The New York Times last week asked me my thoughts on the Megan Meier case and online misrepresentation, and I thought I’d expand on my perspective here. First off, we have to understand why this case drew so much attention. It was because we have a vulnerable and depressed young girl basically driven to suicide by the malicious actions of an adult and her accomplices. The plot was thickened by the fact that the adult was the young girl’s neighbor, and that the actions were carried out through interaction on the most popular online social networking site at the time. While other youth (sadly) have taken their life in part because of cyberbullying, this case inflames our emotions and sensitivities because of its nature, the relationship between the perpetrator and the victim, and because it is in-line with much of the sensationalism surrounding the dangers of youth Internet use.
When it comes to online misrepresentation, my thoughts differ from many others out there. I personally don’t think this case has chilling effects for the way individuals participate in Internet-based interactions (for example, by creating fake online identities). So many do it just for convenience and because they are not comfortable giving out their personal information because of spam or increasing their chance of victimization. This is just how it is, and I agree with that general motivation. Eventually we may see technology that allows for age- or identity-verification without the obvious negatives of providing that information, but some of the inherent benefits of Internet-based communication will then be diminished.
Finally, I should make clear that it is still quite easy to pose as a teenager or youth online. We have no fully useful age- or identity-verification systems in place, although entities in the corporate sector are furiously competing with each other to develop the best one and achieve widespread adoption. We are definitely not there yet. That said, social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace will deal with age- or identity-misrepresentation when it is brought to their attention, but traditionally very few would report it if they stumbled upon it. Accompanying the notoriety of this case, perhaps the grave consequences stemming from Lori Drew’s misrepresentation will lead many more Internet users to step up and inform the authorities.