The uncanny entangling of the Bebo social networking website with news reporting around the demographic of its mostly youthful members took another step with the April 18 edition of the Dominion Post.
As part of the second day of coverage of the Mangatepopo canyoning tragedy, the paper compiled brief profiles of each of the teenage victims. Four of the victims – Natasha Bray, Portia McPhail, Floyd Fernandes and Tom Hsu – had Bebo pages that provided the paper with much of the information about who they were and what they were like.
Had it not been for the extraordinary openness of the victims’ families and their school, there might have been an ethical question about the use of their private material in such a way, but this time that wasn’t the case. It seemed more like an opportunity for the departed kids to have a say about who they had been.
Their schoolmates also turned to Bebo to express their own feelings. The Elim Christian College Memorial Page was established as a place for other young people to pay their respects. Some wrote poems and, at the time of writing, the memorial profile had been viewed more than 15,000 times. The embedded YouTube videos made by Portia and Natasha – giggling, miming to pop hits like teenage girls do – assumed a particular poignancy.
The blog and discussion site I run also lost one of its own this year- a witty and valued contributor who lost a battle with mental illness. Most of us had never met him in person, but our forums gave way to tributes, and our online friend’s partner and mother both generously posted their thoughts.
His disappearance and death were reported in the traditional media, but it seemed to us that this was better and meant more. We also discussed that when kids gather at their social media places such as Bebo to remember their friends, they’re liable to be accused of falling into a death cult. That wasn’t the case for the Elim kids.
Things were different in the case of another tragic loss of a young life – that of Christ-church 15-year-old Marie Davis. TV news bulletins and newspapers treated Bebo – where Marie clearly had a lively presence – as fodder for speculation.
The majority latched on to a similarity between the name of one of her profiles, “towards darkness”, and Towards Darkness, a new film about the kidnapping of a young photographer in Colombia. What were they implying? A staged disappearance? At any rate, none of them went so far as to check whether the film had ever screened here. It hadn’t – indeed, at the time of Marie’s disappearance, it had had exactly five cinematic screenings, all in the United States. She couldn’t have seen it.
The Sunday Star-Times went further, devoting half its front page to an ominous story about Bebo on the basis of a single comment from Marie’s mother.
Marie’s three profiles on the site were certainly a potentially valuable line of inquiry – just like her mobile phone records – but Detective Senior Sergeant Virginia Le Bas never gave any indication to the media that they were more than that.
Instead of leaping at the chance to ascribe a dark significance to Marie’s life online, it might have been better to have seen those profiles and those striking photographic self-portraits as evidence of the energy and creativity that had been lost to her family and, perhaps, to the rest of us.