Example 2: Pro-Ana websites

Another example of a need to think different about the use of technology was posed to me by Heleen Riper, who was co-producer of the Seropositive Ball. Heleen Riper specialized in e-mental health and the following question was posed to her: "Should we facilitate the meeting of girls with anorexia nervosa via our website since we learn to know that they help each other starve?". Anonymously meeting via Internet is especially useful when people are confronted with a disease of behaviour that is socially unacceptable. For Anonymous Alcoholics, as was the case for people with HIV/AIDS at the Seropositive Ball, meeting via Internet can be helpful because one finds people who are faced with the same issue and social exclusion. People support each other, but what to do when people support each other in becoming sicker instead of less? These girls use the Internet and the anonymously meeting of each other not to nurture their well-being and survival, on the contrary, they help each other starve. I will not discuss the particular site but more in general comment on pro-Ana websites . On the pro-Ana websites (pro anorexia nervosa) a variety of information and communication is found on analysis of the illness, diets, exercise, calories meters, images from 'good bodies', forums, web logs, guestbook etc. Even though several sites give warnings that anorexia is a deadly disease, before you can enter, they are clearly designed to support girls with anorexia to sustain their starving practices.

You: the girls coming to the sites look for people who are like them, who face the same problems. The You is actually 'someone like me'. Many postings have a 'dear diary' character. Many postings give a sense of 'coming out', daring to show you have anorexia and not to be ashamed of it. The You on the pro-Ana websites are often actually a Me one wants to meet. The support the girls give each other is the support they like to receive themselves as well. They witness each other for support, and at the same time they are free from being witnessed in a judgemental way. The people they meet on the site are very importantly not people they meet in their own environment. They are seen, supported and free from recognition. There is no commitment towards each other. One could say these girls mostly communicate with themselves while being on these sites.

Time: the sites are available 24/7 and are open to visit for anybody. Some sites one needs to register for certain parts. When spending time on the site one looks, reads and possibly writes. One can visit whenever convenient. The time of the visitor is characterized by the personal life of that particular person. While spending time behind the computer and being immersed in the online environment one cannot eat or exercise. One is free to go and to come at any given moment. No time is given, no presence is required.

Place: the sites clearly try to give a sense of place; visuals are used to create a recognizable atmosphere (women's bodies, romantic drawings, gothic imagery, etc). There is a variety of sorts of information and communication and other people leave messages, which makes the place more real as well. The sense of place that the websites offer are not connected to a particular place in real life, the place only exists online but it does communicate atmospheres of western modern life.

Action: the action that the sites facilitate are looking, reading and possibly writing. This could also be rephrased at that the sites offer information and communication to help the visitors act in a certain way concerning their natural presence. I could also say that the sites trigger imagination, in such a way that the mental problem the anorexic girls have, are becoming more severe. Learning to know about each other's solutions for not eating and loosing weight, can trigger the catalytic effect that witnessed presence can cause.

One could argue that when one spends time in not in a particular place and when mostly communicating with one self without necessarily an action to be triggered, one is actually involved in a practice of self-reflection. Being involved in a practice of self-reflection requires a normative set of references to make such reflection possible. The set of references that is given by the sites are geared towards coming out, towards acknowledging one is anorexic. Anorexia is not approached a mental illness on these sites, even though they mention this, but towards the style of life when being anorexic. There is no other action than looking, reading and writing and the partaking in information and communication channels, whether this triggers certain actions or not remains to be seen. However, the intention of the sites as well as the intention of the users of these sites is questionable. And intention is part of morality, as professor Hamelink argued, so an ethical position can be taken.

This is a clear example of how witnessed presence can also have a catalytic effect that does not nurture well-being and survival. One could even argue, that despite the fact that they know it is not OK to starve yourself, they not only have taken a moral distance towards their own selves, but also to each other. The first question that I will not address here, is whether 'the right to life' includes the right to kill your self (UDHR 1948, art.3). For the organization that hosts the site it is clear that they are facilitating something that makes them uncertain about their own ethical position. Apparently, when one just gives opportunity to meet by way of technology, one can also nurture meetings with side effects one does not want to be responsible for. Apparently, also by just offering technology, one can be faced with deep moral problems that actually need a meeting in natural presence to be able to act upon. When really having to solve this problem, as the organization who facilitates the site has to do, a careful orchestration between anonymity and being recognized, between mediated and natural presence, between being witnessed and being in a private environment, is the only solution to this problem. Such orchestration sets out to offer a set of references that can help these girls when reflecting upon their state of being. The first step is taking the responsibility though. When I run a bar, or a club like Paradiso, not anything goes. I demand a certain behaviour and offer respect to people's dignity. When I see people suffering and it is within my possibility to act upon it, I want to do something, as most people will. Despite the fact that people take a moral distance towards each other in natural as well as in mediated presence, it is remarkable that the owners of the technology in this case, do feel the responsibility for what they facilitate. As in real life, there is no easy answer. The host of the site can decide to close it and the girls will find other ways. If the host of the site wants to take responsibility for what happens on the site and specifically what happens to the girls who visit the site, a careful orchestration is necessary. Such orchestrations are specific and situated, as I will argue in the last section of this chapter. To orchestrate such processes, in which another set of references is offered to these girls without jeopardizing the feeling of being acknowledged, is a highly creative and complex task.