A little more than a year ago,
On September 29th, 2010 Gawker ran a story with the headline:
How a College Kid Livestreamed His Roommate’s Gay Sexual Encounter, Possibly Causing a Suicide.
Dharun Ravi’s trial begins this week and is sure to receive international coverage. The series of essays explores what the original coverage of this tragedy has to tell us about the changing definition of privacy in the 21st century.
This was quite a scoop for the online magazine which self-defines as a “live review of city news and Manhattan culture.” A double scoop actually.
The story that was breaking in the mainstream media was that Tyler Clementi had been spied on by his roommate Dharun Ravi, who then posted the encounter to the web. Gawker had the same facts but was already on to the question of how, technically, such an invasion of privacy could have been managed. And, having asked the question, Gawker’s staff writer Maureen O’Connor pulled Ravi’s twitter feed from the web and then shared this screen shot with her readers:
In the lingo of the trade, a “born digital” entity–Gawker–had lapped all the beat reporters laboring away for traditional “dead tree” (i.e., born when Paper was King!) news organizations. Although New Brunswick is a world away from Manhattan, O’Connor was the first to the digital scene of the crime, snapping the screen shot that all the other news outlets–New Jersey’s included–were then left to copy and pass on.
What is Twitter? And why would anyone use it?
On the lecture circuit for the past two years, I spent the first year making fun of Twitter as one more example of the mind-numbing inanity that the Web-based environment fosters. Touted as a form of “micro-blogging,” Twitter allows its users to broadcast, instantly and globally of course, whatever they’re doing in 140 character bursts, i.e.:
- Eating a sub.
- I’M ON THE TRAIN!
- Just who does Snookie think she is anyway?
It’s an easy target.
For folks who don’t just want to fire their observations out into the void, they can add a hashmark (#) to their tweets followed by a keyword or two (remember, you’ve only got 140 characters to work with, including spaces and punctuation). This enables others tweeters to find tweets on topics of shared interest so that global exchanges can be orchestrated on the fly.
Right now, 6:30AM, Thursday, Dec 2nd, 2010, here’s what’s “trending” worldwide on Twitter:
I had no idea what the first two hashes signified. A little sleuthing reveals that K Swiss is a shoe company (who knew?) and the big news is that they’ve signed a deal with “legendary HBO cult hero” Kenny Powers (I still don’t know who this legendary figure is. I can report, however, that he snarls). So, excitement this morning about that shoe deal beats out #England2018, where the tweets are all about the location of the World Cup in 2018. Presentations by competing countries currently underway for this honor, I gather.
It’s the end of the year, so in between buying all manner of junk no one wants or needs, folks are pausing to share with the world their highlight disappointments: “losing some friends. But i don’t love them anymore, so ;),” “The Weather;” “no flying cars,” “that awkward moment when you got in the van and there was no candy.”
And, well, of course, it’s Britney’s birthday, so gotta send her the love.
Twitter is, as I’ve said, an easy target.
And, believe it or not, it becomes an even bigger target for ridicule when it gets celebrated for its value in the classroom. Would you believe that the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) has highlighted using Twitter to teach Dante’s Inferno?
“Class, what would Dante tweet now that he’s entered the fifth circle of Hell?”
“@divinelady Yo! Beatrice, another scorcher. Miss you! xxxxooo #nightmarevacations.”
Tweeting the Inferno, really?
This is just using technology to use technology which is pretty much the history of technology in education to date.
So, for a year, I thought Twitter was only ridiculous. But, now that I’ve figured out how to use it, I rely on it. Cutting through the chattering of the globe’s monkey brain, one finds countless micro-communities sharing information, resources, and maps through the otherwise impenetrable thicket of noise on the web. The point of Twitter is not posting; it’s following.
I follow folks who are interested in literacy, publishing, education, graphic design, information, social philanthropy, journalism. It’s like having your own army of the world’s smartest research assistants all working around the clock on stuff that interests you. What’s Chris Anderson–the founder of TED, Ideas Worth Sharing,” the best educational resource on the web–reading today? What’s Tim O’Reilly, the most-thoughtful person in the publishing business, recommending today? And Glenn Greenwald, intrepid political critic: what aspect of our broken government has him stoked this morning?
Far from exposing a world populated by brain dead zombies, Twitter provides a virtual space for the free exchange of ideas. How? Because people who understand its potential see the 140 characters allowed not as a place to share thought pared down to its essence (2b or not 2b That is the ?), but rather as a vehicle for sharing links–links that, if necessary, the poster can shrink down to a handful of characters using free online programs like TinyURL!
In other words, if compelled, here’s what Dante would tweet once from Hell:
“Trying to figure out place in cosmos. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/8789 #epicpoetry”
Two days ago, a guy I follow on Twitter posted this:
Julian Assange, the guy behind WikiLeaks, had a blog until 2007. Wayback machine still has it. http://wayback.archive.org/web/jsp/Interstitial.jsp?seconds=5&date=1192857576000&url=http%3A%2F%2Fiq.org%2F&target=http%3A%2F%2Fweb.archive.org%2Fweb%2F20071020051936%2Fhttp%3A%2F%2Fiq.org%2F*
A pointer to primary source material. Out there in plain sight, if you know where to look for it. (In this case, the source material was uncovered by folks who accessed one of the Web’s memory centers–the so-called Wayback Machine, named in homage to Rocky and Bullwinkle.)
So, back to Dharun Ravi, who had an open Twitter account, which means that all of his tweets were available to be seen by anyone who cared to look. At the time in question, late September 2010, he had 148 followers who were the direct recipients of his tweets about how he was passing the time. He also had a twitter list, wwpnorth2010, which allowed him to review tweets, it seems safe to assume, by the West Windsor Plainfield North High Class of 2010 alums he was following.
Two final factiods.
Although it is not known when Ravi opened his Twitter account, it’s fair to say that Twitter was one of his central means for communicating with his friends. In the Gawker screenshot, he’s posted ten times over a five day period, most of the posts meaningful only to insiders in his community (e.g. “Finally beat Watchung”). The second factoid is that he accessed his account across a wide range of devices and platforms: from an iPad, from his phone, from the Web, from Tweetdeck (which allows you to monitor parallel streams of hashmarked tweet threads), and from Power Twitter (an add-on for the Firefox browser that allows you to tweet video and photos). Ravi likes to be online and likes to stay in touch.
For obvious reasons, Gawker and then those who came trailing after have focused on the two tweets where Ravi directly refers to spying on his roommate:
Roommate asked for room till midnight. I went into molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay. 6:17 PM Sept. 19th.
Then, three days later:
Anyone with iChat I dare you to chat me between hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes, it’s happening again.
I’ll return to these tweets, momentarily, but I’m struck by the stream that surrounds them. Between the tweet about spying on his roommate and his invitation to others to join in, there are three tweets: one directed to a friend that is obscure (“WTF is its head doing stuck through a fence?”), another announcing the purchase on some high end cleats (Mercurial Vapors), another praising Rutgers for providing a sumptuous seafood feast. As I said, this is one use for Twitter: making jokes and reporting on what you’re buying or eating.
It’s puzzling, however, that this is all that appears after Ravi’s announcement that he’d used his webcam to spy on his roommate. None of his 148 followers had anything to say in response? Do we know this for certain? We don’t. We know only: spied on roommate with Molly; responded to tweet; bought shoes; ate a lot of seafood.
There’s another tweet on the screen capture that warrants our attention. 2:33 AM, Sept. 17th, Ravi tweets:
Sitting here stoned out of my mind with a buddy watching top 100 viral videos. Pandas sneezing is what college is about.
It’s even better with the sound.
Because then you can hear the Panda sneeze.
This video has been viewed 87,393, 439 times at the address I visited. It’s been reposted tens of thousands of times. It has been modified and repurposed. It’s provided countless nanoseconds of amusement the world over.
And, of course, it’s what college is all about.
What is a digital tattoo?
It’s anything and everything you’ve ever posted online that can be traced back to you. Did Ravi ever imagine that his tweets would be captured, preserved, and displayed for all to read? In the clutter and rush of the Web, it’s easy enough to imagine that no one’s paying attention. And, those who want some reassurance that their thoughts and pictures are safe have the option to lock their Twitter accounts so that their tweets only go out to their followers. But this reassurance, like the reassurance that you can protect your posts on Facebook or anywhere else, is a fiction. Anything a follower can see on the screen can be captured and redistributed, whether the poster approves or not.
Since Ravi’s account was open, all Gawker had to do was google “Dharun Ravi” and snap a picture of what they found. And, even if they hadn’t done this, Ravi’s subsequent attempt to take his public postings down was doomed to fail. Why? Because some of his 2,000 tweets are preserved on the open Twitter accounts of his 148 followers. Because there’s a bottomless hunger to take what is private and throw it into the public domain for all to see.
What’s a digital tattoo? It’s having, for the rest of your life, your name pop up in any google search of Tyler Clementi.
N.B. While this entry may be read on its own, it is a continuation of a meditation that begins here: The End of Privacy: A Case Study (Reflections of WikiLeaks and Tyler Clementi). A summary of all sections of the meditation may be found here: Annotated Table of Contents for The End of Privacy: A Case Study.
*A reader subsequently pointed me to an amazing write-up on Assange’s politics that draws heavily on this Wayback material by Aaron Bady, which may be may be found here: Julian Assange and the Computer Conspiracy: “To Destroy This Invisible Government.”
Maureen O’Connor’s story, since updated, may be found here: How a College Kid Livestreamed His Roommate Having Gay Sex Possibly Causing a Suicide (Updated) . I haven’t yet figured out how to find the previous versions of the article; in this instance, the Wayback Machine has proven to be a dead end.
There are any number of lists of the top 100 youTube videos. This one only gives the Sneezing Panda tenth place which, doubtless, has been the cause of many a heated debate the world over: Top 100 Most Iconic Internet Videos.