Sun, Dec 24, 2006 - Page 2 News List

Feature: Netizens thwart attempted Kaohsiung suicide

LIFE AFFIRMING An expert on media coverage of suicide said the case of Ms Yang shattered the stereotype of blogs as a forum for strangers to forge 'suicide pacts'

By Max Hirsch  /  STAFF REPORTER

It began like so many other suicide cases involving youth: cries for help in cyberspace and a girl holed up in a fleabag hotel, inhaling burning charcoal fumes and slipping into a coma.

"Ms Yang" (楊), 22, was preparing to meet her maker in a Kaohsiung hotel on Wednesday, according to a report in the Chinese-language Liberty Times (Taipei Times' sister newspaper) on Friday.

The distraught college student checked into a hotel on Jiouru 2nd Rd at 8pm, sealed her room on the eighth floor and lit charcoal briquettes, the report said.

Two hours later, as Yang lost consciousness amid a carbon monoxide haze, the receptionist kicked in her door and carried the girl to safety.

The hotel employee's saving Yang just in time, however, wasn't what made her case unique relative to other "suicide-by-charcoal" cases. What was truly unusual about Yang's rescue was that hundreds, if not thousands, of bloggers staged a coordinated, rapid response to thwart her suicide.

The sophisticated one-hour campaign to save Yang began in cyberspace but culminated in her physical rescue by one man.

"I think this could be called a turning point in the role that the Internet plays in the suicide phenomenon," said Chuang Po-chung (莊伯仲), a professor of journalism at Chinese Culture University.

An expert on media coverage on suicide, Chuang said Yang's case shattered the stereotype of blogs as a forum for strangers to forge "suicide pacts." Such pacts refer to collective suicides planned online between strangers.

The plans, usually hatched on a blog or via e-mail by suicidal Internet-users, is for such users to die together, or separately and closely timed, usually by burning charcoal in a sealed room.

"I've come across all kinds of online forums regarding suicide, with people promoting it. But there are also plenty of forums and information in cyberspace discouraging people from taking their own lives," Chuang said in a phone interview.

"The Internet can have a positive influence on suicide-prone youth," he added.

One hour before Yang's rescue, her friend, self-styled "Vot1077," posted a message on a popular online bulletin board, stating that Yang planned to commit suicide by inhaling charcoal fumes that evening. Vot1077 also posted Yang's full name and school, adding that Yang had confided in her that she intended to kill herself on the eighth floor of a Kaohsiung hotel.

Yang had stopped short of naming the hotel, according to Vot1077, and that's where an army of concerned "netizens" entered the equation.

Posting the names and telephone numbers of all the hotels in Kaohsiung with 8 or more floors, one blogger shifted the campaign to find Yang into high gear, launching a telephone blitz of 240 hotels by fellow bloggers. A blog-based update of which hotels had been contacted and ruled out further concentrated netizens' efforts.

When the call came into the receptionist who would save Yang, the caller's description of the girl jibed with a guest on the eighth floor.

"Could that be the girl who just checked in?" the receptionist was quoted as saying before sprinting up to Yang's room.

"There were a lot of weird coincidences with this case," Chuang said.

"For one, this happened at a time of day when blogs are teeming with users. This girl probably had thousands of strangers all working together to locate and save her," he said.

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