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Internet Suicide, Tricking the World & Orson Welles 2.0

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We’ve seen live suicide on the Internet before -

In a striking display of the power of live video, Abraham K. Biggs committed suicide on Wednesday while broadcasting himself on video site Justin.tv. As we understand it from various forum posts, the 19-year-old Floridian was apparently egged on by commenters on Justin.tv and fellow forum users on bodybuilding.com. Biggs overdosed on pills while on camera and appeared to be breathing for hours until watchers realized he might be serious, at which point they alerted the police. The video kept running until police and EMTs broke Biggs’ door down and blocked the camera’s view.

But no, the Chatroulette video is not real. It’s sort of a… performance art piece. An extreme public prank which taps into the most profound unconscious motivator – death.

Mass audience trickery is nothing new. Orson Welles is the reigning king of the craft. In 1938 he read ‘War of the Worlds’ as if it were a live news broadcast. He held the nation captive as he described aliens from Mars descending upon New Jersey. Some were so convinced it was real that they fled their homes or holed up in their cellars. Guns loaded, of course.

Dorothy Thompson of the New York Tribune wrote of the event

“All unwittingly, Mr. Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater of the Air have made one of the most fascinating and important demonstrations of all time. They have proved that a few effective voices, accompanied by sound effects, can convince masses of people of a totally unreasonable, completely fantastic proposition as to create a nation-wide panic.”

Orson Welles tapped into our need to have collective public experiences. We want to be tricked. We want to be taken for a ride. Back in the 1930s this was accomplished with a few actors and sound effects. Because the technology of the time, radio, had never been used to deceive, it made the deception that much easier. Now, imagine if Welles was alive today.

There is no better platform for audience trickery than the web. Audiences are very much aware of that, however, and are ever more sophisticated. When anything of interest or out of the ordinary happens online it starts out as fake. Always. You are a liar until proven honest. Case in point is the bodybuilding.com / justintv suicide mentioned above. The first half of that episode people declared it to be a fake, all the while a kid was dying. In the real world. I thought it was fake at first too …

A ‘War of the Worlds’ online would have to be huge. Amazing production value. Tight script. Tons of evidence. Who knows how far you could go with it… A few CGI tricks with a ‘live’ ustream, some ‘reporters’ around the globe. We may just see it soon enough. Some will run for the hills. Some will load their guns. Most will sit in front of their computers and smile, refresh, retweet and yell FAKE. Fake or not, it’s all turning into one big simulation anyway.

Besides, everyone loves a good hoax. Big or small.

Written by Nicholas Robinson

May 13th, 2010 at 9:26 am

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