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Digital Darkness: When We Can't Turn Away From Death Online

Alana Massey explores her own long-running relationship with the grotesque.
(Photo: doug88888/Flickr)

(Photo: doug88888/Flickr)

Somewhere in the digital graveyard of retired but undestroyed email accounts is my online adolescent persona, Pixydust13. A prolific member of Matt Damon fan clubs and a frequent entrant in radio station sweepstakes that I never won, I mostly lurk online in the 1990s for relationship information about celebrity crushes and the occasional fan fiction. But in 1999 I follow locker room whispers in search of what will come to be known as the pro-ana and pro-mia blogosphere, named for their alleged promotion of anorexia and bulimia. Long before Facebook Timelines became the de facto destination for airing grievances, this community was building a prototype for what much of the Internet would later become: a massive archive of despair and death. I unceremoniously break things off with Matt Damon to spend more time with my new girlfriends.

The majority of the sites I frequent are blogs delineating weight-loss progress and the personal experiences of the universal truth that parents just don’t understand. Current weight statistics are prominently displayed on each post. CW (Current Weight), GW (Goal Weight), and LTGW (Long-Term Goal Weight) are measured on a merciless daily basis alongside food intake and cardiovascular output. The site operators go by pseudonyms. Ana and Mia are used frequently, but a handful take on celestial monikers like Astrid and Luna. Their suffering seems cosmic and permanent. I am drawn in by one that goes by Anna. She is committed to regular posts and favors Radiohead to Fiona Apple for inspirational despair in lyrics. She is just the kind of poetic sufferer I want to be when I grow up. She is also killing herself at what looks like a more ambitious clip than the others.

If the visitor count at the bottom of her site’s page is any indication, I am one of many fans. Some interact but I mostly watch. I sympathize with the dramatic escalations she has with her parents. I instinctively put my hand around my own wrist to see how far it can wrap around when Anna writes a post about circumferences as powerful indicators of lost mass. I silently congratulate what she claims is the emergence of lanugo, the layer of downy light hair that grows on the malnourished. If the body is denied food for long enough, it produces this hair in a last-ditch effort to regulate temperature. I grotesquely romanticize her accomplishment as the ultimate surrender of matter to mind.

Long before Facebook Timelines became the de facto destination for airing grievances, this community was building a prototype for what much of the Internet would later become: a massive archive of despair and death.

Eventually and unexpectedly, Anna goes silent. Her posts stop, and the photo galleries are no longer updated with the latest fashion spreads. The visitor count slows. At first, I wonder if her parents discovered the blog and revoked her computer privileges. I wonder if she has gone into recovery. It is long before I learn about the high rates at which blogs are unceremoniously discarded for non-fatal injuries so I become entirely convinced that she is dead. I pop in from time to time over the next several months, thinking her mom might spare us the suspense and deliver a touching eulogy. But I receive no proof of life for over a year and stop my visits entirely.

News media soon picks up on the trend, and a mild panic about the preponderance of sites chronicling eating disorders sweeps over the nation. The owners of the sites are portrayed as a coven of online witches dead set on destroying the self-esteem of young girls in a world that is otherwise tripping over itself to call them adequate.

Around the same time, a new class of the dying begins to chronicle their descent into illness. They are The Cancer Bloggers. Often middle-aged and usually female, they chronicle events like chemotherapy and awkward family encounters and the fears of leaving loved ones behind if and when they succumb to cancer. Everyone uses real names as far as I can tell. They are called brave in a way that their sick younger sisters never were.

It is not until five years later that I learn that eating disorders do not spread like malware but like meningitis. Which is to say, through college dorms rather than the Internet. An acquaintance at New York University with whom I share little but mutual disdain and I drunkenly engage in the common undergraduate pastime of over-indulgence in Tostitos. She asks if I want to throw up with her and is shocked to learn that I don’t know how. She teaches me. I learn that, much like sex, making yourself throw up is as much about proper rhythm as it is about sufficient depth. I thank her with more sincerity than is characteristic. I keep the trick in my back pocket for use on occasion and move it to my front pocket as needed for the next decade.

In late 2013, I arrive home with my friend Skye (name changed) after a shift at the strip club where we work. Despite constant affirmations of our physical beauty at work, we talk constantly about getting thinner. I am underweight for the first time since a bout of mononucleosis in kindergarten. My concern has shifted from preoccupation with the idea that my body is ugly to preoccupation with the fact that my body is dying.

The growth of hair, the accumulation of fat, the smell that emerges if it goes unwashed all indicate that it is is a living organism that will one day expire. For work, we eliminate all evidence of this mortality. Body hair is waxed, fat is highly regulated, and human odors are covered in perfumes that make us smell like flowers and candy. Customers can expect to find us forever young, a cohort of the vibrant and slightly undead. I feel entirely too old for the work and think that Skye is too young for it but refrain from saying so.

Skye stands at the mirror, examining a phantom belly in dismay. She asks if I want to see her favorite Instagram account and tosses me her phone. “Isn’t she beautiful?” she asks of the rail-thin woman I can only see from the chin down. Skye continues her examination while I scroll through the feed, a collection of clavicles and thigh gaps. The movement is alive and unwell it appears. Anyone with a camera on their phone can chronicle their self-destruction for the world to approve of over and over again with the light tap of a small heart icon. I follow her from my own account and tap the small heart on several photos, joining the chorus of followers that admire the elegance of disfigurement by self-deprivation.

Skye turns around and asks, “Dude, do you wanna be anorexic together this spring?” I laugh without looking up from the phone and say, “I don’t really think that’s how it works.” But I know that this is not entirely true.

AS A SENIOR AT NYU, I intern at a children’s book publisher where there are long periods without work to do so I become well-acquainted with news and celebrity gossip. I browse news from the second-floor library and come across a story that says mobile phone footage of Saddam Hussein’s execution has been released. In the previous days, network news declared his death the end of an era. Iraqi officials called for an end to sectarian violence and plead for a renewed commitment to a peaceful Iraq. The worst is surely over now, they say.

"He [Hussein] committed countless crimes, and he deserved to be hanged a thousand times, live again, and be hanged again." I want to tell Rubaie that people have been making that precise thing happen over and over again on video-hosting sites for years now.

Once I am certain there are no witnesses besides over-sized plush animals in the library, I press “play.” The footage is too grainy to get a good look at Hussein’s face but official reports from days prior indicated that he was calm until the very end. The video more or less corroborates this. There is a verbal exchange in Arabic and a large crashing sound when the executioners open the floor of the gallows. I scroll back a few times to try and make out the sound of his neck breaking, even though I don’t really know what a breaking neck sounds like. Even when I stop attempting to make out the sound, I watch it over again. Maybe I am looking for the end of an era, even though I don’t know what that looks like.

The screen goes black for a few moments after the crash, and the image that re-emerges is Hussein’s face and the noose attached on the left side of his neck. His eyes are open, but he is certainly dead. It is not especially gruesome, but I feel unprincipled for bearing witness to a public execution that I have the luxury of ideologically opposing. But hundreds of thousands of people are attending the same execution from their phones and screens, and I surely wouldn’t want to miss a cultural moment of this magnitude. These are taxpayer dollars at work, with a few short degrees of separation. The worst is surely over now.

Two years and three jobs later in 2009, I am failing to make any visible difference in a bleak world. Despite an entire six months at a non-profit aimed at grassroots activism in the Middle East, I have not successfully freed Palestine. Despite eight months at a pharmaceutical company, cancers remain uncured. My third job is at a non-profit connecting veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan to career mentors. It doesn’t make a dent in veteran unemployment.

That summer is the Iranian Green Movement following contested elections. A young woman named Neda Agha Solton is shot dead in the streets of Tehran, and the incident is captured on video by several onlookers. Despite the best efforts of Iranian authorities to make sure that the revolution will not be live-streamed, the video is seen across Iran and around the world. I watch the video alone in the office after work alongside hundreds of thousands more that I recognize only by their imprint on the YouTube view counts. We are outraged, but we withhold meaningful protest. We watch over and over again.

In the video, Solton’s eyes roll back more deeply into their sockets than I’m used to seeing in cinematic deaths. Her blood looks thicker. News outlets call it crimson and scarlet instead of red, as if the story required more visual drama. Media declares Neda the face of a revolution. We believe it.

I don’t think about Iran again until Argo is released in 2012 by which time I have forgotten the name Neda Agha Soltan entirely. I realize that I will know director Ben Affleck’s name for the rest of my life, mostly thanks to Matt Damon.

In 2013, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, the former national security officer who oversaw Hussein’s execution, tells Agence France-Press: “He [Hussein] committed countless crimes, and he deserved to be hanged a thousand times, live again, and be hanged again.” I want to tell Rubaie that people have been making that precise thing happen over and over again on video-hosting sites for years now. Hussein is waiting for him atop the gallows right now, all he has to do is press “play.” The news indicates that it apparently takes some time for eras to wind down. The comments on the many incarnations of the execution video indicate that it continues to have a captive audience.

IN DECEMBER 2012, KI Suk Han is pushed onto the subway tracks from the Q train platform at 49th Street. It is the middle of the day, and there are dozens of onlookers. He is struck and killed but not before a freelance photographer snaps photos of him desperately grabbing the platform and staring down the train. The photo represents the communal nightmare of New York City residents.

I’ve been instructed to go directly to a hospital by a gentle voice on the other end of a suicide hotline.

The Post runs the photo on the cover with the headline “DOOMED.” The photo is only on newsstands for a day but is easily found online as more details of the story emerge. Footage of the moments before the push is released. Han is seen arguing with a man on the platform. New York City residents communally reconsider ever engaging with fellow MTA riders again, lest they be more deranged than typical.

I return to the photo often. It is just a man and a train. They both look still. As is, he has all the time in the world to pull himself back onto the platform and the train has all the time in the world to brake. They do not. But I still command the invisible onlookers to grab him. They do not. I stand so close to the wall at most stations that I can’t even see the tracks. So does almost everyone else.

Four months later, I sit uneasily at NYU Langone Medical Center on First Avenue. I’ve been instructed to go directly to a hospital by a gentle voice on the other end of a suicide hotline. I tell the receptionist why I’m there and am immediately ushered to a private room where I don’t go unsupervised for more than a few minutes. I repeat to the nurse why I’m there. “She ... she told me I had to go to the hospital. So I came to the hospital,” I tell him through trembling tears.

I tell him I was thinking of getting hit by a train on purpose, perhaps in the hope that the refusal to use the word “suicide” would make the intentions less evident. He frowns and asks, “Do you know how many people would miss you if you jumped in front of a train?” I want to smile and wryly ask, “How many?” since there is no good answer. Instead I say, “I wasn’t going to jump. I was going to walk.” I explain my entirely unscientific theory that you increase your chances of being killed by walking into the tunnels when the trains haven’t started to slow down. I explain that this prevents being maimed and surviving. It has the added benefit of not forcing fellow passengers to watch an unfair fight between metal and bone. He insists that I take an ambulance down the block to Bellevue. I do.

I am taken to the Comprehensive Psychiatric Emergency Program, or CREP. I must itemize and then forfeit my personal possessions. I don’t have to wear a hospital gown but I do have to wear ill-fitting blue socks instead of the shoes that I came in. The smell isn’t as bad as I anticipated, but I had foolishly imagined more windows. I undergo a brief initial intake and then sit on an uncomfortable couch and listen to an argument between an exceedingly reasonable teenager and his desperate mother. She has brought in food from the outside, but the young man refuses it. I want to ask if I can have some but I refrain, lest he be more deranged than typical.

A few hours into my wait for an evaluation, the regularly scheduled television programming is interrupted with news that a bomb has gone off at the Boston Marathon. I am afraid that my fellow patients will go into a frenzy of conspiracy theories, but several minutes pass, and I am the only one paying attention. Most survive the bombing, but many are maimed. I resolve that a 72-hour hold here is entirely too long and do not see the irony in the fact that several hours before I was ready to stop the clock entirely. Without testimony from the nurse at NYU, I am free to lie and say I simply overreacted to some mild anxiety in my evaluation.

I am released in the early evening and find text messages from seven people on my phone. I want to find the nurse from NYU and say, “At least seven in the first 12 hours.” I decide that it is a pretty good answer. One of the messages is a dinner invitation for the same night from a good-looking illustrator. I accept.

My date is significantly more upset about the bombing than I am but I am not prepared to say why I’m preoccupied with other events of the day. He walks me to the subway station where we hug instead of kiss. He tells me to get home safe. And though that’s not entirely up to me, I get home safe anyway.

The following winter, I am curled up on my best friend’s couch where I sleep frequently. Slumber parties are one of the many perks of the extended adolescence afforded to the urban and chronically single. We speak often of suicide. She long ago decided on carbon monoxide after learning it is most painless. I have decided on a bridge jump after learning through MTA statistics how easy it is to survive getting hit by a train.

“I’ve decided that you’re going to be the one that finds me when I do it,” she says, in the same tone that another might declare, “I’m going to buy a Prius.” I ask her why she has chosen me. “Because I trust you enough not to try and save me.” I understand that it is meant as a compliment and I thank her, but I feel overestimated.

IT IS THE SUMMER of 2014. I am thin but not underweight. Skye considers going back to school and asks that I look at her resume. My best friend is happy in a new relationship, and we have not spoken of tailpipes or the Brooklyn Bridge in months. I have retired from the explicitly sordid adult industry to write full-time and am convinced, for the first time in my life, that there is a potential living wage in a shallow wit and a deep sadness.

Matt Damon and Ben Affleck resurrect their long defunct HBO show, Project Greenlight, in which the pair find undiscovered film-making talent and make their dreams come true. I consider submitting a love story about a Russian-American sex worker from Brighton Beach that takes place around the time of Hurricane Sandy. There is a snuff film in it, and everyone dies at the end.

Thanks for asking. Everything is not all right. I am being held hostage inside a dying organism strapped by gravity to a dying planet. We are currently in outer-space. Send help.

For most of the summer, I read the word ISIS in the news and wonder to myself if a stripper I once knew has changed her performer name in light of recent events instead of wondering about what the ISIS era has in store. That is until I find a YouTube link in a tweet from a Mashable reporter that says James Foley has been beheaded. I am at a café and look around for any signs that others are also ignoring their work to be baited with macabre links appealing to our basest impulses. I click the link and see that the video has been up for only a few minutes but is gunning for No. 1 at the online box office already.

I press “play” and see Arabic letters appear on screen and then the cut to Foley and his executioner. In a sudden panic, I hit pause. I close the tab and do not return to it, despite the weed-like proliferation of sites willing to host it and the number of people willing to watch again in the days that follow. The reliable ghouls at the Post run a cover photo of the moment right before the cruelly small blade enters Foley’s neck. It turns out that the beginning of an era looks a lot like an unfair fight between metal and bone. The newsstands I pass are unusually sold out of the Post.

I still look for Anna from time to time, thinking I might recognize her writing like that of a long lost pen pal. I know that the rate of lifetime recovery from eating disorders is grim and wonder if she has migrated to Tumblr. Despite the best efforts of social media moderators, the shrines to hunger remain popular. I wonder if she is buried somewhere deep in that pile of Kate Moss quotes and hipbones. I wonder if she is buried somewhere else.

I go to Tumblr, vaguely recalling that social media sites now have a pop-up message asking if everything is OK and directing users to eating disorder recovery resources if they type certain keywords. I type “thinspo” and await the concerned message so that I can write:

Dear Tumblr,

Thanks for asking. Everything is not all right. I am being held hostage inside a dying organism strapped by gravity to a dying planet. We are currently in outer-space. Send help.


I click the Return key but the pop-up page does not appear. Perhaps it was Instagram that sent such messages.

I dive into the infinite scroll and come across a black-and-white photo of a female ribcage bearing a tattoo that reads, “The pain you feel today is the strength you feel tomorrow.” It is a message of hope engraved on a self-destroying body, juvenile and melancholy in a way that performs well among the young Tumblr crowd and performs even better with the juvenile and melancholy adults still drawn to spectacles of prolonged destruction. Even though I know the message is not true, I become the 84th viewer to click the small heart of approval. The little grey icon grows larger and turns red as I click, drawing out one more digital heartbeat that gives life to her deadly enterprise.

I close the laptop and return to the tasks that characterize the simple but exhausting business of staying alive. I walk away from it safe in the knowledge that the permanent and growing online deathbed will be there when I get back. It will have grown stronger and larger with the accumulation of witnesses that have come to stare down death in its many forms, leaving their witnesses’ fingerprints on the view counts and traffic statistics. And when I do get back, my fingers will again tremble precariously between the “play” and “stop” buttons, knowing very well that neither option really matters. The unfair fight has already started.