A Thin Line logoInformation propagates very rapidly on the Internet. That is one of the reasons marketers are continually trying to find ways to leverage the web, be it through Search Engine Optimization (SEO), social media, pop-up/banner ads, etc. Of course, this also applies to the old saying “bad news travels fast.”

By bad news I mean not only news but also a wide variety of negative interactions, many of which have been seen in the mainstream media with increasing frequency. Bullying, obsessive/harassing texts, sexting, spying, and so forth, are all examples of these behaviors.

As we see a generation of kids growing up immersed in the Internet, we are also getting to see the worst of schoolyard behavior going viral. Opinions vary on how to deal with this new phenomenon of online abuse. They run the gamut from laissez faire to the draconian clampdowns on all communication. The final course that gets adopted, I am sure, will end up being somewhere in the middle.

Let’s take the case of Andrew Shirvell, an assistant attorney general for the state of Michigan, for instance. He has waged a blogging campaign against a college student, Chris Armstrong. Armstrong is not only openly gay but is also the student assembly president at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. CNN reports this excerpt from the blog in question:

‘Welcome to ‘Chris Armstrong Watch,” Shirvell wrote in his inaugural blog post. ‘This is a site for concerned University of Michigan alumni, students, and others who oppose the recent election of Chris Armstrong — a RADICAL HOMOSEXUAL ACTIVIST, RACIST, ELITIST, & LIAR — as the new head of student government.’

Not quite what one would expect from a state-level employee. If you’ve the stomach for it, click on the link above and read the whole CNN piece.

Then there is the furor created by the 18-year-olds Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei. The two are charged with  planting a webcam in a Rutgers dorm and broadcasting a classmate, Tyler Celementi, having a same-sex sexual encounter. The classmate is believed to have committed suicide. Here’s the rundown on exactly what they did, as reported by Maureen O’Connor on Gawker:

Dharun and Molly have both been charged with invasion of privacy for broadcasting a classmate’s September 19 sexual encounter. (It’s illegal to create pornography without the subject’s consent in New Jersey.) Local sources report that the victim ‘was believed to have jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge’ (which connects New Jersey to Manhattan) shortly thereafter. Out on a $25,000 bail, Dharun has deleted his Twitter account, but by the magic of web caches, we found it — and Dharun’s tweets about how he turned on his webcam when his roommate asked for privacy, then went to Molly’s room and caught his roommate ‘making out with a dude.’ Local reports say iChat is the tool Dharun used to stream the video.

While the most recent and hence the highest-profile story of this nature, the fatality noted above is far from being unique. In Cincinnati, another harassment-spurred suicide was in the news not that long ago. Once more, the embarrassing data was of sexual nature. Ki Mae Huessner, a reporter for ABC, talks about it in her recent column:

A Cincinnati high school girl hanged herself in 2008 after a nude cell-phone photo she sent to her boyfriend was sent to 100 students at four different schools.

‘She was harassed. She was called names, filthy names,’ the girl’s mother said. ‘Things are thrown at her. Her reaction to all this was — when she would come home — anger, snapping. And I would ask her what was wrong and… she wasn’t divulging everything, just that she was having a hard time.’

Sad stories, and ones that are becoming more and more common. So, what to do?

As I said before, opinions vary. There are some interesting approaches being explored though, one of them by the media titan MTV. Last March, MTV launched “Over The Line?” — an interactive online resource empowering kids to address the spread of these digital abuses themselves. Here is a quick summary from the press release:

‘Over the Line?’ is a new, online space where young people can share, read and rate personal stories — from humorous to dramatic — about how cell phones and social networking sites are impacting their social lives. The application is an open forum where the audience can ask their peers if digital behavior is over the line, as well as read and rate others’ stories — to collectively draw the line between innocent and inappropriate. This application is available at ATHINLINE.org/overtheline or via Facebook.

With 50 percent of 14-24 year olds in a recent MTV/AP study stating they have been the target of some form of digital abuse, young people are disproportionally affected by this issue, but also best equipped to truly address its viral spread.

I think there is a lot to be said for the idea of crowdsourcing ideas and solutions from the affected kids themselves. For one thing, we should remember that most of them are digital natives. Raised in a time when the Internet is everywhere, especially on your phone, it is almost reflexive for them to use it.

Then again, not being a parent myself, I suspect that my initial reaction might be a bit flawed or lacking in perspective. Fortunately, I have a colleague who has done a good bit of work in this area, and who is a proud mother of two as well. Her name is Michelle Beckham, and she was kind enough to share her initial reaction to “Over The Line?” when I asked:

As a parent of two teens and the owner of a business that is situated at the epicenter of online social interaction, this website caught my attention. My company, C3: Creating Connections Consulting, a social media marketing firm, launched a seminar on Social Networking Safety & Reputation Management for Parents earlier this year that focuses on a lot of the issues raised in the A Thin Line site: cyber-bullying, sexting, flaming, etc. I have talked with many school administrators, parents and Cincinnati area non-profit agencies like the Council on Child Abuse and NECCO on the same issues that are being raised on the A Thin Line site. It is clear that we have a crisis building in our country as evidenced by teens who fall prey to online bullies and end up taking their own lives. I think that the site does a nice job of raising awareness and making teens truly think about their actions by spelling out potential consequences in language they can understand.

The content is great, the question will be whether kids will go to the site and then take action to make a difference. There truly seems to be an invisible line between private and public behavior and this blur will continue to cause major issues surrounding reputation management for teens. The media certainly doesn’t help. Some of the reality t.v. shows, including those on sponsoring company MTV, help in blurring the line of what is acceptable public behavior. And we adults wonder why kids are sexting…

It does make you think. Picture a world about a generation down the line. A world where Facebook, Twitter, and their analogues/successors have ensured that there is the easily available dirt on everyone. I wonder what kind of society we would end up with if it became impossible to hide one’s inevitable missteps. Would we become more understanding or more critical of our fellows? It would make the political process interesting, that’s for sure.

One thing I can say for certain is that there is no road map for dealing with this. Nothing like social media has ever impacted human society. The closest analogy I can think of is the advent of movable type, and even that is orders of magnitude smaller in overall impact (at least in my own opinion). As mobile phones rapidly approach our desktop computers in complexity, and exceed them in elegance, the pervasive reach of social media saturates the modern environment. Being representative of the population at large that means both a lot of good and a lot of bad.

So, what are your thoughts on the subject? What is the proper response to this sort of digital intimidation? What do you see the current situation evolving into? Let us know in the comments!

Source: “How a College Kid Livestreamed His Roommate’s Gay Sexual Encounter, Possibly Causing a Suicide (Updated),” Gawker, 09/25/10
Source: “Assistant attorney general blogs against gay student body president,” CNN, 09/29/10
Source: “Over the Line? MTV Launches Online ‘Morality Meter’,” ABC News/Technology, 03/15/10
Source: “Press Release – MTV Asks Youth To Draw Line Between Innocent & Inappropriate With New ‘Over The Line?'” Application,” MTV, 03/10
Image of A Thin Line Logo, used under Fair Use/Reporting.

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