Teenager Cameron D'Ambrosio was jailed after posting a rap video on YouTube that included questionable lyrics. It's a sign of changing times. What's next?
Last month an 18-year-old Massachusetts teen was jailed without bail after posting a video of his rapping on Facebook with an accompanying message that included the following: "I ain't no longer a person, I'm not in reality" and "fuck a boston bombinb [sic] wait til you see the shit I do..."
After seeing the post a number of the teenager's Facebook friends reported the incident to their high school principal, who contacted the police.
Social media is slowly becoming material evidence in the prosecution of violated taboos. It assembles data points that inform against a person's would-be criminal pathos.
The teen, Cameron D'Ambrosio, had a history of social conflict and violent outbursts. In an earlier incident he'd been the victim of a brutal beating that left him hospitalized with a ruptured spleen after writing aggressive things about another student's girlfriend. The previous summer he'd been arrested when, after his sister locked herself in her bedroom during an argument, he allegedly threatened to stab her.
"There are no more threats that are high school pranks," police chief Joseph Solomon said in a press conference. "If they're thinking that way, they need to get their heads into 2013."
The case will be prosecuted under a section of Massachusetts law that makes it illegal to either bring weapons or threaten to use them in schools or public buildings—a strange statute to use since D'Ambrosio never mentions the school in his post and his use of "you" on Facebook is addressed to a group of people wider than just his classmates.
Such semantic ambiguity is not accidental, but at the center of every instance in which social networks are used as the basis for alleged criminal action. Social media is slowly becoming material evidence in the prosecution of violated taboos. It assembles data points that inform against a person's would-be criminal pathos.
The breaking of taboos is not in itself forbidden, but a privilege only for those whose behavioral history is tame enough as to not trigger panic in the body politic. The crux of the D’Ambrosio case is not whether rap hyperbole that namechecks real attacks should be outlawed, but whether we should allow everyone the privilege of doing so. In this case, what matters most is not what you are doing, but what type of person you are deemed to be.
This questioning of the social makeup of a person is an extension of the prejudices kids impose on one another in the competitive pressure cooker of school. As a result, high school is hell for a lot of kids. When you are forced to wade into hell every morning, being told that it's good for you all the while, unpredictable behavior ensues.
The central claim in D'Ambrosio's post is not ultimately about murder or violence, but the announcement of a celebrity identity that he imagines will exist on a plane above the petty social policing and teen aggression of high school. It's a deliberate transferral of negative prejudice—"YOU people caused this fucking shit"—and a pathetic acknowledgement that the only credible hope for a life free of snooping mistrust comes through fame, the most accessible form of which is rapping.
The vilification of people based on the instability of their social standing is an old phenomenon, but it's one that turns Facebook into state's evidence, conferring an implicit fear of being judged in the ways people use media. This fear is diffuse but omnipresent, visible in how we expect to be greeted when we choose to behave one way or another, and how those expectations create a feedback loop that intensifies the behavioral choices we make.
In a way, you could take D'Ambrosio's defiant claims as a calling out of those social forces he was expecting to find, a way of carving out some free space for himself by rejecting those who'd begun a history of rejecting or antagonizing him for his behavioral impulses.
For that reason we cannot separate an inquiry into D'Ambrosio's behavior from the standards of those who turned him in, enforcers of a status quo designed to be exclusionary and fearful. Taboos become a litmus test for separating the enforcers from the enforced, and social media turns into a honeyed mouse trap. Once again, social media purports to offer a platform for free expression that is, and always was, another means of punishing the dispossessed.
Michael Thomsen is Complex.com's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.