Everyone Caught in the Act: The World Peeks through the Digital Keyhole
Screenshot of Tyler Clementi’s Facebook Page
I find this image heart wrenching. At the top of New York Post’s cropped screenshot, Clementi’s last known public correspondence:
“jumping off the gw bridge sorry”
Below this, two comments on Clementi’s wall, time stamped three days after his suicide: a worried friend, telling Clementi to make contact; another friend, perhaps oblivious to the seriousness of Clementi’s status update, perhaps intending to lift Clementi’s spirits, posts an image of innocent horsing around.
Drawing on information that is time stamped on Clementi’s Facebook page and interviews with others close to the case, the Post offers this timeline for Clementi’s final moments:
On September 28th, the Star Ledger reported that two Rutgers students, Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei, had been charged with two counts of invasion of privacy for “secretly placing a camera” in another student’s room and then “transmitting a sexual encounter over the Internet.” Ravi was charged with another two counts for repeating the activity on September 21.
September 21st? Hold on to that date for a second. We’ll return to it momentarily.
The next morning, the Star Ledger ran a longer report with a few more details about the accused, citing a revised version of Ravi’s second tweet:
“Roommate asked for room again. Its happening again. People with iChat don’t you dare video chat me from 930 to 12,” Ravi said in the message posted to his Twitter account Sept. 22, one day after police said he tried to broadcast the second sex scene on the Internet. His Twitter feed has 150 followers.
Now, if Clementi had requested privacy for a sexual liaison for the evening of September 21st, it doesn’t make much sense for Ravi to tweet that he’s not to be disturbed between 9:30 and midnight on September 22nd. Ravi is charged for invasion of privacy on the 21st, not the 22nd. So, what’s the source of the confusion?
As discussed earlier in this meditation, there are two versions of Ravi’s second tweet regarding his voyeurism. There’s the one that the Star Ledger references, which is the same one digitaloptics recovers in cache memory and posts to Gawker on December 1st:
Revised Tweet, time stamped 8:17 PM, September 22nd, 150 Followers
And there’s the one that Gawker published on September 29th at 11:43AM, when it broke the story that the person Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei had spied on had committed suicide:
Original Tweet, sometime after 2:20 PM, September 21st, 148 Followers
With this information, we need to update and to revise the timeline of events begun a few posts back:
As the timeline makes clear, the revised version of Ravi’s tweet can only be explained as a retroactive effort to change the narrative.
The time stamp, however, exposes the revision as a falsehood: when Ravi tweets “Its happening again” at 8:17PM on Wednesday, September 22nd, Clementi is not next door making his bed and preparing for some mythical guest set to arrive at 9:30 that evening; he is in his car driving towards the George Washington Bridge.
At 2:07 on September 29th, the Star Ledger identified Tyler Clementi as the object of Dharun and Wei’s cyber-spying and reported that Clementi was believed to have committed suicide. His car, with his laptop and cell phone inside, was found parked near the George Washington Bridge. His wallet was found on the walkway on the bridge on the side heading into New York City. A full week after Clementi was believed to have jumped, his body had still not been recovered.
Three images began to circulate widely:
Clementi performing; Clementi graduating from high school; Clementi’s Facebook profile picture.
Hypotheses proliferated: Clementi was closeted and had been outed by his roommate; Clementi was being persecuted by Ravi and Wei because he was gay and thus was the victim of a hate crime; Clementi committed suicide after learning that his sexual encounter had been broadcast on the web. And now, nearly three months later, these intermingled hypotheses are alive and well, organizing the disparate data points we’ve been considering here into a tidy narrative about “cyber-bullying,” prosecution, and the corrupting powers of the Internet.
Barely nine hours after Clementi had been identified as the victim of cyber-spying, Gawker had another scoop–one which brought to light another public, online source with information about this case. Apparently, a forum on JustUsBoys.com contained a number of posts by a user, cit2mo, who had sought advice about how to handle his discovery that his roommate had used a webcam to spy on him while he was having sex. The time stamps and the content of the posts pointed to cit2mo and Clementi being the same person.
What is JustUsBoys.com?
The answer provided on the website is as follows:
JustUsBoys.com began its Internet life wa[y] back in the late 90’s as LinkMeAllOver.ca, a popular link directory of free gay porn sites. It has grown significantly in the years since and is now one of the most popular gay adult sites on the Net with a thriving community of people who love men.
JustUsBoys.com, or JUB as it is affectionately known, unapologetically embraces the beauty of the male body, the excitement of gay sex, and the sensual pleasure of gay porn. We don’t think porn is dirty, or something to be swept under the rug. Instead, we believe that porn is a legitimate, healthy, and enjoyable form of adult entertainment and can be an exciting part of everyone’s sex life. Gay porn has become a rather mainstream form of entertainment in the gay community, and we’re happy to do our part in our little corner of the Internet.
While there is no definitive public evidence available at this point that establishes Clementi was posting to JustUsBoys under the username cit2mo, Gawker cites an employee of the website who provides further reason to believe cit2mo’s posts were made by Clementi:
JustUsBoys.com does not collect much information when someone creates an account and begins to post, so we cannot confirm cit2mo was Tyler Clementi. However, the IP address for cit2mo does appear to resolve back to Rutgers which reinforces the other evidence that cit2mo and Tyler are the same person.
In the network-centric world, the transit from innocent victim to a user who frequented “the world’s largest gay porn portal!” takes less than a day.
And Gawker being Gawker, it made sure to fire a new image into the mix–cit2mo’s profile picture advertising his wares:
- I will be exposed to visual images, verbal descriptions audio sounds and other features and/or products of a sexually oriented, frankly erotic nature, which may include graphic visual depictions and descriptions of nudity and sexual activity and I am voluntarily choosing to do so, because I want to view, read and/or hear the various materials and/or order and enjoy the use of such products or features, which are available, for my own personal enjoyment, information and/or education;
Users of cam4, in other words, would be likely to see sex acts live streamed to their screens and could, just as well, broadcast their own activities to others.
Vanessa Grigoriadis states in “Everybody Sucks: Gawker and the Rage of the Creative Underclass,” an article written long before this image was posted:
Of all the ways in which Gawker is antithetical to journalistic ethics—it’s self-referential, judgmental, ad hominem, and resolutely against effecting change in the world—it pushes its writers to be honest in a way that’s not always found in print publications. Little is repressed; the id, and everything else, is part of the discourse (including exhibition and narcissism).
“Is nothing sacred?”
In his essay of the same name, Salman Rushdie, who might well be thought of as the 20th Century’s definitive iconoclast, ruminates on his changing relationship to the question of the status of the sacred. As one would expect from the author who revised Islamic religious tradition in his fatwa-producing novel, The Satanic Verses, his early response to this question was a simple “yes,” as in “Yes, nothing is sacred.”
Now, however, his experiences being on the receiving end of Islamic fundamentalism have led him to reconsider his answer. For Rushdie, a world where there is no literature, where writers are not allowed to produce and share their stories, is a world that has been effectively desacralized.
Because of the purpose literature serves for writers and readers:
Literature is the one place in any society where, within the secrecy of our own heads, we can hear voices talking about everything in every possible way. The reason for ensuring that that privileged arena is preserved is not that writers want the absolute freedom to say and do whatever they please. It is that we, all of us, readers and writers and citizens and generals and godmen, need that little, unimportant- looking room. We do not need to call it sacred, but we do need to remember that it is necessary.
While I myself am not wedded to literature as the sole–or even the best–vehicle for providing this service, I am struck that Rushdie’s reclamation of the function of the sacred, if not the term itself, relies on our heads remaining places where secrecy is still possible. A novelist is going to populate this secret space with voices, a visual artist with images, a composer with sounds, a choreographer with bodies in motion, a philosopher with ideas, etc. Imagining possible futures requires a space where one can work in private.
And yet, as we’re seeing in this extended meditation on the days leading up to Tyler Clementi’s suicide, in the network-centric world, privacy proves to be an illusion the moment one moves out onto the web. In the privacy of one’s mind, one is free to imagine everything in every possible way; follow those passing, half-formed, evanescent thoughts out into the networked-world and they are instantly preserved and made available to the world at large to use as they see fit.
In such a context, does thought have a future?
This piece may be read on its own or as part of a longer series on the end of privacy, which begins here: The End of Privacy: A Case Study (Tyler Clementi and WikiLeaks). A summary of all sections of the meditation may be found here: Annotated Table of Contents for The End of Privacy: A Case Study.
The New York Post article referenced above may be found here: Rutgers Student Filmed Having Sex Commits Suicide; 2 Charged with Filming.
The Star Ledger report breaking the story have be found here: Rutgers Students Accused of Using Hidden Dorm Camera to Video Sex.
Vanessa Grigoriadis article may be found here: Everybody Sucks.
Salman Rushdie’s essay may be found here: Is nothing sacred?