Thursday, October 7, 2010

“The Web.” Thursday, Oct. 7, 2010.

“Information on the Internet is subject to the same rules and regulations as conversation at a bar.” -George Lundberg

Two high-profile suicides took place while I was out of town. Rigoberto Ruelas, a dedicated teacher for 14 years; and Tyler Clementi, a freshman at Rutgers College, both jumped off bridges to their deaths. But their suicides had something else in common – both had been humiliated by information on the Internet.

I attended high school and college pre-Internet. Back then, as now, no one wanted negative information about themselves getting around. Gossip and bullies existed. We knew how it felt to walk into a room and find out that our privacy had been compromised, or that people had spread bad things around about us.

But that’s where it usually stopped – a room. Unless someone made photocopies of a photo or a page out of a diary and delivered them to hundreds of people by hand, rumors could only spread so far. In a worst-case scenario, we could attend a different school and start over fresh.

Not today. Because of the Internet, literally the entire world had access to a website claiming Ruelas was a bad teacher, and another one showing video of Clementi having sex with another young man. And because of the Internet, these are bells that cannot be unrung. Once something is “out there” in cyberspace, it’s out there.

So it’s a little ironic that the Internet is known as “the Web.” Because in many ways, it’s just like a spider web – grabbing things and holding them, so they can be devoured.

Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t see the media, mass or social, as the root of all evil. I don’t believe that a normal person will watch “Saw” or “Pulp Fiction” and choose to torture people as a result. People can blame antisocial behavior on a movie or a TV show (and they do), but plenty of people have blamed violent behavior on the Bible as well – and have for centuries.

At the same time, while it might feel reassuring to be able to blame one thing – the Web – for the death of these two individuals, the truth is much more complex. Los Angeles psychologist Kita Curry said that suicide is rarely the result of a single issue. "There's almost always an underlying (mental) illness associated with suicide," Curry says.

For these people, things build up until there is a tipping point: "People take their lives because suddenly they're going to lose their house or they've been arrested or their wife has left them," Curry said. "But if not for that, it would have been something else. Because the real problem is that they don't have the emotional resources to deal with it. There are others dealing with those same problems and they don't take their lives."

So how much responsibility do people bear when they post negative information about others online? Perhaps these individuals would have become suicidal anyway, because of some other problem. Nobody knows for sure. But there’s a good reason why your mother taught you that if you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all. I don’t want to have blood on my hands. Do you?

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