In 140 characters or less, Tyler Clementi spoke his final words to a world that would only come to know him through the media frenzy that followed. A student at Rutgers, Clementi committed suicide following the shameful broadcast of a secretly recorded sexual encounter with another man. He was 18.
The circumstances leading up to Clementi’s death present an interesting question to the internet’s youngest and most prevalent denizens. The twelve-and-up crowd have the strongest grasp of- and ties to- the fluid mosaic that is the internet. In this, a question of right and responsibility emerges. If the privilege of internet is available to all, where do we draw the line as to what can be done with such massive power; and how can individual misuse be held accountable?
Social deviancy is nothing new. As with regular society, vandals and the occasional psychotic can and do make an appearance in the online realm. However, an all-too-common misconception is that the actions taken in this ‘virtual’ world have no concrete repercussions. Some things cannot be retracted; images, video, and text is as easily copied and reposted as deleted. A split-second mistake can have unending reverberations. On the other side of the screen, innocent and naive teenagers, trusting in a public with absolutely no credit to its name, share their lives and intimate thoughts, only to be humiliated and see their reputations suffer a beating.
As individuals entwine their lives ever-tighter in this abstraction, however, the consequences of mere ‘bullying’ are only bound to become more resonant for the families, courts and nations that must sentence in their wake. The present rate alone demands an answer as to how the miscreants, arguably culpable of homicide, can be brought to justice. Deaths like that of Clementi, Phoebe Prince, and dozens of other students tormented via text, chat, or the general slander that life in this ‘social network’ permits, demand it.
We can bring this dilemma back into context with relative ease. In consideration of any number of factors that may have pushed Tyler Clementi to end his life, his original voyeurs, Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei, have been charged with invasion of privacy, an allegation that may escalate as the trial continues. While it may be impossible to say whether their disturbing acts were the primary proponent of the suicide, the nature of what they have done is unquestionable in its potency and malice.
Until the day we have a ruling in this very gray area, truly no other limit exists to restrain excess and impulsive abuse than conscience itself. If Tyler Clementi’s haunting path to self-destruction is not enough evidence for the necessity of human decency-whether in public or anonymity- it is difficult to say that any more will suffice.