In September of 2010, the news came that a promising Rutgers student named Tyler Clementi had committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington bridge. The news at the time tied his death to some actions of his roommate, who had set up a webcam, caught Clementi engaging in homosexual activities with said webcam, then tweeting about what Clementi was doing. Clementi said goodbye via his Facebook page. It seemed like the whole case was something new for the world of social media to worry about – the use of social media networking sites by bullies at all age levels. More and more stories started surfacing about children who were horrifically bullied and abused online to the point where they decided to take their own lives.
This past week, Clementi’s roommate, Dharun Ravi, was found guilty of several different faults, including invasion of privacy and tampering with evidence (he went back and tried to delete some of the tweets he had sent out about Clementi and his webcam). Ravi will be sentenced on May 21st.
Here’s the thing. Even though the story originally was framed as a sort of “the evils of social media” story, I’m not 100% sure that’s really the main story. Now, it’s great that the dangers of social media were introduced, but if you look at the story as it was told during the trial, most of Ravi’s actions could have been carried out before the advent of Twitter. Indeed, many of his actions could have been carried out before webcams.
The lack of privacy in college
Here’s the odd reality about living in a dorm – you are sharing space with another person whom you may not know at all, and the space you are in may only be 20 feet square or so. You have enough room for the beds, the desks, maybe a mini fridge, and that’s about it. You shower with everyone in your hall in a lot of cases. To put it mildly, privacy is something you learn to live without during your college years. As fate would have it, these years are the years when you might need your privacy the most. It is during these years that people begin to identify themselves as individuals separate from their parents and families. They begin to explore their sexuality and all sorts of other things. Life can start to get messy, and just at that point, you’re shuffled into a tiny living area with no dividing door or curtain.
When I was in college, we didn’t have Twitter or Facebook. AOL IM was still pretty magnificent as technology went. Our campus “broadcast” system was also mind-blowingly exciting. You could broadcast a message to everyone in your dorm with one simple click. Wow! But a case like Clementi’s still easily could have happened. The walls of our rooms weren’t exactly soundproof. You saw who came into a room and who came out. It wasn’t rocket science to figure out what had happened. Add to that the intense desire to gossip, juvenile jealousies, and general twenty-something craziness and there was plenty of fertile ground for drama of the most dire kind. In fact, during my freshman year, when I lived in an all girls dorm, one woman in particular was often singled out and made fun of because other women assumed she was gay.
Cutting to the core
Perhaps the main role social media played in the events surrounding Tyler Clementi’s death is that instead of just broadcasting his actions to a group of friends or to a dorm, Ravi, by using Twitter, was essentially broadcasting something veyr personal to everyone in the world who could see his tweets. This amplification of what could easily happen on any campus in the world is certainly a problem, but to my mind the priority remains the bullying itself. The webcam is something that existed beyond the realms of social media. The sense of discomfort Ravi clearly felt that homosexual relations were going on in a room he also lived in is something that we should talk to our kids about. And of course, there is the question as to why Tyler Clementi’s wish to have a new roommate after he discovered Ravi’s actions was not granted. Maybe college dorm counselors need to be trained in new ways when it comes to intervening in complex situations like the one Clementi and Ravi were involved in.
None of these things corresponds directly to social media though. Social Media is merely the amplifier of offline actions.
I am not sorry that Clementi’s death caught so much attention in the online world. I am not sorry that his tragic case made people question whether social media is truly safe for our young people to use. I’m not sorry that the case raised questions like social media privacy – when should a parent stop monitoring their child’s social media world?
But I think there are OTHER issues that may be just as weighty. Is there a better way to house students on college campuses? Is there something amiss in our society that Ravi could put up a webcam and not think he was invading anyone’s privacy because the webcam was up in *his* room?
We are living in complex times, and our young people seem to be in danger of bearing the brunt of it. That is the overriding concern. Social Media is just a small piece of the puzzle.
Do you agree?
Image Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dborman2/3258371445/ via Creative Commons