A fake MySpace identity lies at the center of a suicide. The real issue seems to be specific inter- and intra-family dynamics, but, typically, media coverage emphasizes the digital technology. The dark reputation of MySpace continues to grow.
The story began last year (thanks to Making Light for one chronology), when Megan Meier, 13, struck up a friendship with another teenager via MySpace. This lasted for several months, until the boy, Josh Evans, suddenly cut things off in a cruel way. Megan, just short of turning 14, who already had a history of depression, hanged herself. Her parents subsequently divorced.
One month later Josh turned out to not be a boy, but a collaborative fiction created by a family down the street from the now-grieving Meiers. Parents and a child built this persona together, apparently in order to fish for Megan's thoughts about themselves. They even invited another family's child to contribute, and that teen revealed the scheme.
No legal response to this hoax was able to stick, however. Local law enforcement argued that no statutes had been violated. In fact, the closest thing to illegality was Megan Meier's initial signup for MySpace, when she was one year too young (13) for the TOS (14). In one posthumous response, the nearest city decided to criminalize internet-mediated harassment shortly after the story broke.
Extralegal responses also occurred. The hoaxing family's house was apparently targeted for various acts of vandalism. Megan's father dumped a broken foosball table on their yard. On the internet, blogs, blog posts, and other websites have been set up naming names and calling for condemnation or the filing of child abuse charges. For example,
What was said to Megan Meier
May come back to haunt you, Lori Drew.
Some people are born evil.
That last blog post also names the Drews' business, lists contact info, and displays a map to their home. Many bloggers and other people collaborated to build this knowledge, then share it with the world. It's clearly a form of Jochai Benkler's commons-based peer production.
On one level this story embodies a series of established digital fear patterns. It turns on one of the key elements of cyberfear in American culture, adults fearing teenagers who use technology to act on their desires. This case also adds the ever-popular theme of fake identity. But it is unusual in showing adults using technology in uncanny ways, in order to dupe minors; the reverse is more commonly discussed, and feared.
On another level we see in microcosm the full range of possibilities for internet-mediated collective action: online friendship and romance, information-seeking and popular surveillance (about the Drews).
That last part opens up a third layer, which is information disclosure by media during the age of citizen journalism. Should reporters name the hoaxing family? When the St. Louis Post-Dispatch broke the story (November 11, 2007) the account refused to name them. Yet the drive to out the perps was widespread. The Jezebel site, for example, urged all readers to "START SNITCHING" (caps in original). Jim Romanesko offers a snapshot of popular demand for journalists to out the simulacrum-makers. This raises the interesting possibility that mainstream media can hew to a standard of probity, once the rest of us dive in to discover and spread the dirt.
In particular, as noted above, MySpace's dark reputation continues to grow. Notice how the local paper describes it:
Tina Meier was wary of the cyber-world of MySpace and its 70 million users. People are not always who they say they are.
Tina knew firsthand...
That meme is well enough developed that that account can play off of it ironically.
One last note: consider dana boyd's hypothesis about MySpace, Facebook, and class. What would such a story look like if the platform had been Facebook, if it happened at all?
(thanks to a whole slew of emails and IMs)