By DeWayne Wickham
If you want to learn something about the impact of social media, you might try discerning fact from fiction in "The Social Network," a new movie that purports to tell the story of how Facebook came into existence.
But if what you’re looking for is a quick primer on the real-life impact that social media have had on our society, you don’t have to spend two hours in a dark theater surrounded by people who may not be your (Facebook) friends. Just type the names Tyler Clementi and Anthony Graber into a search engine.
What happened to Clementi and Graber is a troubling commentary on an individual’s expectation of privacy in a world overrun by technology that all too often peers behind the curtains of our lives. But their stories also are proof of just how much social media have reinforced Marshall McLuhan’s prophesy that “the medium is the message.”
Sadly, Clementi committed suicide after his roommate and another student allegedly used a webcam to surreptitiously transmit a sexual encounter the 18-year-old Rutgers University freshman had in his dorm room with another male. The roommate, Dharun Ravi, then used his Twitter account to say he would broadcast another live sex act involving Clementi.
Apparently distraught by this humiliating invasion of his privacy, Clementi used his cellphone to make a final posting to his Facebook page: “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.” Moments later he plunged from the George Washington Bridge into the Hudson River.
As tragic as what happened to Clementi is, his story has become an international cause célèbre, in no small part because it played out in cyberspace. Clementi complained about the video streaming of his sex act on a Yahoo gay message board, New York’s Daily News reported. And less than two weeks after he used Facebook to bid this life adieu, a Facebook page created in his honor had over 106,000 supporters.
Graber, on the other hand, wasn’t victimized by a peeping tom; he was accused of invading another person’s privacy. The victim in his case, prosecutors in Harford County, Md., said, was the state trooper who arrested Graber earlier this year.
Graber was stopped while popping wheelies and riding at 80 mph in a 65-mph stretch of Interstate 95. The officer who pulled him over, wearing civilian clothes, jumped out of his unmarked car with his gun drawn. Only after ordering Graber to get off his bike did he identify himself as a law enforcement officer.
All of this was captured on the helmet camera Graber wore that day. He posted the video on YouTube a week later. Soon after that, the 25-year-old Maryland Air National Guardsman was arrested and charged with violating the state’s arcane wiretap law, which prohibits recording a private conversation without the consent of everyone involved.
It didn’t take long for Graber’s case to be propelled through cyberspace — or for the Maryland attorney general’s office to say cops who perform their official duties in public shouldn’t have a legitimate expectation of privacy. Eventually, the charges against Graber were dropped.
Just as technology has turned our vast world into a global village, social media networks have given us access to a virtual town square. Clementi and his tormentors jockeyed for space there. Grab-er used it to rally people to his defense.
And because of this rapidly expanding medium, life for the rest of us will never be the same.