I have been haunted this week by the story of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers’ student who committed suicide after he was outed by his roommate on the internet. I am not alone: posts expressing outrage, sadness, and reflection have popped up in my feed reader. Any thinking, feeling person can’t help but feel compassion for what this young man went through and grieve at his passing.
As I move through my own studies, the juxtaposition of the way discussions of new media are held in the world of Ed Tech with the way new media was utilized by Tyler’s roommate is striking. Sickening. I use a webcam frequently to pursue my studies, organize study groups, and, when I start assisting in online classes again, to teach. In this case, the very same technology that I rely upon for my own learning and productivity, to create my own little supportive community, was instead used as a weapon to intimidate, bully, and dehumanize this young man.
High School, when I look back on it, seems to have taken at least half of my life. I graduated 15 years ago, yet those four years still loom large. I imagine that for Tyler, his years in High School might have been equally fraught. Being out in High School isn’t easy, and I don’t know if he was or not, but even if he wasn’t, the taunting and bullying that occurs around sexual orientation is brutal. I imagine he bore some of that. I imagine, that like I did, Tyler told himself to hold on until college, until that utopia where life would start over and people wouldn’t be so cruel. And then, mere weeks into this new life, that hope was shattered. I imagine that Tyler believed his whole life would be this way. That it would never ever end. That he would forever be the brunt of horrific, cruel bullying. I imagine he believed that it would get better, that he finally had the opportunity to express who he truly was, that he might have been falling in love, and everything good was instead turned terribly, terribly bad.
social media amplifies all of our communicative powers, including the power to exclude and shame and victimize others, to gang up on them in masses and make them feel worthless and violated, or beyond the pale of belonging. it is just a tool, like a pen, except what we scrawl here is always public. what we scrawl here always has human effects and consequences.
As an online student and an online teacher, I find myself turning over and over this story in my head. The very networks that might have sustained and helped Tyler were also the source of his bullying. As more of our lives move online, how do I notice when a student is struggling? How do I reach out? How do I help? I am grappling with this now. I became a teacher to help. I want to help.
Dan Savage and others have harnessed the new media tools to help at the YouTube channel, It Gets Better. Also, please check out the Make It Better site to start to heal these awful wounds. We all have an opportunity here to let our young people know, it gets better and we are here to help.