The other day, I went for coffee with Jim, the man who found Tyler Clementi's body floating in the Hudson River in New York. Jim and I met via Twitter about six months ago and have remained in Twitter contact since. Tyler's death was tragic and painful for the gay community, and I found it strangely comforting and appropriate that a gay man discovered Tyler's body.
This post isn't about Jim or Tyler, but rather the factors that led to Tyler's death. While there is always speculation as to what could finally push someone like Tyler over the edge, we are left to consider what might have been different, and what we could change for future generations.
This post is about social media and ethics.
A Look at Streaming Video
Streaming video has become an increasingly popular platform over the years. In fact, GLAAD and the NOH8 campaign have begun using this technology to broadcast their respective events so that fans, both near and far, can participate and feel a part of the event.
But streaming video has also raised concern in regards to its use. In the case of Tyler Clementi, streaming video, which according to the Associated Press was Skype, was used to broadcast Tyler's sexual encounter with another man over the Internet.
Upon reading the story, I was shocked at the irresponsible and callous actions of Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei, the students responsible for streaming the video. Didn't they realize the gravity of their actions? Did none of their peers step up to tell them that what they were doing was wrong and repulsive?
It seems that they did not think twice about it, nor did their peers. As a culture, we have become so used to sharing anything and everything that it seems we've forgotten to draw boundaries around what is private, and what is decent. It seems that our technology has gotten ahead of us, and our culture has yet to catch up. Where people's personal sense of decency fails, there is no agreed upon standard of etiquette or ethics to fall back upon.
It has taken major events such as Clementi's death to bring the responsibilities of new technology into people's awareness. This issue is especially important for children, teens, and young adults, who have more savvy and access to the Internet and social media platforms than their parents, but less common sense about how to use it. And until LGBT people are fully accepted, it is particularly relevant to address tolerance and respecting the privacy of those in the LGBT community, or those suspected of being LGBT. The questions on the matter are endless but are important to consider as social platforms evolve.
Some Video Streaming Sites
To determine whether or not there was any hope that Ravi and Wei could have been encouraged to consider the consequences of live streaming, I scoured a variety of video streaming sites to see if there were any useful guidelines for sharing information about others. Below is what I found on some of the most popular live streaming and video sharing sites that would encourage one to consider what they are posting.
Here's a great video that YouTube put together for its users to be safe on the platform. The video can be accessed in the About section on YouTube under the "Community Guidelines" navigation.
For Skype, they created a separate "Etiquette" section for users. Go to the homepage of Skype then scroll all the way to the bottom and click on the Security link at the bottom left hand side of the page. Then click on the "Security and Privacy" icon. Then on the next page select "Etiquette on Skype" in the blue shaded box labeled "Privacy Policies."
The guidelines read that you do not:
Use vulgar, profane, offensive or obscene language.
Post or request sexually explicit images or other offensive content.
Exploit a minor in any way.
Use racially, religiously or sexually offensive language.
Discuss illegal activity, such as how to get drugs and how to make bombs.
Ask for or offer sexually explicit images, and/or material harmful to children.
Harass, threaten, embarrass, or do anything else to another Skype user that is unwanted.
Infringe anyone else's intellectual property rights, including but not limited to any copyright, trademark, rights of publicity, or other proprietary rights.
Impersonate or represent Skype.
Link to content not allowed on Skype.com.
Try to get a Skype's member's password or other account information.
Post or request personal or other information from a minor (any person under the age of 18).
Justin.TV is a little trickier to find but they do have safety tips. To navigate to the safety tips, scroll to the bottom of the homepage, then select "About," then scroll all the way to the bottom of the "About" page and then select "Help Resources." Then from the 'Help Resources' page you select "Safety" on the left side of the page.
The guidelines on Justin.tv read:
Your channel is public. Don't make anything public that you wouldn't want everyone on the internet to know (e.g., your phone number, address, IM screen names, or specific whereabouts). Avoid giving up any information that would make it easy for a stranger to find you. It is very easy to piece together information to do web searches to find out more information about a person.
People aren't always who they say they are. Be mindful when adding new people to your friends list. Justin.tv is a great place to make new friends from around the world, but avoid meeting people in person whom you don't really know.
Don't post anything that would embarrass you later. Remember anything you post might not be seen only by your friends, the truth is everyone can see it. Be mindful of what you are putting up on Justin.tv. Don't put anything up that you wouldn't want your parents, potential employers, colleges or boss to see.
Don't pretend to be older or younger than you really are. Honesty is the best policy and can keep you out of trouble in the long run
What disappoints me about their guidelines is that they post nothing about harming others on the channel. They only talk about guidelines that address the credibility of the user and not others who may be affected by the live streaming video.
Ustream.TV has their community guidelines posted under "Acceptable Use Policy," which you can navigate to by scrolling to the bottom of the homepage and selecting "Terms of Service." In the second paragraph on the "Terms of Service" page you can see a hyperlink called "Acceptable Use Policy."
You will only use the Site and Services for authorized and lawful purposes, consistent with all applicable laws and regulations and the rights of others.
You agree to take reasonable precautions in all interactions with other Ustream Users, particularly if you decide to meet a Ustream User offline, or in person.
You will exercise caution and take care in your lifecasting activities.
You will not use the Site or Services to upload, stream or otherwise transmit content: (a) that is inappropriate, as reasonably determined by Ustream; (b) that is indecent, obscene, pornographic, defamatory, libelous, harassing, threatening, abusive, hateful, or violent; or (c) containing fraudulent, false, deceptive, or misleading offers, statements, claims or representations.
You will not use the Site or Services in any manner that would infringe, dilute, misappropriate or otherwise violate a third party's privacy, publicity or other personal and intellectual property rights.
You will not interfere with or disrupt the Site or Services or attempt to gain access to any systems or networks that connect to the Site or Services except as required to use the Site or Services in compliance with this Policy.
Are These Guidelines Enough?
Although I commend each of these video sites for developing guidelines that ensure the safety and security of each of its users, I can't help but wonder about the utility of these guidelines. They are like the user's manual that comes with your new iPhone. Has anyone actually read the manual of anything before using it?
Each site's safety guidelines are extremely cumbersome to navigate to. I can't imagine people read these guidelines in detail when they sign-up, let alone go back to them to ponder whether or not to post something harmful, or to check if their content is legal or not. Take Ravi and Wei for example. I imagine that Ravi set-up his Skype account long before he ever thought to use it as a platform to embarrass Tyler. Ravi probably thought he was being incredibly cool and tech-savvy to have thought up such a brilliant way to remotely harass someone.
This leads me to wonder whose responsibility it is to ensure that people like Ravi are encouraged to think about how their actions via online social platforms could harm others. Is it the site? The parents or the school? Or is it all of us? We've created an online culture that encourages everyone to share everything from photos, to videos, to status updates and so much more about themselves but little has been devoted to determining what is and isn't okay behavior.