I went to see "The Social Network" this weekend as a sort of anthropological mission.
I was hunting for something in the story of Facebook's beginnings to help me understand the latest tragedy linked to cyber-bullying: the suicide of a Rutgers University freshman after his roommate used a webcam to secretly capture his sexual encounter with a young man, and broadcast it on the Internet.
Some are calling it a prank that went too far; others say it's a hate crime worthy of manslaughter charges.
The suicide victim was Tyler Clementi, a shy, bespectacled violinist who jumped from the George Washington Bridge. His roommate, Dharun Ravi, and another first-year student, Molly Wei, have been charged with invasion of privacy.
Details of the case have been pieced together through messages on Facebook pages and Twitter feeds, and from postings Clementi apparently made — according to reporting by the Gawker website — on a gay chat site. What has been made public is this:
Clementi asked for a few hours alone on a Sunday night two weeks ago. Ravi decamped to Wei's dorm room, activated the laptop camera he'd left behind and posted this message to his Twitter account:
Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly's room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.
The post was a hit with his online buddies. So when Clementi texted him two days later and asked for privacy again, Ravi put out this message to draw even more viewers in: Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes it's happening again.
Clementi apparently read the posts and realized what his roommate had done. According to messages linked to him on the gay community message board, he considered three responses:
He could request another roommate, but considered Ravi a "decent guy" and worried that he might do worse. He could report Ravi to Rutgers officials, but didn't want to end up "with nothing happening except him getting pissed at me." Or he could just "be more careful next time … be sure to turn the cam away" so Ravi couldn't spy on him.
Having a conversation with his roommate about what happened "just didn't seem like an option," he wrote.
Instead, he ended his life with this Facebook post: Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.
It's easy to chalk this up as a troubling sign that kids are getting meaner and homophobia is still strong.
But it's not just the younger generation lashing out, and gay teens aren't the only targets of ridicule.
Technology has democratized our public dialogue, made information more accessible and given anybody with a keyboard an online forum. But it has also promoted a cultural shift that inflates a loudmouth's self-importance and stokes a mob mentality.
At 18, Ravi had almost 200 followers on his Twitter account, a fan club hanging on the every tweet of a kid whose biggest accomplishment was being named best dancer at his high school and captaining the Ultimate Frisbee team.
His generation has grown up in an era of blurred personal boundaries and competitive notoriety, with technological tools that promote spontaneity over thoughtfulness and cleverness over civility.
But they have no monopoly on public cruelty. Just scroll through any newspaper's public comment boards for evidence that anonymity emboldens hatemongers and creeps.
When I began my career 30 years ago, a reader who didn't like what I wrote would rustle up a pen, paper, envelope and stamp and sound off in a letter to me. I knew which ones to worry about — they came in envelopes with all capital letters and no return address. But most were thoughtful and polite.
Now when my column ruffles feathers, anyone with a computer or cellphone can issue a public post — pronounce me an idiot, insult my family, impugn my motives or wish me dead.
It scares me sometimes, and it always hurts. But what's worse is how easy it is sometimes for me to shoot back an ugly response.
If the weapon in this case was a webcam, the trial venue might as well be a social network. Opposing Facebook pages have sprung up. "Molly Wei is innocent" has a few hundred followers. "Manslaughter charges for Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei" has more than 17,000.
The page's creators are careful to call it the online version of an advocacy group, aiming to ensure justice is done. But it has been overrun with racist rants, calls for vengeance and characterizations of the defendants as animals and scum.
These are people not afraid to speak their minds, with names affixed and profile photos attached. Somehow I can't imagine the dialogue would be the same if they were chatting with friends about the case at Starbucks or spouting off at work.
Instead, they sit alone, tapping out their outrage, caught up in the feeding frenzy, limited to like-minded folks with no tolerance for disagreement.
For all our online social networks, it seems we're more isolated than ever.
It hit me as I walked out of the movie theater, behind a gaggle of preteen girls complaining that a friend had posted an angry message on her Facebook page about being left behind while they were watching the Facebook film.
"I texted her and told her we were going, and she didn't text back, so we left," one girl said. And I wondered if any of them thought to use the same phone they used for texting to actually talk to her instead.
I think of Tyler Clementi, alone in his room in a dormitory where no one knew him, working through his options with cyber-friends on a message board.
And I know this won't solve all the problems, but I think we ought to tweet less and talk more.