I am no sociologist, but for the last few years I have been collecting anecdotes to validate a theory: That in the so-called Information Age we collectively have a society that is less informed than ever.
Now, just as the movie about the founding of Facebook, “The Social Network,” flashes on movie screens across the country, I have begun to test a corollary: That in the age of Social Media, we can look forward to a diminished quality of social life. My as yet unproven thesis: that, in an age when you can let your friends and family know your most intimate thoughts and concerns, an age when you can find a date on Saturday night without ever having to make a nervous phone call, you end up having fewer friends, less meaningful contact with family, and a reduced store of social capital in your community.
It’s only a coincidence that I’m developing my theory as the Facebook movie comes out. The real inspiration is the triple tragedy at Rutgers — the great loss of the freshman who committed suicide and the lesser loss (but a loss nonetheless) of the promising beginnings of two freshmen from West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North accused of spying on his intimate sexual activity.
Those of us familiar with the WW-P school district know that it is one of the most diverse places in the country, and most of us cannot imagine that homophobia was the root cause of this tragedy. But the social media, for sure, played a key role in the calamity. Forty-five years ago when I entered college (and no doubt 145 years ago, as well), a kid might have resented another kid who took over a shared room for his personal social endeavors. Pranks were planned, cruel statements were made, revenge was had — all before an audience of half a dozen peers.
Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei not only had the capability of taping Tyler Clementi’s romantic interlude, they also had the power to disseminate that tape across the campus and around the world. In the early days of the Internet people used to say that the beauty of it was that no one you interacted with could ever guess that you were an 800-pound gorilla. Today it’s different. Internet users, particularly the young ones, leave a lot of clues about who they really are. And, as someone pointed out, commenting on “The Social Network,” everything on the Internet is written not in pencil but in pen.
In the world of social media, everyone has a bullhorn, and temptations to use it abound. Every print journalist has had a moment of personal pique — a botched transaction with a bank, an airline reservation gone awry, etc. — that spurred the idea for a story to damn the offending entity and exact some personal revenge. But then the idea is presented to an editor. Sorry, we don’t print customer complaint letters, the editor says.
Unfettered by editors, and often cloaked in anonymity, the participants in the world of social media rant and rave at will. If I were a trained researcher trying to objectively measure the value of the social media, I might compare the quality of comments about a story posted online with the quality of letters to the editor of the same story in a print edition. I would give points for expressing a clear opinion, no matter what its point of view. I would add points for every fact cited in making the argument. I would take away points for every incorrect fact presented.
I’ll let the social scientists devise that study. At this point all I can do is offer up some anecdotal evidence. One example: A recent article in our sister paper, the West Windsor-Plainsboro News, described the awarding of a $354,000 grant to the WW-P school district. It generated eight online comments in the week after its publication.
Despite this seeming piece of good news for the district, most of the posters used it as the launching pad for criticism of the district and its students. Facts and logic flew in all directions, and the subject veered from the grant to the Rutgers students accused of cyber-spying. The eighth comment in the string was most frightening:
“I’d just have to say, you go to college to OPEN your mind, not to CLOSE IT. These two clearly didn’t learn that in the first few weeks of school. Pathetic, really. Ravi and Wei should be ashamed of themselves and so should their families. What were they teaching them at home? Pack up and leave the country, please.”
Perhaps it takes a cyber-bully to know a cyber-bully.
The Rutgers tragedy shows how the social media can be used against someone or possibly some group of people. But doesn’t it also provide a community to rally support for a beleaguered individual? Perhaps it does in some instances.
We do not know exactly how the social network functioned in Tyler Clementi’s case. But some evidence suggests he turned to the network — specifically an online forum for gay men called JustUsBoys.com — in the days before his death. Posts from a user with the screen name “cit2mo” seemed to coincide with Clementi’s situation.
“So the other night i had a guy over. I had talked to my roommate that afternoon and he had said it would be fine w/him. I checked his twitter today. he tweeted that I was using the room (which is obnoxious enough), AND that he went into somebody else’s room and remotely turned on his webcam and saw me making out with a guy.”
After several more posts, the user indicated he had notified the dorm’s resident advisors about the cyber-spying and asked for a room change. That seemed like progress, but a day or so later Clementi made the following post to his Facebook page:
“jumping off the GW bridge sorry”
Just as I know nothing about sociology I also know nothing about psychology. So take my pop psychology with a grain of salt: Could the Facebook post have been a last-minute call for help, a plea that he thought might launch an intervention? To Clementi the fact that his cry went unheard on the Internet might have been a confirmation of his terminal hopelessness. To me it would be just another sign of the social network’s inherent limitations.