Any new technology has its victims, of course: the people who get caught during that ugly interregnum when a technology is new but no one knows how to use it yet. Take “Susie,” a girl whose real name I won’t use because I don’t want to make her any more Googleable. Back in 2000, Susie filmed some videos for her then-boyfriend: she stripped, masturbated, blew kisses at the Webcam—surely just one of many to use her new computer this way. Then someone (it’s not clear who, but probably her boyfriend’s roommate) uploaded the videos. This was years before YouTube, when Kaazaa and Morpheus ruled. Susie’s films became the earliest viral videos and turned her into an accidental online porn star, with her own Wikipedia entry.
When I reached her at work, she politely took my information down and called back from her cell. And she told me that she’d made a choice that she knew set her outside her own generation. “I never do MySpace or Facebook,” she told me. “I’m deathly afraid to Google myself.” Instead, she’s become stoic, walling herself off from the exposure. “I’ve had to choose not to be upset about it because then I’d be upset all the time. They want a really strong reaction. I don’t want to be that person.”
She had another option, she knows: She could have embraced her notoriety. “I had everyone calling my mom: Dr. Phil, Jerry Springer, Playboy. I could have been like Paris Hilton, but that’s not me. That thing is so unlike my personality; it’s not the person I am. I guess I didn’t think it was real.” As these experiences become commonplace, she tells me, “it’s not going to be such a big deal for people. Because now it’s happened to a million people.”
And it’s true that in the years since Susie’s tapes went public, the leaked sex tape has become a perverse, established social convention; it happens at every high school and to every B-list celebrity. At Hunter College last year, a student named Elvin Chaung allegedly used Facebook accounts to blackmail female students into sending him nude photos. In movies like Road Trip, “oops porn” has become a comic convention, and the online stuff regularly includes a moment when the participant turns to the camera and says, “You’re not going to put this online, are you?”
But Susie is right: For better or worse, people’s responses have already begun to change. Just two years after her tapes were leaked, another girl had a tape released on the Internet. The poster was her ex, whom we’ll call Jim Bastard. It was a parody of the MasterCard commercial: listing funds spent on the relationship, then his “priceless” revenge for getting dumped—a clip of the two having sex. (To the casual viewer, the source of the embarrassment is somewhat unclear: The girl is gorgeous and the sex is not all that revealing, while the boy in question is wearing socks.) Then, after the credits, the money shot: her name, her e-mail addresses, and her AIM screen names.
Like Susie, the subject tried, unsuccessfully, to pull the video offline; she filed suit and transferred out of school. For legal reasons, she wouldn’t talk to me. But although she’s only two years younger than Susie, she hasn’t followed in her footsteps. She has a MySpace account. She has a Facebook account. She’s planned parties online. And shortly after one such party last October, a new site appeared on MySpace: seemingly a little revenge of her own. The community is titled “The Society to Chemically Castrate Jim Bastard,” and it features a picture of her tormentor with the large red letters loser written on his forehead—not the most high-minded solution, perhaps, but one alternative to retreating for good.
Like anyone who lives online, Xiyin Tang has been stung a few times by criticism, like the night she was reading BoredatButler .com, an anonymous Website posted on by Columbia students, and saw that someone had called her “pathetic and a whore.” She stared at her name for a while, she says. “At first, I got incredibly upset, thinking, Well now, all these people can just go Facebook me and point and form judgments.” Then she did what she knew she had to do: She brushed it off. “I thought, Well, I guess you have to be sort of honored that someone takes the time to write about you, good or bad.”
I tell Xiyin about Susie and her sex tape. She’s sympathetic with Susie’s emotional response, she says, but she’s most shocked by her decision to log off entirely. “My philosophy about putting things online is that I don’t have any secrets,” says Xiyin. “And whatever you do, you should be able to do it so that you’re not ashamed of it. And in that sense, I put myself out there online because I don’t care—I’m proud of what I do and I’m not ashamed of any aspect of that. And if someone forms a judgment about me, that’s their opinion.
“If that girl’s video got published, if she did it in the first place, she should be thick-skinned enough to just brush it off,” Xiyin muses. “I understand that it’s really humiliating and everything. But if something like that happened to me, I hope I’d just say, well, that was a terrible thing for a guy to do, to put it online. But I did it and that’s me. So I am a sexual person and I shouldn’t have to hide my sexuality. I did this for my boyfriend just like you probably do this for your boyfriend, just that yours is not published. But to me, it’s all the same. It’s either documented online for other people to see or it’s not, but either way you’re still doing it. So my philosophy is, why hide it?”