Who's Afraid of the World Wide Web?

by Conor Friedersdorf

A long piece at GQ tells the disturbing story of Tony Stancl, an 18 year old high school senior who created a fake female identity on Facebook, flirted with male classmates by Internet chat, and successfully encouraged hundreds of them to send along naked photographs. These he kept on his computer. The unluckiest victims were subsequently blackmailed. The made up female would threaten to release the photographs unless the boys performed oral or anal sex on "my friend Tony." Some boys agreed, and allowed that to be photographed too.

It is difficult to imagine a more striking cautionary tale for teenagers who inhabit the Internet age.

One can only hope that the victims of "sextortion" in this case aren't permanently traumatized -- and that the perpetrator is appropriately punished, hopefully discouraging other would be predators from preying on classmates in the same way.

Having laid out the story, the GQ writer reaches the following conclusion:

What happened here is shocking because it was not all that shocking. In the beginning, when Kayla and Emily asked these boys for naked pictures, the majority of them thought little of saying yes. This exchange was within the range of what kidslots of kidsconsider normal. Online, a boy chats with a girl he's never met. Pants go down. Pictures are sent. And a chain of unpredictable, unknowable consequences is set in motion. Whatever else he may be, Tony Stancl is an opportunist. He rode the big wave that more and more kids ride, out to a place where every flesh-and-blood kid is also a phantom, where adolescence isn't so lonely, where you don't have to wonder, Isn't there anybody who wants what I want? In this world, no IM goes unansweredand for every teenager who types the question will u send it?, there is another typing, Yes.

Am I alone in thinking that the casual attitude taken by many teenagers toward naked pictures generally -- as opposed to the horrific deception specific to the case above -- isn't surprising at all? In the annals of American history, how many high school boys have exposed themselves to high school girls they met only recently? I am certain that very few stopped beforehand to ponder whether being seen naked would traumatize them, and that very few were ever traumatized by the experience. (I'll avoid speculating one way or another about the experience of women.) I hasten to add that exposing yourself to high school classmates is a bad idea! It would seem to inculcate unhealthy attitudes toward sexuality, and risks prosecution under overly broad child pornography laws. Would my high school senior self nevertheless have complied if a beautiful classmate cornered me at a party, intimated that she had a huge crush on me, and hinted that maybe we could be a thing if only I'd undress? He probably would have!

This issue is so thorny. If I ran for office and confessed that as a 21-year-old I went skinny dipping in mixed company one drunken night in Nice, France, I'd be unembarrassed about the experience, which was innocent enough, pretty damn fun if you want to know the truth, and an exploit with which I imagine most people can identify. What if a classmate from those days, having taken photographs (or even worse, video) without my knowledge, subsequently released them online? I'd be embarrassed. Some folks would regard it as a minor scandal. Can you see the Drudge headline? "Senate candidate exposed in naked romp!"

Like the (apocryphal?) tribes who feared that being photographed would rob them of their souls, we've reached a strange point in society where lots of behavior, whether desirable or undesirable, is considered far worse if it is documented on the Internet. This is at times perfectly rational, or else understandably irrational, but it sure is vexing, and I am quite thankful that my own teenage years were blissfully free of having everything I did documented in the cloud.