From Heads of the Colored People
Nafissa Thompson-Spires’s “Suicide, Watch,” is essentially a shaggy dog story with one of the most mordantly funny punch lines in recent memory. But, like most comic stories, its thematic subject matter is highly serious: mental illness and the quintessential 21st century loneliness that accrues to social-media addiction.
By now it should be obvious that social media is tailored to exploit human fallibilities, to promote craving and dependency. Sean Parker, one of Facebook’s earliest executives, admitted that the site’s designers consciously exploited a psychological vulnerability to keep users coming back and remaining on the site for extended periods of time. At one point in 2012, Facebook’s programmers manipulated the algorithm controlling the news feed in a deliberate attempt to try to make its users sad. And studies have shown a correlation between social media use and increased levels of depression among young people.
Jilly, the main character in Thompson-Spires’s story, is a narcissist. Certainly, people with a tendency toward narcissism or excessive self-regard are likely to be at greater risk from the deleterious effects of overexposure to Facebook or Instagram: they are the people who are most likely to judge their lives negatively in comparison with what they perceive other people’s to be like, even if they are aware on some deeper level that social media is essentially performative and everyone is putting on a show to achieve a particular result.
The result Jilly is after is the dopamine rush that comes from likes and clicks. The most effective way to achieve that, she believes, is to make her followers online believe she is suicidal. She has actually attempted to take her life in the romantic Sylvia Plath manner, but quit because the oven in which she stuck her head got too hot. Despite her recognition that she “would not go out like a poet,” she updates her status with a verse implying that she is going to kill herself. After five minutes, she checks in to see what the response has been:
JULIA WEINBERG, KAREN GRANT, AND 2 OTHER PEOPLE RECENTLY LIKED YOUR STATUS.
JESSICA GIVEN [that was Jilly’s mom] COMMENTED ON YOUR STATUS.
REMINDER: YOU HAVE 1 EVENT THIS WEEK.
What makes this so painfully humorous is how easily recognizable it is. Jilly desperately wants a sympathetic response to her provocation, but the “likes” and comments confuse her and make her wonder what the commenters’ motivations are: “Were people happy she was saying goodbye, sanctioning her death?” The social media platform itself, meanwhile, is completely indifferent to her plight, and only concerned that she remain aware she has one event upcoming.
The most remarkable thing about Jilly, both as a character in the story and a representative of a standard-issue social media user, is that she is completely unremarkable. “Nothing exciting or terrible had ever happened to her, and if there was any oppression for her to overcome, it only grazed her but never lingered.” She admits that, as a Black woman, she has never felt the sting of racism, save for several occasions on which she has been followed too closely by store employees in high-end boutiques. Even Jilly’s narcissism is not of the pathological variety – her illness is not severe enough to be considered a personality disorder. As one therapist tells her, “[Y]ou just have too much time on your hands.”
Jilly’s flirtation with self-harm, we are given to understand, is a fairly typical attempt to grab attention, which is perfectly consistent with her fixation on scoring likes and reactions online. She studies what types of posts garner the most responses and fashions her social media persona accordingly. “Cat videos outperformed babies, which followed closely behind, but delicate posts about family and #blessings could be tricky, because people didn’t want to see how happy you were too often, even if you were making it all up.”
Of course, one of the abiding ironies in the story is that Jilly is playing a role, that her psychological state is much more precarious than she is able to recognize. She reacts with puzzlement when she posts a series of YouTube videos centred on the theme of suicide and people react by praising her musical taste and complimenting her on the great playlist. Though she is not, ultimately, herself suicidal, she takes umbrage at what she perceives as insufficient sympathy or support from her online followers. And all the while she remains obsessed with the artificial image she projects of herself online: “What did she have to show for her life, other than the near perfections of her appearance?”
So self-absorbed does she prove to be that in the end what prevents her from going through with her half-formed plan to kill herself is the notion that she would not be mourned in a way that she would feel was worthy of her. “Who would run her online tribute page or make sure the right people came to the service? And what good was a funeral if she couldn’t, like Tom and Huck, witness the mourners and see how much they all loved her?”
There is real pathos here alongside the irony and the sardonic humour. It is the modulation of tone and the subtle current of melancholy running through Thompson-Spires’s brief story that makes the final contortion, when it comes, so unexpected and perversely hilarious. In the end, Jilly’s online acquaintances are left once again to ponder and misapprehend her motivations and the incitement for her final action; once again, we witness the ironic distance between truth and perception, between understanding based on an exposure to all the facts of a situation and the supposition of anonymous online denizens jumping to conclusions based on half-truths and vague apprehensions. In addition to being caustically funny, “Suicide, Watch” is also a piercingly – and uncomfortably – accurate evisceration of the way we live and interact online.