90dayjane’s cry for attention

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

THIS is the story of how I lost Jane before I ever found her.

“I am going to kill myself in 90 days,” she wrote on her diary at on Feb. 5. “What else should I say?”

Jane was young -- 24. She lived in L.A., had even put up a shot of her favorite local Starbucks, the Hollywood sign in the background. Her bio photo showed a pretty brunet, hair draped across her eyes, like a closing curtain. The blog’s macabre signature was an image of a young woman’s wrists, apparently tattooed with neat lines. Cut here.

“This blog is not a cry for help,” she wrote. “I’m not depressed and nothing extremely horrible has lead me to this decision. But, does it really have to?”

This Camusian anti-logic instantly lighted a netwide fire. became a flash point, drawing hundreds of thousands of views, dozens of speculative blog posts and a string of comments so dripping with suspicion, abuse and even anger that it was clear Jane had hit a nerve before she ever picked up a razor blade.

“I bet you’ll back out at the last second,” taunted one message. “We don’t need selfish people like you anyway.”

Another said simply: “Post nudes first.”

“Is this viral marketing?” asked a third. “Self-promotion? What is it going to be people?! The Internet is becoming too predictable already.”

He had a point. Here was another envelope-pusher with a sensational proposition. An interactive online suicide, complete with a media feeding frenzy -- with Web Scout as guilty as anyone. We were playing the part of Internet paparazzi, poised to help churn this thing into a full-blown pop pursuit. Jane even posted a redacted e-mail from a “huge television network” saying, “We would really like to meet with you and discuss some ideas. Can we make this happen very soon?”

“Make this happen very soon?” Jane joked. “Wow, and people think I’m morbid.”

They did. Lots of them. It wasn’t long before the copycats and spoofers arrived. 89DayJane appeared on the same day: “After my day 89, her day 90 will be old news.” Then there was 90DayTania (“I hope to set some standards for the internet suicide culture”) and 25000DayArthur (“I will live an extremely healthy lifestyle to give myself a chance of living long enough to kill myself.”)

But then, just when things were taking off, after only nine days, Jane pulled the plug.

In a post called, “Day 0: The Resolve,” she confessed that the blog had been a “personal art piece.”

“It was meant for me and (what I ignorantly thought would be) a small number of people,” she wrote.

The next day, the site had been taken down.

Determined not to let the story go, I contacted Jane to ask if she’d do an interview. She replied saying she was declining all media requests. “It’s more important for people to focus on those who need help in real life and listen to them instead of me.” Appended to the reply was a list of a dozen websites and discussion boards for the emotionally troubled.

Because, as it turns out, there is a kind of Internet suicide culture. Not of kids pretending they’re going to kill themselves but for sometimes extremely depressed people who have nowhere else to go to get support. Not to mention meeting places for bereaved friends and families of suicides. Spend 15 minutes reading those posts and you might get a sense of why Jane thought twice.

So I wrote to her: Hey, talking to me would be a chance both to tell your own story and to shed light on the larger problems of depression and suicide.

I confess I was also thinking -- just a bit selfishly -- here’s a Hollywood performance artist, clearly jonesing for attention. She’ll go for it.

A matter of proof

THE next day, she agreed to an interview, as long as it was by e-mail. Also, she wrote, she’d provide me excerpts of “the amazing e-mails I received,” especially the ones from “other media outlets and networks looking to profit.”

Great, I said, but I’d need proof she was who she said she was . . . perhaps with a quick chat on the phone? Just to make sure she wasn’t, say, a 50-year-old man.

This was a lock, I thought. Who in her right mind would walk away from the very respectable hype I was offering? With everyone on the Internet scrabbling to reach the summit of the ever-growing cultural dog pile -- who wouldn’t want to be famous?

It didn’t occur to me until several days later, when I still hadn’t heard back, that a better question is: Who would?

Reading through more initial comments on Jane’s blog -- I’d saved them to my computer -- I could see all the threats, hate and abuse she’d inspired. It was the kind of disgusting, savage stuff that online anonymity has made possible.

I thought of the case of Dino Ignacio, a high school student who, shortly after 9/11, had used Photoshop to create an image juxtaposing Sesame Street’s Bert and Osama Bin Laden. He was just playing around. But someone in Bangladesh found the image online and printed it on thousands of posters, making it into a symbol of American insensitivity. Ignacio, seeing his image on posters at pro-Bin Laden rallies, closed down his website, saying, “I feel this has gotten too close to reality.”

In her final post, Jane had said something similar: “This project must have made art seem like reality to many people.” Like Ignacio, she realized she’d unwittingly created a monster. But the author wasn’t 90DayJane. That was just a character.

Almost a week after she stopped responding to my e-mails, Jane reemerged. She had been locked out of her Yahoo account, she said. She would do an e-mail interview but not talk on the phone.

As this piece went to press, we were negotiating that. There was still a chance that she would go for the tantalizing and possibly lucrative attention that could come her way.

To see what happened next in Web Scout’s pursuit of 90DayJane, go to webscout.