The summer before I started college, I received a letter with the names and phone numbers of my freshman roommates. We talked a few times to discuss salient information such as comforter colors and who would bring the stereo, but otherwise remained strangers until the day we arrived on campus.
Teenagers in the 1980s possessed no online footprint; high school graduates had no public persona.
Reading through hundreds of pages of documents submitted in the case of one Rutgers University student accused of hastening his gay roommate's suicide, I'm stunned by the real-time play-by-play of young lives lived so casually, callously, and electronically.
Every move both students made seems to have been dutifully documented for eternity. They texted, tweeted, and chatted with both friends and strangers.
Sometimes, the awkward roommates accidentally griped about each other to each other. "No biggie," the insultee wrote the trigger finger. When you're shooting day and night in every direction, there are bound to be a few stray bullets.
To be clear, the court documents don't for a second diminish the threat of cyberbullying or dull the tragedy of Tyler Clementi's September suicide - which, in keeping with the generational mores, the troubled young man announced via a Facebook status update: "Jumping off the gw bridge, sorry."
But they do suggest that the criminal case against Clementi's roommate, Dharun Ravi, may confront a timely question: How can one 18-year-old be accused of violating another 18-year-old's privacy when no one that age has a clue or cares about what the word means?
Transcript to a tragedy
The document drop was a doozy: 700 pages of Twitter feeds, text messages, and online chat transcripts compiled by attorneys for Ravi seeking to have bias-intimidation and privacy-invasion charges tossed. In its filing, the defense team asks why prosecutors didn't share the same cache with grand jurors.
Clementi leaped to his death from the George Washington Bridge barely a month into the fall semester. The backstory that quickly emerged: The shy violinist snapped after learning his roommate had spied on intimate encounters with men via a dorm webcam, then sneered to other students.
"The news media picked up on the story, which became a worldwide beacon of discussion about gay youth suicides and 'cyberbullying,' " wrote attorneys who say the truth was far more complex.
According to the documents, Clementi struggled emotionally after coming out to his family ("Mom has basically completely rejected me") and saved computer files with eerie titles ("Why does it have to be so painful"). Most damning? He photographed the bridge a month before arriving at Rutgers, saving several images in his cellphone.
To bolster the assertion that Ravi was more teenage knucklehead than calculating cyberbully, lawyers cite both men's actions and words from the moment the prospective roommates began stalking each other online that summer.
Ravi goofed inappropriately with friends upon learning Clementi was gay, then explained to a worried pal that it didn't matter. "Why would it be [awkward]. . . . He'd want me . . . I wouldn't want him."
Clementi cracked insensitively about Ravi's ethnicity ("his [family] is sooo indian/first gen americanish . . . his rents defs owna dunkin [Donuts]"), but then insisted all that mattered was that "he IS nice."
If anything, Clementi seemed awed by Ravi, chatting that Ravi "is so smart . . . just wrote a computer program that tells him when bus is coming . . . what class he's going to when he wakes up."
Though Ravi's legal troubles stem from tweeting sarcastically that he watched "my roommate making out with a dude," even Clementi made light of that discovery: "I defs felt violated but then . . . idk . . . doesn't seem sooo bad lol."
Clementi even dismissed a friend's suggestion that the spying could amount to a hate crime.
"a hate crime lol," Clementi typed. "white people never get hated. hee hee."
Contact Monica Yant Kinney at 215-854-4670, firstname.lastname@example.org or @myantkinney on Twitter. Read her blog at philly.com/blinq.