Recently, a teenager's death created significant attention for bullying through new media technologies.
On Sept. 22, Tyler Clementi, a freshman at Rutgers University, NJ, jumped off the George Washington Bridge after his sexual encounter with another man was live streamed by his roommate who dialed his Webcam from another friend's room. What was coincidental with this tragedy was that, according to New York Times, "The news came on the same day that Rutgers kicked off a two-year, campuswide project to teach the importance of civility, with special attention to the use and abuse of new technology."
Clementi's tragedy is not the only one triggered by new media. Almost exactly one year ago, a 15-year-old British girl, Holly Grogan, being bullied at school and on her Facebook account, committed suicide by jumping off a road bridge. According to The Boston Globe, "Researchers at the National Institutes of Health last year found that 14 percent of bullying is now electronic and of a ‘distinct nature from that of traditional bullying.'"
For college students, social networking sites have become an indispensable part of our lives. But we should realize that, since the first day we opened our account and started to "friend" others, our privacy was no longer private. Social networking sites require us to file out our personal information. Also, many of us see such Web sites as a perfect venue to express ourselves. We post thoughts and pictures online to share with friends. Yes, we may have control over how much we want to share. However, we can never be sure about how other people will interpret our information.
This may sound cynical, especially because we belong to Wilson, a small and intimate community. Nevertheless, we should be aware that the Internet is not just about the small community we are in. It is very likely that a lot of our personal information is accessible to the entire cyber space. Back to Clementi's case, he was a very quiet young man and there were only a handful people who actually knew him in his class. However, what his roommate did put him on the spot and potentially every Internet user could see him. His privacy was thus intruded by numerous people who did not even belong to his life, and thus the consequence was fatal.
When you share your private information online, you may think it is safe because, if you have set your account only visible to your friends, they are the only people that can see it. However, if for some reason you do not set your privacy carefully, or there are people on your friend list that lack civility or have less awareness of privacy law, they may transmit the information through all kinds of new technologies. In this sense, even though we are in a relatively save community, our privacy is still at risk.
To use social networking sites morally requires people to firstly respect diversity and differences. Garden State Equality, a gay rights group in New Jersey, claimed that Clementi's death was a hate crime. The chairman of this group, Steven Goldstein, even questioned: "[d]oes anyone think Ravi [Clementi's roommate] would have taped and mocked Clementi if he was with someone of the opposite sex?" Although the investigation has not shown if this is the case, it is obvious that the direct cause of Clementi's death was the exposure of his personal life. Ellen DeGeneres said in her show on bullying that, "we can't let intolerance and ignorance to take another kid's life."
The Internet brings people huge amount of information which of course includes various ways of lives, choices and something foreign. If people are not prepared to respect diversity, then people have not utilized the most precious function of the Internet—to inform people of things they do not know.
Social networking sites enable us to find where we belong in an invisible but powerful world. We could belong to a small community online while at the same time in a bigger organization. However, no matter what we choose to join, it is because we trust what we have chosen. It is a simple knowledge that we should treat others the way we want to be treated. Although the cyber space is abstract and invisible, it does not mean we can hide our value and virtue behind the screen.
The fact is, we interact with Internet individually; as the result, we would be more vulnerable and feeling isolated when being attacked by others in such environment. Therefore, it is important to remind ourselves that there is always a vivid life behind each name on our friend list and we have to respect it. Our lives are going more and more online in an unprecedented speed, but after all, we are still interacting with people and dealing with things in real life.
There are many approaches to interpret Clementi's tragedy. We see the drawbacks of social networking Web sites, the society's bias towards minority, people's lack of knowledge in law and respect for others, etc. But all in all, it reveals a lack of education and realization in civility in such a materialistic and high-speed world. Our technology is improving and our material life is flourishing. However, are they running too fast that they leave the virtue of humanity behind? This is something we all need to think about.