On December 21st, 2010, the Home News reported that Tyler Clementi’s parents filed notice of their intent to sue Rutgers University. In the notice, the Clementi family’s lawyer contends that the university failed to protect Clementi from the “unlawful or otherwise improper acts perpetrated against” him. The notice goes on to say:
it appears Rutgers University failed to act, failed to put in place and/or failed to implement, and enforce policies and practices that would have prevented or deterred such acts, and that Rutgers failed to act timely and appropriately.
So far in this meditation we’ve established that anyone who owns a computer equipped with a webcam and access to the Internet can use that camera to capture images and send those images to another location–to “video chat” or to spy or to maintain surveillance.*
The likelihood that a student entering college in the fall of 2010 would bring a computer to campus not so equipped is quite small. How small? Imagine buying a cell phone today that doesn’t also include a camera. You could do it, but you’d have to be pretty determined.
We’ve also established, on the unproven assumption that cit2mo is the avatar Tyler Clementi used when visiting the justusboys website, that Clementi was aware that his roommate, Dharun Ravi, had spied on him and had seen him kiss another man. We know further that Clementi had read Ravi’s tweet about what he had seen and the responses to Ravi’s tweet, where Ravi’s followers appeared to have been more scandalized by Ravi’s rooming with a gay student than by Ravi’s clear and undisputed violation of Clementi’s privacy.
Finally, we are at the point in our reconstruction of the timeline for the final 48 hours of Clementi’s life where we have learned that, following the advice he received on justusboys, Clementi filled out the form to request a roommate change.
If Rutgers is culpable in Clementi’s death, it would seem that it could only be for whatever transpired after September 21st at 9:28 AM, when cit2mo reported to the justusboys forum that he had decided to fill out the room request form.**
I will be working through the remainder of the timeline in the remaining posts any information that is publicly available. But, today, I want to consider what to make of the news regarding the Clementi family’s intent to sue.
How does Rutgers respond to news of the intent to sue? A spokesperson made the following prepared statement:
“We at the university share the family’s sense of loss of their son, who was a member of our community. We also recognize that a grieving family may question whether someone or some institution could somehow have responsibility for their son’s death. While the university understands this reaction, the university is not responsible for Tyler Clementi’s suicide.”
How does the imagined community that is New Jersey, formed through the projection of a “deep, horizontal fraternal bond,” take this development? Over at the Star Ledger, New Jersey’s largest paper, a free-for-all breaks out the moment the news appears in the online edition:
In less than 48 hours, nearly 300 readers have shared this development with their collections of friends on Facebook; another 30 readers (there could be some overlap here) have tweeted the news to their followers. These readers are acting like virtual town criers, except that no riding or screaming is required to get this news out in front of the people in their virtual communities. Just click on the appropriate button and the news is on its way.
Then what happens?
Here’s a bit of what happened as those 30 tweets linking to the article went out:
Tweets linking back to the news story on Clementi Family’s Notice of Intent to Sue: Search term: “Tyler Clementi’s Parents”
This is the result of a single search. Additional searches with other terms would provide a fuller picture of how rapidly this story was passed on to others as recommended reading.
This single slice suffices, though, to illustrate how quickly, how far, and how variously information moves in the Web 2.0 world.
The tweets linking back to the story in the screen shot above appear in all the varieties the 140 character tweet limit allows: the headline and the link only; the headline, link, and one or more hash tags (#TylerClementi, #endgaybullying, #Rutgers, #socialmedia, #celebrity, #hot, #entertainment, #celebrities, #peoplemag, #celebs); some combination of the aforementioned and a comment:
- Again, grief turns into frivolous legal action.
- Is this a good idea? How far do the uni’s responsibilities extend?
- That’s so awesome that Tyler Clementi’s parents are doing that!!!
- i support them
- New Jersey 101.5 tweets requesting “your take on the lawsuit now”
- Such a sad story, but I agree with Rutgers
Tweets come in from: Celebrity Fever, Celebrity News!, Virtual Papparazi, AwesomeAmazon: Great Amazon Deals, the New York Daily News, Gawker Gossip, The Huffington Post, fashion2040, dailycuteoutfit . . . . In sum, everywhere and nowhere.
FBshared.com tweets reports real-time trends in sharing on Facebook. Its tweet? That the news item was one of Facebook’s most shared items, in the category “Hollywood,” on December 22nd, having been passed on 674 times.
What happens after the story breaks about the intent to sue?
The news spreads like wildfire.
But, to what end?
That is, what does all this tweeting signify? Is this support for Clementi’s family? For Rutgers? More gossip for the celebrity trough? Does anybody actually read the linked article? Does this public forwarding of information lead anywhere at all?
If we still lived in the one-point-oh, print-centric world and we wanted to know how news of the Clementi family’s suit was received across the nation, we wouldn’t even have this much information to work with. We’d have the article in the newspaper, maybe a subsequent letter or two to the editor, an editorial perhaps, maybe the transcript from a call-in radio show. The upside of information scarcity, though, is that you’re free to guess, hypothesize, worry over, or celebrate what the few pieces of information you do have access to might mean. So, too, with the screenshot above: absent any additional research, you’re free to speculate about what the tweets signify.
(#celebrity? #hot? Arnold was right; all that’s out there really is the great unwashed masses.)
To contrast the one-point-oh, print-centric, information-poor world and the world we now occupy, recall that Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy, which launched literary criticism, was written in response to the social upheaval Arnold saw all around him during 1867-1868. With the constant threat of chaos in the streets, Arnold argued passionately for Culture as the counter-vailing force to Anarchy:
So whatever brings risk of tumult and disorder, multitudinous processions in the streets of our crowded towns, multitudinous meetings in their public places and parks,–demonstrations perfectly unnecessary in the present course of our affairs,–our best self, or right reason, plainly enjoins us to set our faces against. It enjoins us to encourage and uphold the occupants of the executive power, whoever they may be, in firmly prohibiting them.
Famously, Arnold had a name not only for the multitudes who were having their meetings in public places and organizing their demonstrations–these faceless members of the working class, he deemed The Populace; he also had names for the middle class, The Philistines, and the aristocrats, The Barbarians. Given the scarcity of information about how members of any of these groups thought about the matters of the day, Arnold was free to represent them and their thoughts as he pleased, all in the service of supporting his argument for the central importance of the critic.
Who the critic claims to speak for has changed many times over the past one hundred and fifty years, but the central opposition that motivated Arnold continues to drive the enterprise: the critic speaks on behalf of the voiceless. Sometimes the voiceless are construed to be members of oppressed groups; sometimes the voiceless are the dead; sometimes what isn’t voiced is to be found below the surface of what has been written, concealed by the unconscious or by ideology or by an instrumental reading practice.
In the print-centric, information-scarce world, the simplest of questions about anything that has been written down can generate a lifetime of research and speculation, regardless of how this voicelessness is defined. Take, for example, the question a member of anyone of Arnold’s three classes might ask:
Is Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare’s best play?
There’s no knowing for certain.
Did Shakespeare think so? There’s no knowing for certain. We know so little about him and virtually all of what we do know comes via his plays, which he may not have written.
Did audiences of the time think so? There’s no knowing for certain. The responses of those who crowded into the Globe are gone without a trace.
How was it received over the centuries hence? There’s no knowing for certain.
We might say that scarcity of information is all that is needed to launch the enterprise of literary criticism. After years of reading the relevant scholarship and researching the scarce primary source materials, the literary critic is in a position to speculate with authority about cultural matters and to provide insights unavailable to non-critics, precisely because those non-critics have neither the time nor the means to track down the same scarce information the critic has.
The days when we had no way to access how readers responded to what they’ve read are gone, though. This is one simple way to distinguish between the 1.0 world and the 2.0 world: can you figure out what a given person was thinking when?
Can we know how Dharun Ravi’s followers responded to his tweet that he’d seen his roommate “kiss a dude. Yay”? cit2mo didn’t have to guess what those responses were: he could read them as they came in, in real-time. We know that it was the experience reading those responses–and not the spying itself–that convinced him to initiate the process of getting a new roommate.
Can we know how the readers of the Star Ledger responded to the news that Clementi’s parents had filed a notice of intent to sue Rutgers for its failure to protect their son?
While the early reports of Clementi’s suicide generated public outpourings of grief, on the one hand, and public vilifications of Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei, on the other, news of the parents’ intent to sue triggered all manner of rage about our litigious society, about those who commit suicide, about those who pretend to know more about the law than they actually do, about parenting, about the internet, about the Star Ledger.
Clementi’s parents can, if they so choose, read the following:
- Let me sue the Giants because of the pain and suffering they gave me last weekend as I watched them give up 28 points in 7 minutes…..I had an upset stomach that lasted for an hour. They created a hostile environment for me in my living room. Think I’ll win?
- I guess tyler’s parents finally found out he was gay…it’s a shame he was too cowardly to live out in the open. Sad.
- Sue Rutgers because your son was a coward? Sue yourselves.
- They should be suing the two involved parties, not Rutgers. No one could predict this would happen and it could have happened at ANY college or even in a private home… Rutgers/The State of NJ has a lot more $$ than the kids involved. The parents are going for the big bucks, which totally p***es me off. I felt sorry for them losing their son this way, but the school is NOT responsible for the parties actions, who are ADULTS, and should be put in jail for invading this young man’s privacy.
Rude, cruel, dismissive, ill-informed on the facts of the case, suspicious, cynical, ugly? Sure, all of the above–and this is just a sampling from the most recent twenty responses. You can collect more of the same, if you’ve got the stomach for it.
There’s measured sympathy:
- Nothing is as devastating as losing a child, but Rutgers is not to blame. The parents, family and friends of Tyler should rally and take steps to advocate for the dignity and civil rights of gay persons. This is a country that mocks, humiliates and denies the freedoms and rights of our gay citizens. They would honor Tyler’s life by honoring and respecting WHO he was.
There’s an argument over the meaning of in loco parentis which terminates in a citation of the definition from Wikipedia. There are accusations of homophobia, counter-accusations of pandering; there’s a rewrite and resubmit, voluntarily undertaken to taunt “ballgirl,” who has written in support of the family:
- This is what’s wrong with the country. Family cant handle that their poor little baby jumped off a bridge. It must be the fault of some deep pocket corporation that we can punish. Just keeping the story alive will make Rutgers want to settle no matter how pathetic it makes our poor little Tyler look. I know it’s harsh but the truth sucks.
In the court of public opinion, the parents receive an endless flogging.
Who are these people doing the flogging? Why do they feel so motivated to write?
Virtually none of those who post identify themselves by name. They are writing behind the apparent safety of their chosen online avatars. They are anonymous, sort of.
Choose any comment at random:
Will they sue the George Washington Bridge next? How about George Washington himself?
Who would write such a thing?
Who’s is slice111? If you click on his pseudonym, you get taken to a page that collects together all of his posts to The Star Ledger. There’s no information that identifies him personally, but there’s a record of his reading interests left behind by his 67 posts, starting with the one above which he posted at 6:31AM on December 22nd.
Who gets out of bed ready to publicly lambast the parents of a child who recently committed suicide?
slice111′s previous posts are primarily about the New York Giants. He was upset when the Minnesota Vikings’ stadium collapsed under the snowfall because the rescheduling of the game interrupted his viewing plans for the next day.
This just shows how far the NFL is up favre’s butt. They want to show favre on TV. Just gives him one more day to rest and get ready for the game. It stinks that I will miss the TV shows on Fox on Monday night. They should put the game on another station that no one watches.
(Favre is the much storied quarterback for the Vikings, playing the final games of a remarkable career.)
slice111 likes Howard Stern, Paul McCartney, hates the Jersey Shore and everyone associated with the show, and had strong feelings about Ravi and Wei when the Clementi story first broke:
These two **** have the book smarts but not an ounce of common sense I see. Suprising. Their time at Rutgers is probably the only time they had away from the studies that their families demanded of them. They probably never had alone time with a sports team or other social activities. Probably always study study study. This was their chance of some freedom on their own and they failed. (Asterisks in original.)
slice111′s world of reference arrives through the screen. His primary mode of commenting in this persona is mockery. The legal system disgusts him, except when it is locking up figures from reality TV. Ravi and Wei need to be sent back to where they came from. The Jets are overrated.
Is slice111 anonymous? My guess is that he’s revealed a lot more about himself, in aggregate, than he realizes.
This is just a taste of what it’s like out there in the world of information superfluity. From each comment, a possible portrait; from each tweet, a web that branches out into other communities.
What happens to agency in the world of Web 2.0?
We have to accept the fact that it has been transformed.
Everyone who hooks into the net is granted the power to post his or her thoughts instantly and to have those thoughts globally distributed. And those thoughts, in turn, get recorded and stored in ways and places that have no analogue in the paper-based paradigm.
Did Dharun realize that Google’s cache would hold onto his Twitter feed, recording his retroactive revision of his original post? Did Clementi realize that his final post to Facebook would be quoted in news reports around the world?
The fingers move over the keyboard and then, when the words are released out onto the Web, they take on a life of their own.
The magnitude of this change has disrupted business as usual in every major contemporary institution: the government (WikiLeaks), the banking industry (global financial crisis), the military (Abu Ghraib), and education at every level (Wikipedia).
In each venue, the 1.0 institutional response has been to proceed as if we still lived in a world where the final destination for thought is paper, which can be kept track of. But, in each arena, information cascades out in an endless, uninterpretable flood, because the destination for thought has shifted to the screen.
What would a 2.0 response to Tyler Clementi’s suicide look like?
The 2.0 world allows for collaboration on a scale never before imagined. There’s no bringing Tyler Clementi back, but the university and the Clementi family could work together to establish a center for fostering creative uses of social media. If such a center were named after Tyler Clementi, his memory would be permanently attached to the project of learning about how to build vibrant, thoughtful networks that seek to improve the quality of life in a world that no longer affords the privacy that prior generations assumed to be a necessary condition for forming a resilient, ethical self.
In a world without privacy, is there an ethics? In a world where everything arrives via the screen, what will become of introspection? In the networked world, is there any state but distraction? any activity but surfing through endless seas of information?
These are open questions and, as such, are just the kind of questions that will drive 2.0 institutions, where mastery and unknowing are understood to go hand in hand. By contrast, the 1.0 versions of the family, the school house, and the court house respond to our current challenge by collectively rejecting such openness, agreeing in advance to save the appearance that they’re in control so that things can go on as before.
The 1.0 world seeks fault; the 2.0 world allows for collaboration across time and space. Collaboration is neutral; it can be used for good or for ill. For reasons idealistic or pragmatic or both, higher education could be leading the way in exploring productive uses of the multiplying powers of collaboration.
That’s a goal for the new year, eh?
This is part of an ongoing meditation on the End of Privacy. While it can be read on its own, you might enjoy starting at the beginning, where I lay out the project of thinking about privacy in relation to examining information about Tyler Clementi that is openly available on the Web. This mediation starts 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 time stamps for the justusboys’ posts are all in Greenwich Mean Time +1 and thus need to be converted, something I didn’t realize at the time of this post. The conversion is explained here.
You can, of course, access Culture and Anarchy in its entirety on the web. A searchable version may be found here.
The Home News coverage of the intent to sue may be found here.
The Star Ledger coverage, with comments, may be found here .