Sunday, August 29, 2010

Death on Twitter

On Thursday, someone shared the following post on Twitter: "My younger sister disappeared at about 1 am last night near the Mapo or Dongjak bridges (in Seoul). The only thing left behind was her cell phone and ID. Even if you think you saw her, please send me a message. Thanks."

I'm not sure why I found it so striking. I do find that the Koreans I follow on Twitter tend to be more community-oriented and less wit-oriented than the Westerners I follow. I've seen Koreans post far more personal details (phone numbers, workplaces, neighbourhoods) than a Westerner ever would. To see something so personal unexpectedly, without being pointed to it after-the-fact, was rare. Out of simple curiosity, I followed the woman.

She posted messages throughout the day wondering where her sister had gone. At 6 the next morning, she was following up on a lead that said her sister had spent the night at a hotel. By mid-morning, however, she'd said that there had been a mistake. A few hours later, at 2 pm, she wrote:

"There's a shelter by the Mapo bridge where many people jump to their deaths. As a result, there are a lot of suicide notes there. Even the police don't know why it was built. I wish it wasn't there. People kill themselves there daily. I wish we didn't build places like that."

The next message, at 5 pm, said: "Thanks, but we just got a call saying that we found her. Thanks to everyone who helped. We've found her body."

Maybe a few years ago I would have questioned whether discussing this sort of thing on the Internet was appropriate, but by now it's plain (particularly in Korea) that the Internet occupies the same technological space as a telephone. Granted, I'm able to find out personal details as a complete stranger, but if the Internet is good enough to help you find someone, it's good enough to report that you lost someone.

The last thought that occurred to me was suicide, which is strange of me. Pretty much every Korean I know can tell me about one friend or acquaintance that committed suicide. More than 10,000 Koreans commit suicide each year. Last year alone, a famous actress, a famous model and the previous president were among the nearly dozen celebrities who committed suicide.

In that sense, what I saw unfold on Twitter was not exceptional, simply another tragic suicide playing out with more visibility than normal. The reasons for why people here commit suicide at an epidemic rate are no doubt complex, but probably are related at least somewhat to the fact that this is one of the unhappiest countries in the world despite its progress and development. What struck me was that it happened in front of me in this case, with such abruptness.

1 comment:

Jennifer said...

The Korean suicide rate is the most unnerving thing. The fact that things like this play out on Twitter is not a surprise.