Virtual misbehaviour

Three stories have caught my attention this week; two tragic, one less so, but still a bit sad.

First, the story of Dave Barmy and Laura Skye, two av’s who met and married in Second Life, before their real-life counterparts did the same. Now they’re getting divorced (in RL), after Laura caught Dave cheating on her in SL. I saw a TV documentary about SL around a year ago which featured the couple, and I remember thinking back then that the marriage looked a bit precarious, based as it was on projections of their idealised partners. Dave apparently can’t see what he did wrong, since there was no real-life infidelity. That would fit with research that shows that women tend to take a dimmer view of such activity than their male partners.

Much darker is the story behind the trial of Lori Drew on charges of conspiracy and computer fraud, which opened on Thursday. These bland charges conceal what Drew is really alleged to have done; driven Megen Meier, a 13 year-old classmate of Drew’s daughter, to suicide, by bullying her via a fake MySpace account. Strip away the new technology and it’s a sadly familiar story; a vulnerable adolescent is overwhelmed by sudden exposure to the reality of just how unpleasantly people can behave towards one another in the adult world, but, if the allegations are upheld, the case will illustrate how computer-mediated communication, stripped as it is of humanising context, can be extraordinarily powerful. The medium disconnects a cyber-bully almost completely from any possibility of empathy with the victim, thus increasing the risk of abusive behaviour. In turn the victim can experience the bully’s aggression in almost pure form, amplifying the damage caused.

To round off a depressing post I’ll note that a Florida teenager has killed himself live on the internet. Reports say that up to 1000 viewers of the website Justin.tv watched as Abraham Biggs lay dying. I have no idea why Abraham felt he had to do what he did, but it may be significant that his death has become noteworthy in a way that, in his mind (we can speculate), his life never could. It raises the question of whether the ease with which private pain can be made public via online outlets like Justin.tv, or YouTube, or indeed WordPress, is a good or a bad thing. I’m sure that for some people it can be a relief to think that someone out there may be able to understand what they are going through, but for others the opportunity to seek validation for what feels like a meaningless existence might push them into extreme behaviour. As for the people who just watched him die without doing anything to help, again the distancing effect of the medium must have transformed what should have struck them as a human tragedy into something that was just another sensation to be consumed.

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