A few days ago an 18-year-old Rutgers freshman, Tyler Clementi, committed suicide after his roommate surreptitiously broadcast him "making out with a dude" on the Internet and publicized it on his Twitter account. His roommate, Dharun Ravi, and another Rutgers student, Molly Wei (both 18) are being charged with invasion of privacy, carrying a potential sentence of up to five years in prison.
Clearly this is a tragic situation all round -- for Clementi, the victim of callous adolescent bullying converging with digital media, but also for the alleged culprits, who probably had no idea of the stakes they were messing with in their collegiate prank. Now Clementi is dead, and I'm guessing the pranksters are in a state of shock, being berated by their tearful families, or praying desperately that a jury won't delete the next five years of their lives -- years when they should be graduating, finding a job, maybe getting married and starting a family. In short there is nothing good here, nothing happy in this situation. It's just bad.
But it also provides evidence of the huge gulf which separates real human beings from their online personas. That's based on Gawker.com's tentative reconstruction of Clementi's final conversations on an online gay message board, following the spying incidents. Fittingly, there's probably no way to determine whether Clementi is in fact the online poster "cit2mo," leaving this narrative rather ambiguous. But if it's accurate (as it seems to be) it says a lot about the difference between real life and the Internet.
After the first incident where Ravi spied on Clementi, "cit2mo" posted that "I'm kinda pissed at him" and "it would be nice to get him in trouble," while conceding "I could just be more careful next time" adding, "I mean aside from being an asshole from time to time, he's a pretty decent roommate" (in fact this secret broadcasting would already constitute a misdemeanor under NJ law, as other posters informed him). On this occasion the poster concluded that it would be worse to report his roommate and have the complaint ignored, leaving them in an awkward living situation.
A few hours later, "cit2mo" said he found homophobic responses to the video on his roommate's online profile, and noted the irony: "the fact that the people he was with saw my making out with another guy as the scandal whereas I mean come on... he was SPYING ON ME... do they see nothing wrong with this?" In the final two posts, after his roommate tried to spy again, "cit2mo" said he asked for a new housing assignment, adding -- "meanwhile I turned off and unplugged his computer, went crazy looking for other cams... and then had a great time."
Does any of this sound like a call for help? As the Gawker commentators pointed out -- not really. We'll probably never know the sequence of events leading to Clementi's final decision, but there's frankly nothing (in these posts, at least) suggesting an individual in real distress, let alone considering suicide. And that's the whole point: presuming that "cit2mo" and Clementi are in fact the same person, is it even possible to reconcile these mostly measured and sensible online statements with the hopelessness of a young man about to kill himself?
Well, I can't: no matter how you read the online posts, there's no way to make them fit with what happened shortly after. But it's not hard for me to imagine a young man who feels comfortable enough with an online community to express his frustrations, while at the same time striving to appear old and mature enough, calm and collected enough, not to be fazed by some middle-school pranks -- still concealing his true torment. Thankfully most of us will never be forced into this particular kind of dissimulation. But surely we all strive to put a brave face on when we can -- in smaller ways, for smaller stakes, but dissimulation all the same.