Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Go Off the Record

I'm partway through a fascinating article in the last New Yorker. It's about the suicide of Tyler Clementi, a college freshman who briefly was in the news last year when he killed himself after his roommate posted embarrassing stuff about him online. Tyler was gay, and the whole incident fit right into a national dialog we've been having about bullying, particularly in relation to the "It Gets Better" campaign.

The article is kind of hard to read. Emotionally, I mean… recounting a suicide victim, even a stranger, is taxing. It's very well-written. It's also a very surprising article. I'm probably like most people in that I saw the headlines and had a basic understanding of the story, but my understanding was flawed; like most people, I thought that the roommate had posted a secretly-taped sex video of his roommate; he actually didn't. What's really getting me about this article, though, is the amazing volume of online evidence that's been turned up, and is now part of the public record thanks to filed court documents. If the article is still available (it will eventually go behind a paywall), I highly recommend looking at it, just to get some idea of the long digital trail that perpetrator and victim left behind.

(I realize that "perpetrator" and "victim" are strongly-charged words, and some people will rightly disagree with them. As the article makes clear, there's a great deal of ambiguity in the full story of what happened.)

So, what's in the record? Every IM conversation that both people had held. A lot of this is from conversations that they'd had about one another. Dharun, the straight roommate, went on an online fishing expedition once he received his roommate assignment. Armed only with his roommate's first name, last initial, and email address, he was able to find his online identity, locate posts he'd created on message boards going back nearly a decade; eventually, he figured out that Tyler was gay… before the two of them had ever met, or even responded to an email. Throughout this whole process, Dharum was chatting on IM with a friend, and so we have a running dialog about Dharun's activities and his evolving opinions of Tyler: he's poor. He's stupid. He's a wuss. He's (horrors!) gay. The callousness of both Dharun and his friend are really shocking.

Similarly, we also vicariously eavesdrop on Tyler's IM conversations with a younger female friend of his; in one touching and awkward conversation, Tyler and Dharun have moved in together, and Dharun is ignoring Tyler; Tyler is trying to think of something to say to Dharun, but is too shy to break the ice. Many of us have been in this situation, but here we have an actual real-time description of it, as Tyler self-effacingly writes about his predicament.

All this is pretty heartbreaking or horrifying in the context of the story we're reading and the tragedy we know is approaching. It's a more subtle or disquieting effect when I think about how it applies to my own life. As I read this article, I couldn't help but think about the long electronic trail I've left behind. How many times, when I've been joking around with good friends online, have I typed a sentence that, devoid of context, could one day return to haunt me? It wouldn't be difficult to cull through the tens of thousands of IMs and emails I've written, pull out a dozen or so quotes, and portray me as… well, as whatever you wanted to show me as. A monster, a sissy, a bully, a Democrat, a Republican, an atheist, a fundamentalist Christian. Heck, even just going through the 600+ blog posts I've written on this site over the last few years would provide tons of fodder for the scandal mill if I ever were to become newsworthy (though I do pity the person who'd need to sift through all the treatises on Sid Meier's Civilization, postmodern literature, and British detective shows).

The simple fact is, I approach all IM, and to a lesser extent email and blogging, as conversational. I spout off whatever occurs to me, which may or may not line up with what I'd choose to write if I was working in a medium that felt more permanent and less ephemeral. Because I'm usually communicating with friends, who know my idiosyncrasies and with whom I share a deep well of valued popular culture, a lot of what I "say" draws on the accumulated shorthand of our relationships, a kind of Chris King argot: when I say that I'm bringing the Necronomicon to a cabin in the woods, I'm not REALLY admitting to a desire to engage in demonic rituals; I'm invoking the night back in high school when we watched an Evil Dead marathon over Halloween, and implicitly expressing optimism that we'll have as much fun now as we did over a decade ago. When I warn someone that I'm made of poison, I'm not REALLY expressing a desire to kill everyone I come in contact with; I'm invoking Topato, who… um… okay, it's a little complicated. You have to already know it, or it's impossible to explain.

Anyways. The article has been a huge cause for reflection on my part, and I'm still not sure what the take-away should be. I've been aware forever that online information stays around indefinitely, and that anything you write can be traced back to you; but there's a huge difference between knowing a fact, and having it presented to you in the form of a tragedy. Part of me wants to do a full sweep: take advantage of Google Chat's "Off the Record" feature, use a PGP plug-in for AIM, don't post on message boards, delete my Facebook account. Really, though, I benefit a lot from all those things. I've debated before about "Off the Record," and have decided that there have been enough times that I've been happy to look up a conversation months later (or, conversely, been bummed when I haven't been able to find a chat lot from AIM or another service) that it's worth keeping that data in Google's hands. And, really, the statistical odds of my babblings ever becoming of interest to the public at large are so small that my even considering the possibility is probably megalomaniacal of me.

But, again, that's just my own reaction. I think that this is a big deal, and something that will only grow more important as our online identities take a larger share of our total identity.  Everyone should think long and hard about what kind of trail they're leaving behind, and what that trail says about them.

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