The suicide of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi and the extensive reporting of the circumstances of his death reveal a complex web of issues that challenges us all.
This tragic story involves an invasion of privacy, a form of live sexting, cyberbullying and an insidious form of homophobia. That the new technologies of web cams, tweets, iChat and Facebook were involved has both sensationalized and further complicated the way the media is handling his decision to take his own life. If we are to learn anything from this horrendous incident, we will need to look deeply into the social, psychological and technological forces that converged on this young man's psyche.
Much has been written about the blurring of the line between what is personal and what is public. Some have predicted the end of privacy as we've known it for the past century or two. While there is a generational shift going on about what and how much to share with their friends, most folk expect that the intimate details of what they do or don't do in the "privacy" of their own room would not be broadcast, without their knowledge, to an audience alerted through Twitter or any other social networking service. It's not as if Clementi was a public figure, with a lessened expectation of maintaining his privacy. By all accounts, he was a quiet, shy, studious and gifted musician and student. Not exactly Lady Gaga.
Of course, he was gay. And here lies another highly disturbing aspect to this case. The news broke of Tyler's tryst on the same night that Cam and Mitchell kissed on Modern Family - seemingly demonstrating our collective tolerance of gay men showing their affection on a hugely popular network sitcom. Just as we congratulated ourselves on our post-racial sensibilities by electing our first black President, we've been feeling good (particularly the Millennials) about our growing tolerance for other people's sexual orientations. It's OK to be gay in 2010, right? Not so much, particularly as the growing number of cyberbullying stories linked to homophobic slurs show.
The role that the technology played in this and other bullycides is a disturbing one. The near invisible webcam provided the perpetrators a cloak of secrecy (their own privacy, as it were) while Twitter and iChat provided the means to broadcast the "event" to voyeurs who were as complicit as the roommate. And, heartbreakingly, Clementi used Facebook to "write" his suicide note, complete with an apology for breaking his family's heart for what he was about to do.
The technologies and the companies that provide them were not to blame for Tyler's death. But the tech industry has a moral responsibility to be part of the solution and not just a part of a wider problem that facilitates - however unwittingly - this kind of unspeakable behavior.
There are signs of some hope from this community. Facebook continues to update its protections and promotes its report abuse links. Many companies are funding anti-bullying campaigns and messaging. Middle and high schools are waking up to the urgent need to teach and demonstrate a new kind of digital citizenship, one that emphasizes - no, demands - tolerance, civility and respect for each other in person and online. If Tyler's death is to mean anything, we must all take up this urgent work and craft a new way to be human in this challenging, digital world.