The internet is probably the most important social domain for play, not just for children but for adults as well. All cultures have some form of ritual combat – a form of ritualized fighting that transforms and subverts the normal human tendencies for hostility towards outgroups into fun. The most obvious and widespread form is athletic competition – football games, fencing, soccer. Non-athletic competition, such as chess and go, also fits the bill. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz describes cockfighting among the Balinese as such:
Fighting cocks, almost every Balinese I have ever discussed the subject with has said, is like playing with fire only not getting burned. You activate village and kingroup rivalries and hostilities, but in “play” form, coming dangerously and entrancingly close to the expression of open and direct interpersonal and intergroup aggression (something which, again, almost never happens in the normal course of ordinary life), but not quite, because, after all, it is “only a cockfight.”
Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight
Children’s games are ritual combat. One feature of children’s games and adult athletic competition is the availability of a “time out” – a “truce term” or respite word that allows a participant to “tap out” if the play becomes too dangerous or intense (see also the discussion of respite words in my article on children’s culture, The Last of the Monsters with Iron Teeth). Ordinary adult life lacks such a ritual, and unfortunately this includes the ritual combat occurring on the internet.
Much of the activity on the internet takes the form of ritual combat. Trying to get one’s team to sign internet petitions, or to upvote posts, or to report certain users to get their accounts suspended, are some of the tactics this ritual combat takes. The phenomenon of Gamergate is such a locus of ritual combat, but it is only one battle in a larger domain.
In internet ritual combat, one’s real social status is on the line. Internet identities are often attached to the holder enough to seem very real. Behavior that is called “harassment,” “threats,” or “doxing” are part of the risk (though the definition of these terms is disputed and depends on ingroup membership, itself a part of the ritual combat), implicating even one’s offline social status in internet competition. People often prefer actual death to social death; a loss of status (divorce, job loss, or other humiliation) often precedes suicide attempts.
Public threats of suicide are unfortunately common on the internet, often as a result of internet ritual combat “play” getting too heavy or personal. These threats function as a costly signal, reducing one’s status and often subjecting one to the risk of hospital prison. But threats of suicide are often effective as respite words – convincing the other side to lay off.
This use of suicide threats as ritual respite words puts people at grave risk, especially if they do not really want to die but merely want to get out of the ritual combat for a while. It also harms those who actually want to die and are thereby harmed by the suicide prohibition, prompting chants of “suicide is never the answer” and the like. What is needed is a new respite ritual in online ritual combat. This ritual must be costly – it must genuinely signal a willingness to lose social status, like crying or saying “mercy.” But ideally it would not subject the person performing the ritual to being locked up in hospital prison, which many find to be a fate worse than death, or of any dangerous contact with law enforcement whatsoever. It would not cheapen and degrade either human life or the right to die. The ideal respite ritual would be safe, but “costly” enough to be honest. And it would be emotionally compelling enough to be respected by others; not respecting the respite ritual must be regarded as unfair and shameful.
However you feel about suicide, public suicide threats are a terrible ritual for the purpose of taking a “time out” of internet ritual combat. I’m certain that we can do better.