Reddit, one of the most heavily-trafficked and comment-heavy social bookmarking sites on the Web, has been in the news this week for its unfortunate connection to the suicide of one of its users, Diefex (real name: Robert C. Duncan). As has been reported on the Daily Beast and elsewhere, Duncan, 24, turned to Reddit to ask the community to give him one reason why he shouldn’t commit suicide. But within hours of starting the discussion thread, Duncan was dead.
Reddit is known for its attitude as much as its voting system, and the two complement each other. Users submit links to articles, photos, videos, or simply questions they have, and fellow users vote the links up or down and comment on them. Items involving boobs, heroes and humor can get upwards of a few thousand “up” votes. Political and religious items can, understandably, be voted up and down and debated all day until new material rises to the top of the Reddit homepage and replaces it.
But the comments section is the star of the show here. Users can comment on both the links or questions submitted, and on each others‘ comments. Usually an item that’s been voted up hundreds of times will also feature hundreds of comments. There are probably thousands of “power users” on the site––people who have submitted, voted and commented tens of thousands of times and have been active on the site for years. These users are actually people, which some critics of Reddit might not believe, given the nastiness of some of the comments. But comments can also be flattering, sensitive, witty and insightful. It all depends on the item being commented on, the user’s opinion, fellow commenters, and how everyone feels that day.
Bob Duncan a.k.a. Diefex, who had received some 1,800 “up” votes on his own comments in his year as a Reddit user, signed on to the site at around 5PM on Friday, August 20, according to the Daily Beast, and posted this one-sentence item: “Give me one reason why i shouldn’t end it all now.” Clicking through to the thread’s page, Duncan elaborated only slightly by adding, “Go.” He simply wanted his fellow “redditors” to provide inspiration and motivation to prevent him from following through. Some of the comments are indeed inspiring. One person provided a practical quote from someone who had survived jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge: “The instant I jumped, I saw clearly that every one of my problems had a simple and obvious solution…except the fact that I had just jumped …”
Another user, pyxylated, wrote, “Because you will never again eat good food, have an orgasm, find something amusing, create something, help someone else, or sit around with the luxury of asking whether or not you want to live.”
Some were not as generous. One comment, now removed, said, “DO IT FAGGOT.” But Eran Cantrell, the woman behind the username pyxylated, told the Daily Beast that the community “ganged up” on the negative users, voting their submissions down in great numbers. But the positive messages didn’t seem to work. Duncan committed suicide at 6:45PM on Friday evening.
Reddit can’t be held responsible for Duncan’s decision, but the site did come together to honor “one of our own,” as Reddit moderator Taylor Paiga put it in a post commemorating Duncan. Paiga had received a message from Duncan’s mother, who wanted to see some of her son’s activity on the site so she could know “what he wondered about. I am his mom. Is there a way to find what he has asked? He loved this site.” Paiga responded, but hasn’t heard from her since. He decided to post her message to Reddit in sympathy.
Duncan’s father took a different approach, entering the lion’s den himself and uncovering some of the insensitive suggestions given to his son in the hours before he died. Frustrated that people would respond so inhumanely, Duncan started his own thread, calling on users to respect Duncan in death if they couldn’t do so in life.
Paiga suggests that it’s possible some Reddit users saw Duncan’s thread as not actually legitimate: the work of a troll, in other words. He has set up a new subsection of the site specifically for those contemplating suicide, or for those who know someone who is. In that section, the oft-made-over Reddit mascot is holding up a sign that says, “Let’s talk.”
But Duncan’s death––and the many other suicides that people have threatened or carried out as people online sat by encouraging, discouraging, and in some cases watching––makes it hard to understand how an online community can be thought of as a support system, despite Reddit’s positive contributions to Duncan both during his life and afterward.
Duncan used Reddit to speak of his issues with depression, medication and other issues such as religion. Certainly, an online community is better than no community at all. But it seems many people are increasingly comfortable replacing the older form of socialization with the new one. Is it really an equal trade?