Suicide has touched my life a few times, not least of all because it seems to one of the biggest killers of my extended family, after heart disease and alcoholism. I once had to kick down the door of a bathroom and take a person very close to me to hospital after a they took a fistful of painkillers with vodka chaser. Even now I’m not against suicide totally, but stories like THIS are still very sad.

With over 1000 ‘friends’ on Facebook how can we explain that a human person reaching out to other human people can not get the response they need? Most people reading the headline will understand ‘friends’ in the context of Facebook doesn’t mean the same as friends in meatspace: a ‘friend’ on Facebook can be ‘person I added so I could see their holiday pictures of them in a bikini’, ‘person I went to school with, don’t really know any more but added while nostalgic and drunk’ or even ‘person with cool profile picture’. I have over 200 Facebook ‘friends’; god knows how or why because I rarely check it. The point is, the headline of ‘1000 Facebook friends’ means nothing because that’s not how social networking works.

Social capital is the measurement of influence a person has in any social network*: a celebrity will have more social capital because of the reach of his network and the weight of his words, an expert will have more social capital in certain situations, or person who’s connection is entertaining on the network itself has capital because of the entertainment that connection provides. An interesting example of social capital working is a missing girl being found due to the retweeting of the appeal (she’s since been found). A person with a thousand followers we expect to have a lot of social capital, because of the amount of connections they have, and they must be useful somehow right?

So, how can someone with so much perceived social capital have so little help when it was needed most? Well most would say is that it was squandered, the more you ask from your network the less you should expect, if someone is needy, dull, or asks to much then they lose their currency. Spent with none earned back. And its a peculiar Facebook etiquette norm that ‘unfriending’ someone is a particularity strong statement, so dispute the connection being loose to the point of none existence the digital link labelled ‘friend’ still remains. If we were honest we could all prune these ghost friends out of our digital lives and be left with a solid, honest core of real friends instead of ‘friends’.

But social capital is a game, a framework with labels and rules that we apply to the new world of social media so we can make sense of it because that is how our brains are wired. We are programmed to receive stories and games and will use them to make the world seem logical and linear. I think online we are removed from the real and its easy to push the right pedals to get our reward pellets and forget the people we touch are real. Maybe if one of the ‘1000’ friends, that had lived close by, had seen the inevitable result of Simone’s story instead of playing the social media game it would have been different.

The tools are not to blame here, I don’t think anyone is. That’s not to say we can’t learn the lesson.

When I first started using the Internet properly back in 2004 or so, I made contact with a girl on messenger. I never met her, saw her, or knew anything about her other than what we told each other in that rectangle in the corner of the screen. It was innocent enough, I cant even remember what we chatted about. I did get the impression that she had some body issues, but nothing major. Over the space of a week her messages got more and more depressed, I urged her to get help or go talk to someone close, but she shrugged it off. One night she told me she was going to take all of her mom’s sleeping tablets and signed off “Goodbye, perhaps forever” and never signed on again. After about a week of worrying I did a search on her name trying to find out something, anything, and I found her user name on another messenger service; active and well and friends with someone else. I never contacted her.

Does that mean now would I be more wary of supposed ‘cries for attention’, more cynical about online grandstanding? No, especially not now. To quote the article :

“A spokeswoman from the mental health charity Mind said suicide threats should be taken seriously: “It is a myth that people who talk about suicide don’t go through with it. They are very likely to have spoken about their feelings of desperation to others.” “

*look I know its more complicated than than that, for more HERE