cj-6/11> Byers: CyberBuddies and CyberWinter

1995-06-12

Richard Moore

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Date: Sat, 10 Jun 1995 00:00:14 -0700
Sender: "R. Byers" <•••@••.•••>
Subject: CyberBuddies and CyberWinter


        I enjoyed Joe's post about meeting Richard in the flesh, and his
reflections on the relationship between cyberspace and physical space.
Joe also mentions the news stories about the missing teenagers, and that
struck another kind of nerve in me.
        I live in Seattle, and the 16 year old boy who went missing was
from around here, so I got to see his story break in _The Seattle
Times_.  The story of this news story raises the spectre of the
CyberWinter that Richard has been warning about.
        The first news story about the boy in the _Times_ (all references
to "the _Times_" are to the Seattle paper, not that New York one) had a
headline something like "Teenager Abducted Through the Internet".
Beneath this spectacular claim, one found out that the boy had met
someone calling himself Damien Starr (obviously a pseudonym) through a
gay/lesbian chat line on AOL, and that Starr had sent the kid a bus
ticket through the mail.  The parents of the boy were interviewed, and
they expressed shock that their son, who they loved dearly and hugged
regularly, would do such a thing.  Obviously, "Damien Starr" was a
pedophile taking advantage of an innocent, foolish kid, with the help of
that well-known habitat of child pornographers, "the Internet."
        Apparently, the story quickly went national, though I didn't see
or hear any of the national coverage.  Among the remarkable aspects of
the _Times_'s coverage were that a) the connection between the boy and
Starr was made through AOL, not through the Internet, b) the boy was not
actually abducted in any sense of the word as I understand it, and c) the
fact that the boy was gay was treated without any understanding for the
realities that gay teenagers face in this country.
        The use of the word "abduct" can be explained by the love of
hysteria-mongering by a newspaper trying to sell as many copies as
possible.  (When I first read the headline, it conjured some very funny
images of evil villains sending digitizing beams through the net and then
downloading their victims onto their hard drives.)
        The use of "Internet" as a catch-all term for communication via
computers says a lot about the demonization of the Internet that Richard
has warned will be one of the first stages of the authoritarians taking
control.  I think that the reason "the Internet" makes a better term for
hysteria-mongering is that it is already associated in a lot of people's
minds with pornography and terrorism and morally questionable behavior in
general.  "Boy Abducted Through AOL" simply doesn't have the symbolic
resonance.
        The homophobia of the coverage, sadly, comes as no surprise.
There was no thought given to the fact that the life of a gay teenager is
often a lonely and dangerous one.  Instead, the focus was on the bereaved
parents, and stress was laid on their incomprehension, as though there
were no context in which the boy's actions *could* be comprehensible,
except for pedophilic villainy.
        In the end, some of the facts behind the spectacle became known.
Damien Starr was the real name of another gay teenager, who had run away
from home and was living with some gay mean in San Francisco.  The kid
from up here who had accepted the bus ticket decided to return home when
the national media coverage began to put his new friends in danger.  He
told the _Times_ that he had not been mistreated and that, in fact, he had
sat around watching the Sci-Fi channel or visiting neighborhood bookstores
most of the time.  It had been fun.  He said that his family was great and
he hadn't run away to get back at them for anything, but that he'd simply
been looking for adventure and to explore the world.  He hadn't simply run
off at the drop of a hat, he had "chatted" with Starr for weeks,
developing the kind of online relationship that most of us are familiar
with from our own experience.  This sixteen year old said he was impatient
to grow up and wanted a car and a job.  Perhaps it's reading too much
between the lines to wonder if what he was really saying is that he wants
the freedom to make connections with other gay teenagers and adults, with
people who can help him find a place in the world.
        As usual, once the big lie is spoken, it cannot be unspoken.  Far
from it.  Even as the _Times_ published the boy's explanation of what had
really happened, it ran two more stories insisting on the sinister
implications of the Internet.  One story was an interview with the
police, who have a program for educating parents about the "shocking"
things their kids can discover on the net.  This story also had a sidebar
about software that's being developed that allows parents to control
their kids' activity on the net.  The second story was the one about the
thirteen year old girl who apparently disappeared after "meeting" a man
on the net.  Nowhere did the _Times_ acknowledge that it had blown it on
the earlier story.  No, no, the Internet *really* *is* *dangerous*, they
insisted.
        As Joe commented, one wonders how many teenagers are missing in
this country--and how many of those "disappearance" have anything to do
with cyberspace.  How many of those kids are "abducted", and how many of
them are running away from situations that are abusive or simply more
restrictive than they can (or think they can) stand?  And how, in any
event, can "the Internet" be held responsible as the agent of kids'
disappearances?
        The story was disheartening for any number of reasons.  Joe's
anecdote was something of an antidote.  Part of what it made me think of
is that the boy who ran off to explore the world may have begun to
establish a community for himself through cyberspace.  He found kindred
spirits, and connections were made, however fragile.  That's the
unreported story.  This escapade, which was treated by the media in a way
that forebodes CyberWinter, also foreshadows the kinds of social
transformations that could be enabled by cyberspace.  How's this for an
alternative headline:  "Lonely Boy Finds New Friends Via Cyberspace"?

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Randy Byers                             •••@••.•••
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 Posted by --  Richard K. Moore --  •••@••.••• --  Wexford, Ireland.
                 Moderator: CYBERJOURNAL (@CPSR.ORG)

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        http://jasper.ora.com/andyo/cyber-rights/cyber-rights.html
    FTP:
        ftp://jasper.ora.com/pub/andyo/cyber-rights

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