Return of the Cyberbully?

Is cyber-bullying still a problem? It may be closer to home than you think. ALICE ECCLES explores.

‘Cyber-bullying’ – remember that?

It’s a concept that everyone is familiar with, but if you’re anything like me, it now feels like a relic of secondary school, left to gather dust among GCSE textbooks. However, this seriously neglects the still powerful tool that the Internet places in a bully’s hands. With anonymity on your side, discrimination and harassment can take on a life of its own in cyberspace. But where should the line be drawn – when does harmless banter become a form of vicious victimisation?

Today has seen the closing Cambridge’s very own Library Whispers, a site that allowed those of us trapped among the stacks to post anonymous comments from libraries around the university. The site, opened for the second time at the beginning of this exam term, has had to been taken down as the result of it having “turned into a forum of hate” in the words of its founder, Oliver Rees. While witty banter and observations inspired by boredom often prevailed, the site was vulnerable, like all its cyber-colleagues, to the abuse of its users.

To give due credit, the site  worked hard to remove those comments that cross a line. For example, administrators were quick to take down the particularly provocative “Just spat on a working-class person – fucking jokes!!!!!”. But its ‘hands off’ policy has, in part, facilitated the airing of derogatory material which pushes at the bounds of bullying. While enjoying the live feed on Friday evening as I desperately put off delving into yet another book on early modern witchcraft, the ‘whispers’ clawed at my conscience: “I can hear you clicking at your fucking card game through my headphones you inconsiderate dyke.” “Crazy laughing bitch in the corner please desist.” Nor am I alone, with one user whispering: “Why is everyone being so mean to each other? I thought library whispers was meant to be fun?”

Those that created Library Whispers should be congratulated for the site, which has provided an all-too-needed release for library-induced frustration. Facebook, Twitter, et al. have been unashamedly abused in the same way by those either too immature or too naïve to realise the true impact of their words and actions. However, perhaps this singular example can provide a personalised window into the continued presence of cyber-bullying in a university environment.

Across the proverbial pond, March 2012 saw the sentencing of Dharun Ravi, the roommate of 18-year old Tyler Clementi. The former Rutgers student was convicted on all 15 counts with which he was charged, ranging from invasion of privacy to bias intimidation. Clementi threw himself of the George Washington bridge in September 2010 after Ravi streamed a live video of his roommate’s sexual encounter with another man, tweeting “I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.”  He now faces up to 10 years in prison and possible deportation to India.

As the line between private and public is blurred by the expansion of technology, we have all become increasingly vulnerable to the bullies of this world. I do not pretend to be qualified to dictate where the line can be drawn between harmless fun and potential cruelty, but perhaps a greater awareness that cyber-bullying is not simply a relic of secondary school might make it more recognizable when we encounter it either as a victim, a witness, or a perpetrator.

While I will always be amused by such posts as “Spent long enough in the library to start being attracted to the bust of John Taylor #stupidsexyjohntaylor”, I am tempted, perhaps for the first time ever, to side with someone sitting in the Central Science Library asking themselves “honestly who goes on this website to bitch about people”.

Library Whispers’ unfortunate fate is a vociferous warning of the current and all too extensive presence of bullying in universities. I applaud the website administrator’s decision to take down Library Whispers before someone got hurt.

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