard Poplak

    Richard Poplak was born and lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. He trained as a filmmaker and fine artist at Montreal’s Concordia University and has produced and directed numerous short films, music videos and commercials. Now a full-time writer, Richard is a senior contributor at South Africa’s leading news site, Daily Maverick, and a frequent contributor to publications all over the world. He is a member of Deca Stories, the international long-form non-fiction collective.

    His first book was the highly acclaimed Ja, No, Man: Growing Up White in Apartheid-Era South Africa (Penguin, 2007); his follow-up was entitled The Sheikh’s Batmobile: In Pursuit of American Pop-Culture in the Muslim World (Soft Skull, 2010). Poplak has also written the experimental journalistic graphic novel Kenk: A Graphic Portrait (Pop Sandbox, 2010). His election coverage from South Africa’s 2014 election, written under the nom de plume Hannibal Elector, was collected as Until Julius Comes: Adventures in the Political Jungle (Tafelberg, 2014).  Ja, No, Man was longlisted for the Alan Paton Non-Fiction prize, shortlisted for the University of Johannesburg Literary Award and voted one of the Top-10 books of 2007 by Now Magazine. Richard has won South Africa’s Media-24 Best Feature Writing Award and a National Magazine Award in Canada.

    Since 2010, Poplak has been travelling across Africa, seeking out the catalysts and characters behind the continent’s 21stcentury metamorphosis. The coming book, co-authored with Kevin Bloom, is called The Shift

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