Thursday, December 06, 2007

Crashing the Helicopter

Readers know that one of my gripes with the mainstream media's coverage of Internet practices is that newspapers and television tend to report kids+computers+crime stories in ways that essentially blame the bad behavior in the central narrative on access to distributed networks and digital tools. For example, in the summer of 2006, even the august New York Times wrote several multi-part stories about teens who allegedly had been led astray into life in the demi-monde by either their programming skills or their acquisition of consumer electronics.

Naturally, teenagers are perfectly capable of getting themselves into lots of trouble without a computer login. For starters, I often think that parents underestimate the mischief that ingenious young people could get themselves into in the past through the traditional medium of print.

Last month, a piece in the St. Charles Journal, "A real person, a real death" provided a number of tantalizing details about the suicide of thirteen-year-old Megan Meier last year after she was jilted by her virtual boyfriend, "Josh Evans," who turned out to be the creation of vengeful mother-daughter neighbors with a faked MySpace account who had felt that Megan had snubbed her former friends in her quest for popularity.

In addition to grabbing headlines in print in several media markets and being reported in The New York Times, the various accounts of the "MySpace Suicide" also construct the kind of story that gets a lot of coverage in the huge parenting blogosphere. As the local story shows, it also brings out a certain amount of vigilante commenting and calls for "street justice" that is enabled when readers publish added personal information about the accused. For example, the input from the anonymous "Justice4Megan" here and here includes private data about home telephone numbers, the schools and graduation dates of the meddling mother, and the professional clients of the accomplice father's business.

Police reports document that there has been continued vandalism and bad blood between the neighboring families in the year since the teen took her own life. At a more abstract level of justice, the logic of those who condemn the parties who created the false profile can be used to shape policy issues in ways that could curtail essential freedoms for online speech, as even the well-intentioned champions of Suzy's Law potentially do when dealing with much more explicit verbal incitement to suicide directed at the mentally ill.

So, in some ways it was refreshing to read "Helicopter Parenting Turns Deadly," which recently appeared in The New York Times collection of associated blogs, because it focused on the social over-investment of what could be called "smother mothers" rather than advocacy for keeping children on the other side of the digital divide or creating new rules controlling online conduct that are intended to promote online civility and safety but risk licensing repressive policing of both the public and private spheres. Rather than accept that this was a story about the need for more regulation of online bullying and harassment and legislation against "poisonous online communications," author Judith Warner sees it as a cautionary tale about "the disturbing degree to which today’s parents – and mothers in particular – frequently lose themselves when they get caught up in trying to smooth out, or steamroll over, the social challenges faced by their children."

I think she's right that "parents of teenagers are not supposed to act like teenagers," but she also makes a number of assumptions about what motivates parents to indulge in MySpace role-playing that preserve an ideology that mothers are necessarily maternal in their online lives. She argues that it is a misplaced tendency toward "feeling our children’s pain" or "shaping their world to offer them the greatest possible degree of happiness" rather than a desire to indulge in fantasy or escape the realities of middle age and middle-class existence. There was another case that also turned deadly, in which a mother impersonated her seventeen-year-old daughter through online communication that was reported in Wired in "An IM Infatuation Turned to Romance. Then the Truth Came Out." The mothers in each of these identity-switching stories constructed elaborate fictions with heightened dramatic conflicts that make the explosive human relationships represented in electronic literary works like Façade look relatively tame by comparison.

This is not to say that I think that parents and children should always represent themselves honestly online. When it comes to intergenerational use of computers, I think that there are valuable lessons to be learned about dissimulation, particularly when marketers have set an actual dollar value on personal data in the age of mathematical theories of communication that quantifies each bit of resolved uncertainty. Nonetheless, the point is to create fake identities that serve social good rather than do harm to vulnerable individuals with fragile real-life egos. Alice Neugier, Malaise Etoile, Mathews Mooresque, and any of the other alternative personae that I have used to visit political and commercial sites anonymously over the years would never cause anyone to take their own life or the lives of others.

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home