For 18-year-old Tyler Clementi, the social network apparently became a web from which there was no escape, not after images of his sexual encounter with another man were broadcast live online.
It seems to have driven him from Rutgers University — which he had entered as a freshman less than a month before with hopes of playing in an elite campus orchestra — back home toward northern New Jersey. Last Wednesday night, he apparently walked onto the George Washington Bridge, the massive span that links New Jersey and New York City, and jumped more than 200 feet into the Hudson River, to his death.
Shortly before then, he posted a goodbye on his Facebook page: “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.”
MORE: N.J. student secretly taped kills himself
His suicide is the latest in a series of incidents in which youths appear to have been driven to kill themselves by online humiliation. It’s making many people — communications experts, students, parents and others — wonder whether anything is outrageous enough to shock Americans into realizing that the Internet can be as dangerous as it is fabulous.
“How many suicides will it take?” asked Andrea Weckerle, a public relations consultant who founded CiviliNation, a group that promotes responsible Internet use. “Enough is enough.”
“This is ‘cyberbullying’ on steroids. It’s the worst case I’ve seen,” said Donna Rice Hughes, president of Enough Is Enough, an Internet safety group.
“Part of what’s out there on the Internet is the Wild West. An entire generation is growing up on the Web,” said Richard Ludescher, a Rutgers dean who said his 16-year-old son can, at the same time, play a video game, listen to music, watch television and send instant messages to his friends.
In death, Clementi — shy, quiet and known by only a few of his dorm hall mates — has become a multipurpose symbol, claimed by various groups decrying various forms of bad behavior: at college, in the treatment of gay men and lesbians and, above all, on the Internet.
He killed himself three days after his roommate allegedly spied on him from another dorm room via a laptop video camera.
Throughout the tragedy, the Internet was a key player.
On Sept. 19, a Twitter account bearing the first name of his roommate, Dharun Ravi, 18, said: “Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.”
Molly is Molly Wei, 18, another Rutgers freshman. Like Ravi, she now is charged with invading Clementi’s privacy. Collecting or viewing sexual images without a person’s consent is a crime.
Under New Jersey privacy laws, transmitting images of nudity or sexual contact without the person’s consent is a crime that carries a maximum prison term of five years.
Attorneys for Ravi and Wei did not return calls.
“I don’t know how those two folks are going to sleep at night,” Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said, “knowing that they contributed to driving that young man to that alternative.”
Ravi also is accused of trying to webcast a second encounter involving Clementi on Tuesday, the day before his suicide.
A lack of civility
Besides facing criminal charges, Ravi and Wei face expulsion from Rutgers under its Code of Student Conduct.
The code, created in 1972, addresses behavior not on the university’s radar until the recent explosion of technology.
The code prohibits “making or attempting to make an audio or video recording of any person(s) on University premises in bathrooms, showers, bedrooms, or other premises where there is an expectation of privacy with respect to nudity and/or sexual activity, without the knowledge and consent of all participants subject to such recordings.”
Was what happened to Clementi a hate crime, bullying, a prank or all three? Or was it just the way things are now, when technology — tiny cameras, vast networks — allow a person’s most embarrassing moments to be spread around the world, in a permanent record for all to see?
“It’s a combination of a lot of things,” Hughes said.
•Gay rights advocates say Clementi was targeted for harassment because of his sexual orientation.
Steven Goldstein, head of Garden State Equality, a gay rights organization, called on prosecutors to use the state’s hate crimes law against Ravi and Wei.
He said Clementi was the victim of a hate crime, not the kind of a prank that, before the Internet, might have passed unnoticed.
“This student taped and mocked him,” Goldstein said, referring to Ravi. “Does anyone think that would have happened if (Clementi) was with someone of the opposite sex?”
Middlesex County, N.J., prosecutor Bruce Kaplan said hate crime charges were possible in the case: “We will be making every effort to assess whether any bias played a role in the incident, and, if so, we will bring appropriate charges.”
•To Rutgers officials, Clementi’s death put a spotlight on the need for what the university had officially kicked off on Wednesday: a program to promote civility among students.
“How could one roommate do this to another?” asked Rutgers spokesman Steve Manas.
Rutgers President Richard McCormick defended his university as “a community that is extraordinarily proud of its diversity and the respect its members have for one another. In fact, we have just launched a two-year dialogue focusing attention on civility.”
He referred to Project Civility, aimed at focusing the Rutgers community on how to get along and interact with itself.
The program began with a speech by the director of a similar initiative at Johns Hopkins University. Another session was scheduled Thursday for residence hall staff on how to make dorms “laboratories for civil behavior.”
In October, students will be invited to programs and talks that tackle bullying and the proper use of new technologies — including social media.
“We will test the hypothesis that a community-wide effort to cultivate small acts of courtesy and compassion in our daily lives will result, over time, in a more charitable campus culture,” the university wrote on its Project Civility website.
Sophomore Megan Jefferson said she was shaken by Clementi’s death: “I pay for a room at Rutgers. I feel like that should be a private space for me. The fact that a student was taken advantage of when he thought he was in his private space definitely makes me a little scared.”
Other students who knew Clementi were upset they didn’t do more to help him.
“I wish I could have been more of an ally,” said Georges Richa, a freshman from New Brunswick, N.J.
•To Internet safety advocates, Clementi was the latest casualty of the Web’s ability to abet defamation and shame:
Jessica Logan, an 18-year-old Cincinnati woman, killed herself in 2008 after an ex-boyfriend forwarded her nude cellphone photos to high school classmates.
Megan Meier, a 13-year-old Missouri girl, hanged herself in 2006 after learning that an Internet romance on MySpace was a hoax.
Anthony Scala, an Oregon State University student, was convicted of invasion of privacy in 2001 for using his laptop webcam to broadcast on the Internet scenes of his roommate and his girlfriend having sex in a dorm room.
‘The genie is out of the bottle’
Hughes said that unlike many victims of Internet privacy invasion who inadvertently are undone by previous indiscretions such as compromising photos, Clementi had no previous knowledge of his own exposure. “He never had a clue what was happening,” she said.
Hughes said the public doesn’t take the problem seriously enough.
Her organization this year rolled out a curriculum for adults — parents, educators and law enforcers — about the problem, she said, “and they’re not flocking to it.
“No one thinks it can happen to them or their family.”
John Halligan of Essex Junction, Vt., knows the consequences of cyberbullying.
Halligan’s 13-year-old son, Ryan, committed suicide in 2003 after he was ridiculed on the Internet. Halligan calls cyberbullying “a totally different experience than a generation ago, when these hurts and humiliation are now witnessed by a far larger, online adolescent audience. The meanness has always been around. The new gadgets make it different today.”
Concerned parents might be tempted to try to block their children’s access to the Internet.
Jim Steyer, founder of Common Sense Media, a group that educates families about Internet safety, said they shouldn’t bother, and that no matter how many kids hurt themselves, the Internet is here to stay.
“The genie is out of the bottle. This is where kids live today, period. … And as a parent you can’t simply shut it out and protect yourself from the brave new world of social media.
“That’s why education is so important,” he added. “To prevent future Tyler Clementi situations, teach digital citizenship.”
He said that means schools and parents must teach kids to “self-reflect before you self-reveal;” to respect others’ feelings and privacy online; to remember that what you do digitally never goes away; and that everything on the Internet isn’t true or accurate.
Police recovered Clementi’s body Wednesday afternoon in the Hudson River, just north of the bridge. A lawyer for the family did not respond to questions about whether Clementi was open about his sexual orientation.
The Internet continued to be a mixed blessing Thursday. Although more than 46,000 people clicked “like” on the newly established “In Honor of Tyler Clementi” page on Facebook, there also were predictions that the young man would go to hell, and claims that homosexuality is a sin.
Clementi was not a music major but played violin so well he made the Rutgers Symphony Orchestra, which is comprised mostly of graduate music students and undergraduate majors.
Saturday night, the orchestra will dedicate its concert of Beethoven and Berlioz to Clementi’s memory.
Clementi’s seat will be left empty.
Contributing: Jon Swartz, USA TODAY; Ken Serrano, Maria Prato, Rick Malwitz and Mike Davis of The Home News Tribune, East Brunswick, N.J.; The Associated Press