It's natural, when something terrible happens, to want to find something or somebody to blame. Most prejudices and hatreds are spurred by this urge to blame other people or other things for the problems we face. Increasingly, the other things we want to blame are new media technologies.
If there's anything Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus taught us, it was that the monsters we create are simply extensions of ourselves.
In Virginia a family is mourning the death of their 13-year-old daughter. A young woman who reportedly sought friendship and companionship online. Reporting seems to suggest that desire for connection may have ultimately lead to Nicole Lovell's death.
In reporting that frames Nicole as a young woman seeking a friend, the accused murderers are framed as 'stars' and 'bright students.' This is fairly typical framing in stories about violence against women and girls -- the victims are often framed by their desire to be loved or cared for while their abusers and murderers are framed as good kids/men/women gone wrong.
It shows up in the reporting on Nicole's death just as it showed up in the reporting on the Steubenville rape case. Also similar in the reporting on both cases was the way social media and new communication technologies have been framed.
My colleague (and friend) at Bridgewater State University Jessica Birthisel and I studied news coverage of the Steubenville case. We found reporting that blamed the victim for her attack and framed her rapists as promising kids who just made a bad choice that night.
In our study we also uncovered a framing of mobile communication technologies which seemed to blame them -- seemed to blame YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, and text messaging -- for the assault. Rarely were the rapists blamed. The issue of rape culture was almost never addressed.
Something similar seems to be happening in the case of Nicole Lovell's death. A column in the Washington Post, which seemed to take a strange joy in portraying Nicole as a lost and lovelorn young woman, portrayed social media as the thing to be concerned with.
'Parents,' it seemed to scream, 'Don't let your kids use technology!'
'Parents,' it yelled, 'Be vigilant hawks and give your children no freedom!'
Here's the thing: Technology did not make the young men in the Steubenville case rape a 16-year-old woman. Technology did not make Nicole Lovell's murderers kill her.
Technology is not Nietzsche's abyss. It is not staring back at us.
You know what is staring back at us?
The problem lies not in the technology, but in our relation to it and our relation to each other. It lies in the way we produce and reproduce a culture in which women and young girls are told they are things; a culture which tells young men that to be masculine is to be a sexual beast; a culture that suggests this is the only normal and anything else is deviance.
To quote Mad Max: Fury Road -- We are not things.
We are not stories waiting to be written. Our insecurities are not waiting for a writer to come along to use them to paint a picture of how forlorn and lonely we must be.
We are not things.
Just as important: Technologies are not things that exist outside of us.
Rape culture is reproduced and remediated in new media. Unhealthy relationships that have existed as long as there have been people are reproduced and remediated in new media. Hatred, bigotry, misogyny are reproduced and remediated in new media.
Everything we are offline we are online. It all goes with us. The good and the bad.
There is nothing wrong with seeking companionship online. In my research I've found evidence that sometimes online spaces are incredibly important to individuals looking to create communities and to find spaces to feel themselves.
What is wrong is that people prey on those they imagine are weak online. But, again, that exists outside digital spaces.
The scary thing is that new media technologies make it much easier to see all the ugliness.
Bullying existed before Whisper or YikYak. Rape culture predates Facebook or Instagram.
They were just much easier to ignore before videos and texts and photos could go viral. (Did we learn nothing from The Burn Book in Mean Girls?)
Social media and other forms of new media technologies make it much more difficult to ignore the things we find ugly or troubling or problematic. When something horrible happens and we find ourselves staring into the abyss we get scared, we pretend it's the technology staring back from the depths when it's really ourselves.
If we don't recognize that and begin to address that, it won't matter how much we work to change technology or how many parental controls we put in place or how many restrictions because those unaddressed issues will just seep into other spaces, other dark corners. And there will be other Nicoles and other Steubenvilles and other paper tigers we'll find to blame.
The fault, dear Reader, is not in our media, but in ourselves.