Sunday, October 3, 2010

"It All Starts with a Tweet. The Rest Is History."

For Tyler Clementi, a former freshman at Rutgers University, the tweet symbolized both the beginning and the end.  On August 22, Dharun Ravi, Clementi’s former roommate posted the following twitter message: “Found out my roommate is gay.” On September 19, Ravi posted: “Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.” On September 21, he added the tweet: “Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12.” Ravi wanted to catch Clementi unawares in his sexual encounter and video-stream the latter. This was followed by a post on Clementi’s Facebook Wall that said: “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.” Indeed, on September 22, Tyler Clementi killed himself by jumping off the George Washington Bridge into the Hudson River.

In the month of September, after 13 year old California resident, Seth Walsh, 15 year old Indiana resident, Billy Lucas, and 15 year old Minnesota resident, Justin Aaberg, all died by hanging themselves, and 13 year old Texas resident Asher Brown shot himself dead, all because they were bullied in school for, amongst others, being gay and/or being perceived as gay, we cannot help but ask whether we can term Tyler Clementi’s case as one of cyber-bullying. This social networking saga does not stop here, for it was recently discovered that Tyler Clementi sought advice and help on the gay forum JustUsBoys. Using the nickname “cit2mo”, Clementi posted the following on September 21 at 7:22 a.m:

“so the other night i had a guy over. I had talked to my roommate that afternoon and he had said it would be fine w/him. I checked his twitter today. he tweeted that I was using the room (which is obnoxious enough), AND that he went into somebody else’s room and remotely turned on his webcam and saw me making out with a guy. given the angle of the webcam I can be confident that that was all he could have seen.

so my question is what next?

I could just be more careful next time…make sure to turn the cam away… buttt… I’m kinda pissed at him (rightfully so I think, no?)

and idk…if I could…it would be nice to get him in trouble

but idk if I have enough to get him in trouble, i mean…he never saw anything pornographic…he never recorded anything… I feel like the only thing the school might do is find me another roommate, probably with me moving out…and i’d probably just end up with somebody worse than him….I mean aside from being an asshole from time to time, he’s a pretty decent roommate…

the other thing is I that don’t wanna report him and then end up with nothing happening except him getting pissed at me….”

While other users on the forum advised him to report his roommate and to make sure that he wasn’t being spied on during his future encounters, Cit2mo replied:

“I feel like it was “look at what a fag my roommate is” –other people have commented on his profile with things like “how did you manage to go back in there?” “are you ok?”

and the fact that the people he was with saw my making out with a guy as the scandal whereas i mean come on…he was SPYING ON ME….do they see nothing wrong with this?

unsettling to say the least….

so I decided to fill out the room change request form….its not guaranteed that you get a change…and i don’t have to switch if I change my mind or work things out over the next week (they won’t start filling requests until next week)…but I figure I might as well as see what they can offer me….”

As more users advised him to the illegality of such form of voyeurism, noting the recent case of 48 year old Michael David Barrett who made peephole videos of Erin Andrews undressing, posted the videos online and was ultimately sentenced to 30 months in prison, Cit2mo responded by saying:

“oh yah, on the school website it says recording people where there is an expectation of privacy (bathroom bedroom etc) without the consent of everyone involved could….COULD…..result in being expelled

the only things is…there are too many ‘could’s ….the fact that he didn’t ACTUALLY record me (to my knowledge) and the fact that the school really prolly won’t do much of anything…. but anyway, i’ll be talking to my RA later today for sure…..

and yah, revenge never ends well for me, as much as I would love to pour pink paint all over his stuff…..that would just let him win…..”

Cit2mo ended up going to the RA (Residence Advisor) after Ravi’s tweet on September 21 and he added on the forum:

“so I wanted to have the guy over again.

I texted roomie around 7 asking for the room later tonight and he said it was fine.

when I got back to the room I instantly noticed he had turned the webcam toward my bed. And he had posted online again….saying….”anyone want a free show just video chat me tonight”…or something similar to that….

soooo after that…..

I ran to the nearest RA and set this thing in motion…..

we’ll see what happens……

I haven’t even seen my roommate since sunday when i was asking for the room the first time…and him doing it again just set me off….so talking to him just didn’t seem like an option….

meanwhile I turned off and unplugged his computer, went crazy looking for other hidden cams….and then had a great time.”

Tyler Clementi was an 18 year old freshman, a devoted musician and an accomplished violinist. He graduated from high school with honors and scholarships allowing him to join Rutgers University this Fall. Barely a few weeks into the academic year, his life has turned into this tragic technological story. The surreptitious broadcast of Clementi’s videos online begs many questions: on the one hand this is a clear case of persecution on the grounds of one’s homosexuality while on the other hand, it raises questions as to the nature of privacy and social networking. Ironically enough, this happened on the same day the Rutgers University began a two-year campus-wide project to teach the importance of civility to the students, with special attention given to the use and abuse of new technology.

From a legal standpoint the case is clear: The Middlesex County prosecutor’s office said Tyler Clementi’s former roommate, Dharun Ravi, and  Molly Wei who acted as an accomplice in the case have each been charged with two counts of invasion of privacy for using “the camera to view and transmit a live image” of Clementi. The most serious charges carry a maximum sentence of five years. Besides, Ravi was charged with two additional counts of invasion of privacy for trying a similar live feed on the Internet on September 21, the day before the suicide. Collecting or viewing sexual images without consent is a fourth-degree crime. Transmitting them is a third-degree crime with a maximum prison term of five years.

While the legal standpoint is clear, the ethical aspects of this case need to be unfolded, over and over again. We live in an age of social networking, where for the younger generations, social network and technological devices are taken for granted.; and yet, maybe it’s high time to speak of the responsibilities that come along with the use of contemporary communicative technology. We seem to be able to put our lives out there, so that they be recorded, without thinking of the potential consequences that may ensue. In the case of Ravi’s tweet for example, the same technology that allowed him to invade Clementi’s privacy (and arguably, offer himself and others a good time), proved him to be guilty. Indeed, Ravi may have deleted the tweets from his Twitter account, but nothing deleted on the Internet ever actually disappears. Every single picture and video posted and every single word written can be traced back through tracking sites and caches. Deletion over the Internet is thus a futile act.

Once we decide to put ourselves out in the cyber-world, we need to be constantly aware of the dangers, risks and responsibilities that come with (over)sharing. The digital trails that we decide to leave online can haunt us in many ways for decades to follow; above all, what we decide to leave as a digital trace can harm others too. Tyler Clementi himself was surprised that a video of him making out with another man, impeding on his privacy and outing him in public was just subject to gossip in the residence while the breach onto his personal life did not raise a single frown: “... the fact that the people he was with saw my making out with a guy as the scandal whereas i mean come on…he was SPYING ON ME….do they see nothing wrong with this?” While he further asks: “oh yah, on the school website it says recording people where there is an expectation of privacy (bathroom bedroom etc) without the consent of everyone involved could….COULD…..result in being expelled... the only things is…there are too many ‘could’s”-- we do wonder why the resident advisor did not move him from that room immediately.

However, the point here is that we all should be responsible for what we share online. While Wei and Ravi are certainly both intelligent youngsters, who have made to one of the most competitive universities in the USA, the fact remains that they probably did not consider all the risks involved in their act. These acts of entertainment can be a violation of another person’s dignity and over-sharing can be an act of cruelty.

We need to educate ourselves, and educate others. While we should be aware of Trojan Horses for example (which can be used to turn a computer on and off from another computer), we should also be aware that it is illegal to stream videos of people online. Similarly, it’s time to realize that witnessing such acts while not acting upon them make us accomplices too. Though legally speaking, we may not be criminalized for ‘watching’, ethically speaking we are still responsible for not acting upon an offense and denouncing it.

None of us are safe, and it is only up to each of us to make online social networking and digital sharing productive, efficient and not dangerous. As the world keeps moving further and faster into technological communications, our rights and responsibilities as citizens need to move from the purely social to how society now structures itself, i.e. through the medium of technology. While many of us are now talking of cyber-bullying and cyber gay-bashing, it may be high time to remember Clementi’s story and death as one that started with a tweet but that should not be relegated to the realm of a history to be forgotten, but rather, of a history to be remembered. 

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