The body of 17-year-old Taylor Behl was found yesterday after a month-long search. In custody for 16 counts of child porn is a 38-year-old amateur photographer who may have killed her. I’ve been keeping up on this case, partly because one of the roads leads back to deviantART, a site I was involved with for 4 years, both as a volunteer and paid administrator before stepping down in protest over business practices and upper management conduct.
Ben Fawley, the photographer who is being looked at for the murder, apparently had a sexual relationship with Taylor, who disappeared at the beginning of September. Taylor, for her part, used the name “tiablaij” on her Livejournal – jailbait spelled backwards. Fawley’s photos of Taylor can still be seen at deviantART in thumbnail form even though he deleted the full-size images.
Fawley, who goes by the moniker “skulz”, has an affinity for bones and skulls, listing “shallow graves” as one of his interests on Livejournal. Fawley has two children, and the idea that his computer housed images of a sexual nature involving one- and two-year-old children makes me want to put a bullet in his skull, but I digress.
This isn’t the first time deviantART has been connected to a murder.
In January, two teenaged members of deviantART strangled a classmate in the parking lot of a Taco Bell in East Moline, Illinois in the middle of the day. After the girl was dead, they dragged the body in a tarp to a wooded area and set it on fire. After six hours, the body had not burned completely so Sarah Kolb and Cory Gregory enlisted the help of a third classmate to dismember the body, put the pieces in a garbage bag and stuffed the bag in a manhole. They are slated to stand trial next month.
In 2002, a man masqueraded as a young woman in her early twenties named Madison. Using the name “Chaos” and several different pictures of various young women as “self-portraits,” the man preyed upon underage members of deviantART, successfully getting more than one minor male to send him nude photos.
While it can easily be argued that deviantART is simply a cross-section of society, with the good, bad and ugly all mixed in, I think there’s something else that needs to be looked at. deviantART (known as “DA” to members) allows many different kinds of art, including many things that to the average person would qualify as disturbing evidence of emotional and psychological problems. As a Policy Violation Administrator for 3 years, I saw literally everything you can think of, including underage nudity, grotesque corpse photos gleaned from the web and submitted as ‘original work,’ thousands of photos of sliced-open arms and other body parts and more. While DA does have certain guidelines for the submission of work, these rules can be ambiguous at times, and interpreted differently by different administrators.
DA boasts an environment where all are welcome to submit their work, be it a professional photographer like Chris Weeks, a renowned painter like Aaron Jasinski, or simply a eighth-grader who wants a place to show pencil or color drawings. Even though the premise is interesting – even revolutionary at the beginning – the trend at DA over the last few years has seen a serious rise in “crap art,” or low-grade work done by untrained amateurs with debatable talent.
The frightening thing about such an environment is not the number of poor artists, however. It’s the number of emotionally or psychologically disturbed members of the community who are able to find each other through the common interface of forums, comments, and submissions. Administrators can ban troublesome users and remove offensive pieces from public view, but with a community of tens of thousands of people it is nearly impossible to catch everything. Sadly, much of what is caught is whitewashed or simply ignored.
There are always signs. Sarah Kolb, murderer of her classmate, was involved for some months in a harrassment situation, leaving constant insults and even death threats on the userpages of other members. While her and the other parties involved were all banned repeatedly, the comments themselves remain, a terrifying insight to the mind of a killer. Another minor posted a series of photos depicting his minute-by-minute torture of a gecko lizard. The photos spanned a three-day period until the lizard finally died, much to the frustration of his captor. Ben Fawley’s userpage shows a 3D rendering of a human skull, with cryptic references throughout his commentary and journal.
In other sections of the site, one can find images depicting graphic violence and gore, like this one. Most of it is fake, but the genre is a magnet for emotionally disturbed teens who upload photos of self-mutilation, racism, and hate that are quite real. Even though administrators remove some of these pieces, many remain due to personal ideologies on the part of admins, differences in opinion between staff members, or simply because they fall through the cracks.
The question at this point must be asked: Does the conduct of its members reflect on the site and community itself? That is a question that must be answered personally by its members and its visitors. I believe in personal responsibility – no one else is responsible for your actions. That being said, I question the viability of a site that not only does not discourage the posting of violence-based “art,” but features it frequently. In my time as an administrator, I saw several children under 10 who were members of the community. A very large portion of the site’s population is made up of teenagers under 18. I personally engaged in several discussions with other members of the site’s management over the allowance of certain types of violent content. It was only after some time that a mature content filter was installed. However, there are ways around it, and the effectiveness of the filter is dependent on users and admins categorizing work as “mature.” There is no moderation at the point of submission, so pieces can go for quite some time without being noticed by admins or reported by other users.
During the first two years of its existence, deviantART did not have the same atmosphere that it does now. As it grew, more and more underage users were attracted. Many of these were lonely kids with severe emotional problems. The Help With Life forum on DA is constantly full of kids reaching out for help with everything from pregnancy to being gay to HIV to having suicidal or homicidal thoughts. Some users harbor even darker desires and demons, and many users talk about self-mutilation and other forms of self-abuse.
Where is all this going? Well, it’s my opinion as a former administrator that the level of violence-based art allowed at DA is contributing to the moral and emotional decay of minors. These kids spend every waking hour on the site in many cases. I cannot tell you how many times I banned a user for misbehavior or harassment, only to have them literally threaten suicide if I did not let them back on. Their entire lives are wrapped up in this site and its community. When you have minors with already troublesome home or school lives, spending hours a day in front of a computer at a site that features blood, gore, drugs, sex of all varieties and deviations, and violence, you’re asking for trouble.
It could be argued that TV, radio, ads and magazines all have their place in corrupting the minds of young people. I only can tell you what I saw personally, and from what I’ve experienced, Taylor Behl and Adrienne Reynolds won’t be the last time you hear the word “deviantART” associated with a murder case.