The Rutgers tragedy and privacy and technology

Last night, I went to CBS to record an interview with Katie Couric about the Rutgers tragedy, privacy, and technology.

Couric asked me the same question a half-dozen ways — old reporter’s trick; I’ve used it; I teach it — trying to get me to give her the answer she wanted: that the internet makes this different, that this is a teaching moment, and that we should give our children instruction about the dangers of the internet. I wouldn’t agree that technology makes the essence of this story and its sin different. The lesson is the same as it has always been: the Golden Rule. The sin could have been committed with a Kodak camera or a telephone or a letter, for that matter.

I do agree that the internet adds speed and reach and permanence to a mistake — that, as someone has said, it is a tattoo. But what this story really brings out is a timeless ethic of privacy (which is how I am framing the topic in Public Parts): Privacy is the responsibility of the person who receives information about someone. Once you know something about me, the weight lies with you as you decide how to use that information, whether to spread it, in what light. That came as close as I would to what Couric was aiming for and so this is the clip that made it onto the show.

I also said society bears responsibility in this story. That today anyone would still feel shame about being revealed as gay — full stop — and then would make such a tragic decision is our failing. I told Couric that the gays and lesbians who have summoned the courage to leave their closet and privacy behind to stand before the homophobes — saying, “Yes, I’m gay, you have a problem with that?” — are the heroes who used their publicness as a weapon against bigotry. I made clear to her that I am not suggesting people should be forced out of their closets. But I do believe that the people who have chosen to leave have operated under an ethic of publicness. If the weight of the ethic of privacy lies with the recipient of information — you know information about me — then the weight of the ethic of publicness lies with the originator of information — I know something and must decide whether it would be of benefit to others to share it.

As I left, I tried to tell Couric that media too often look at technology and change and see only danger. This is how the invention of the Kodak camera was treated in the 1890s. More than 500 million people choose to share on Facebook because they see benefit in it and more do so on Twitter and in blogs and YouTube…. Media constantly looks at the edge, the dark edge, jumping on a story such as this to seek out the perils technology brings. Couric protested that they do lots of stories about good things in technology. Every time Steve Jobs does anything, we cover it, she said. But that’s not understanding its value, I argued. I urged her to do a story in which young people who use and understand Facebook explain it to their elders.

We can’t pretend to give young people lessons in the internet if we don’t understand how they see it. For example, I’ve learned lately that young people use Facebook’s Wall to hold conversations in public while people my age use it — with media reflex — as a place to publish or broadcast. Same platform, different uses, different worldviews, different impact. When I was in Berlin talking about publicness and privacy, Renate Künast, head of the Greens in Parliament, said she talked to a young person who took a cooking course instead of an a computer course because in the latter “what the teachers wanted to teach me was something I learned five years ago.” We have things to learn from children about the future, for the future is theirs and they’re building it right in front of us.

But in enduring morals and ethics — the Golden Rules — we parents remain the teachers and I don’t think we give ourselves enough credit for teaching and our children enough credit for learning well. Those rules pertain no matter the medium or the technology in which human interaction occurs. The Rutgers story is not a tale of technology creating tragedy. It is a story of human tragedy.

  • An underlying tone of moral panic surrounding teenagers and the Internet is inescapable at CBS Evening News. Look at this playlist of the 17 domestic (non-foreign) stories filed on Katie Couric’s newscast over the past four years after a tag search for Teenagers and Media. Only three — videogame playing can be healthy; podcasts can be used to answer sex FAQs; youth evangelists spread the gospel though so-called Godcasts — avoid the scare tactics that tech is bad for our teens. The others are marinated in visions of depravity, bullying, shame, violence and vice. By contrast, ABC World News (3 out of 10 positive) and NBC Nightly News (2 out of 5 positive) act more relaxed about our brave new world.

    • Great data, andrew

    • Tex Lovera

      Katie’s just still pissed off at the internet because of those unflattering photos of her that were posted all over. Plus, IIRC, she also had a little photoshopping issue with a publicity still that got exposed via some blog (or maybe it was Gawker?).

      So, no, I don’t think she’s too “impartial” about the web…

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  • I actually argued much the same in a piece on (serving the town where Andrew Clementi lived) — modern technology may have been the vehicle that delivered torment to Clementi, but it wasn’t the source. And the same technology is now bringing friends and loved ones consolations, and people around the world calls to action:

  • Robert Altman


    Thank you for addressing the topic: I was deeply saddened by the tragedy, it was (to my mind) a clear violation of privacy.

    This indident raises the question of what should the “new” privacy be? I like the benefits we get from Google StreetView; I don’t see this as an invasion of privacy. Clearly there is a difference; but how do you develop a decision criterion that is effective for public policy and law enforcement?

    I think you are absolutely correct in that the issue is the same as it was before. It’s not about technology; it’s about responsibility. There’s a violation of privacy here irrespective of the medium. At the same time, isn’t it the responsibility of journalists to ask “is this new [ whatever ] in the people’s best interests?”

    With respect to Andrew’s point: journalism exists, in part, to identify dangers. Would Couric be doing her job if all she reported on (with respect to this topic) was how nice technology was for teens? I’m not qualified to render an opinion of Couric as an impartial or responsible journalist; but I recognize the need to ask questions; often, the conversations that ensue have social value independent of the question itself.

    • We don’t need any new laws.

    • Andy Freeman

      > Would Couric be doing her job if all she reported on (with respect to this topic) was how nice technology was for teens?

      What is Couric’s job?

      Couric’s “reporting” on technology consists of scare stories and regurgitating product press releases.

  • @Robert —

    If you’re not afraid, then I’m not doing my job!

    the slogan of The Colbert Report

  • The last part hits home hard. Regardless of how technology evolves, there will always be a generation who fails to move forward.

  • Eric Gauvin

    This is really about bullying.

    The internet (social media, specifically) happens to be a fantastic platform for bullying.

    It’s also about suicide, which is somewhat of a separate issue.

    Privacy is a key ingredient in this revolting act of bullying.

    I can’t see that this has anything to do with your ideas of what you refer to as the benefits of “publicness.”

  • JEff

    Your post above is an important wake-up call about how the
    Internet must be monitored more diligently in the digital age. In
    keeping the debate and comments above, I wrote a short text to use as
    an educational tool in classrooms worldwide. Useful? You tell me. It’s
    called “Digirata” and is modeled as an homage to Max Erhmann’s famous
    1927 poem Desiderata.

    The purpose of writing an update in 2010 for the digital age is to
    help students and teachers ponder the very issues that you talking about above. The uncopyrighted and non-commerical text

    “Go placidly amid the hot links and the distractions, and remember
    what peace there may be in unplugging.

    As far as possible be on good terms with all persons online and never,
    never flame others or engage in any kind of cyberbullying or

    Key in your truths quietly and clearly; and read what others have to
    say, too, even the dull and the ignorant; for they too have their
    stories and ideas to impart, even if you disagree.

    Avoid angry and aggressive flamers and out of control cyberbullies,
    for they are vexations to the spirit of the Internet.

    If you compare your blog with other blogs that are better and have
    more visitors, you may become vain and bitter, so just enjoy your own
    blog for what it is and don’t worry abut the big guys. Enjoy your
    online achievements, as well as your plans for future downtime.

    Keep interested in your own blogging, however humble; it is a real
    possession in the changing fortunes of time.

    Exercise caution in who you give your personal details to; for the
    world is full of trickery and Nigerian scams waiting to part you from
    your money.

    Be yourself when you are online, or, if it so pleases you, adopt a
    persona. Use your real name or a pseudonym for your userid, and let no
    one steal your password, especially those pesky phishers.

    Take kindly the counsel of your fellow bloggers and gracefully chat
    with your Facebook friends in real time. But don’t over do it, and
    always take time out to unplug and enjoy a weekly ‘Internet sabbath.’

    You are a child of the Digital Age, no less than the spam and the
    pixels; and you have every right to blog to your heart’s content.

    And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt cyberspace is
    unfurling as it should. Well, sort of, and you are part of the great
    equation, whatever that might turn out to be.

    Therefore be at peace with Amazon and Yahoo, and make of your Kindles
    and your nooks what you will.

    Whatever your labors and your aspirations, in the multitasking
    distractions of cyberspace keep peace with your soul — if you still
    have one.

    Remember: With all its sham, mattdrudgery and quirky keyboards, it is
    still a beautiful online world.

    Be cheerful. Be careful, too. Use the smiley emoticon as much as
    possible, and strive to be a happy camper. Unplug often.”

  • re: “Every time Steve Jobs does anything, we cover it.”

    That’s because Apple isn’t threatening. Apple is the last, greatest, example of the 20th century mass-production/mass-consumption/mass-marketing company–the kind of company legacy media is very comfortable with; not much different than a Ford or a GE. Apple takes the things we know and it makes them shinier, smaller, neater, prettier, and faster. It doesn’t disrupt*, like Google, Facebook, Craigslist, eBay, or Wikipedia.

    So legacy companies get love, pity, and positive stories from legacy media (who are themselves, a legacy company). Meanwhile, disruptive companies get the scary news graphics and the dangerous sounding headlines.

    • Forgot my asterisk!

      * The one time Apple came close to disruption was with iTunes. While one may rightly call this “disruption”, it actually halted a much steeper disruptive slide brought on by Napster and peer-to-peer filesharing, and rendered the market for music much closer to where the legacy music industry would like it.

      • Eric,
        RIght, the genius of iTunes was that it was a reverse gear on disruption. Couldn’t erase it but did halt the decline. Very interesting from that perspective.

  • Andreas L. Booher

    “More than 500 million people choose to share on Facebook because they see benefit in it […]”

    I agree with this interpretation of why Facebook is such a vastly popular medium for sharing on the internet. However – and this is a huge however in my opinion – I find myself constantly surrounded with a segment of the population that isn’t what might be considered computer literate or hooked into social media who’s fundamental argument against this statement is that the majority of the people who use these services like Facebook (or Twitter, etc.) take far too short sighted a view on the implications of putting yourself out into ‘the cloud’. They (a frighteningly large portion of the German population) claim we the avid social networking users don’t know what (negative) outcomes will (read: will, not might) come as the logical conclusion to putting private matters out there. Privacy settings and policing ones own social network exposure doesn’t seem to be considered.

    No matter if it is my uncle forbidding my 16-year-old cousin from having a Facebook page or if it is my professors telling me it would be a bad idea for them to have a personal website to promote themselves and their research – the rhetorical questions they shoot down all logical reasons is the same: what happens if someone “hacks”, “steals”, “crashes” or “misuses” her/my information? I don’t really know how to respond to these vague fears of the internet and online social interaction and its ominous cloud of threat looming off at some undefined point in the future.

    From their perspective, this group of internet weary individuals sees itself as being on the bleeding edge of understanding, they feel they know better because they will be safe when the Four Horsemen of the Internet Apocalypse (Zuckerberg & Schmidt undoubtably among them) come because they hold all their lives in the form of fading photo albums, on the pages of tattered diaries and in their own minds.

    By them I along with my 499,999,999 cohorts on Facebook are considered lesser thinkers, considered to be operating on a lower level simply because we place this ‘blind’ faith in these new fangeled computers, networks and companies. How is it possible to have a factual discussion about the merits of social networking and the internet in general with a faction that sees only dangers from these elements and considers me intellectually lower for my siding on the side of Facebook, Twitter, Google and technological progress?

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  • Yvonne

    The Internet offers an innovative platform for people to distribute, but it can’t control what kind of content people will publicize-the control lies in the people who participate in the online distribution. Generally speaking, the new technology brings more benefits than perils to human society. But it does remind people that they should be careful about their privacy. Take, for example, those celebrity sex tape. If they had not recorded it, then those tapes would have not had the chance to reach the public through the Internet. They should have foreseen and prepared for the possible consequence. If people don’t pay adequate attention to their privacy, how can they blame the new technology?
    As for the media, maybe they are threatened by technology so they “constantly looks at the edge, the dark edge, jumping on a story to seek out the perils technology brings. ” They should behave themselves, too. They are the conscience of the society and play a key role in shaping the public opinion. They should be aware of their responsibility, without taking a biase into their report.

  • Every tool is a weapon, every weapon is a tool.

    But it would have been a heck of a lot harder 10, even five years ago to instantly disseminate a rude, even criminal invasion of privacy to such a wide audience.

    So to say it’s the same ethical issue as we’ve always faced is to overlook the magnification (and speed) afforded by the Net and especially by social networks.

    Shame is shame. Suicide is awful (I ought to know). But to say the technology is not part of the equation is somewhat like saying the atomic bomb is the same any other weapon that came before it.

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  • Stan Hogan

    Couric does what she does and you do what you do.

    She sought out rigid counterthink to the narrative being spun about this tragedy and you stepped forward. Conflict. Talking head debate. Advancing the discussion? Meh.

    She has a news show to produce you have a book in the works to promote, as well as your well-cultivated reputation as a contrarian. It certainly isn’t old vs. new thinking it’s the same formula and you played your part.

    Spin it however you care but there are dangers in this new world and this being the USA, they will eventually be resolved in the courts. And when they are, this “publicness” will have been defined in a way that will probably bear little resemblance to whatever emerges from your book.

    It is the emotionally and psychologically fragile who will play the biggest role in how this plays out, not the “deep thinkers” of academia.

  • Chad

    Well, if it’s not Ozzy Osbourne and heavy metal (think back to the 80’s) causing suicides, it must be the internet…..

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  • Gary

    Thank you Jeff. That was very well said.

  • Jeff,

    I completely agree with what you said to Katie about responsibility online and knowing that what you put out there online is going to stick and be permanent. I’m constantly telling peers, clients and younger people that regardless of how locked down you might think a site is, it really isn’t.

    Yes I agree that society is partly to blame for this tragic event but let’s not lose sight of the two college students that have now completely messed up the rest of their life and ended another’s because of a mean hearted prank.

    I’m sad to say This is not the end of this stuff happening. All we can do is make sure that our kids, friends, peers, etc realize the ramification of their choices online.

    Thanks for all you do Jeff. I’m a huge fan.

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  • shut up yankee-boy, we dont care about your stupid thoughts about google streetview, really. so please shut your ugly face and dont try to involve in german business, nobody wants to read your shit, you just dont have the skillz. next time try somewhere else bro, but not in germany, you dont have the intelectual level for our country.

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