At the Crossroads of Media, Culture and Technology

Criminal Confession: Art or Social Media Campaign?

Original Image Sources: "I Killed a Man" video; Vintage Apology Line poster art.

Original Image Sources: “I Killed a Man” video; Vintage Apology Line poster art.

In a new YouTube video, a young man confesses to being drunk the night he caused a fatal traffic accident. What is his motivation for posting the video? How does it relate to a famous media art project of the 1980s that presaged the coming digital era? A deadly coincidence between the two underscores the discomfort we feel when the worlds of criminal confession and media self-publishing intersect.

The Apology Project

In 1980, a provocative art project using a key piece of social sharing technology was launched. Artist Allan Bridge posted flyers around New York, advertising a new service: The Apology Project.

“Attention criminals,” those first notices read, “You have wronged people. It is to people that you must apologize, not to the state, not to God. Get your misdeeds of your chest! Call Apology.”

People who called the supplied phone number reached a telephone answering machine, which advised callers against providing their names as the tapes of their apologies would be available publicly. By the time the project stopped in 1995, more than 1000 hours of what we would now term “user-submitted content” had been recorded. The acts apologized for ranged in severity from regrets about not wishing a family member “happy birthday” to confessions of committing multiple murders.

Not all of the content was apologies though. Callers to the service also had the option to listen to apologies. Some who did so then left messages responding to others’ apologies. Asynchronous conversations sprung up between anonymous voices on the answering machine’s cassette tape.

Although rooted in the technology of its time, the Apology Project relied on the same usage protocols that would be invaluable in assuaging public concerns about privacy in the digital age to come. Later in the decade, dialup online services like CompuServe and America Online would bring asynchronous text conversation to the general public, with a general presumption that the use of pseudonyms rather than real names was not only acceptable, but for most people was inarguably the wise and prudent choice.

The drawback of pseudonyms, of course, is lack of accountability. People are more willing to engage in libel, flame wars, and trolling when they feel their targets don’t know who they are. In response, a general trend away from online pseudonymity began soon after the turn of the century and was hastened by the mass adoption of Facebook. Facebook not only tries to force users to post with their legal identities, but has also sought to become the identity management system of record for any website wishing to include civil conversation in comments sections.

Facebook and other social sharing sites are much more than that, though. They are also performance venues. As users of these platforms, we are encouraged by form and example to treat them as galleries, as stages, as reality media with ourselves as the stars. Following most people’s first few tentative posts telling their meager number of friends they are eating sandwiches or otherwise engaged in mundane activities, they react to the response those posts get. Like a standup comic who is not getting the laughs he expects, they are faced with a choice between adapting their material to better suit their audiences or leaving the stage and joining the audience, where they mostly lurk and watch others’ routines. The Pavlovian treats of likes, retweets, and back and forth banter modify our behavior by giving us little chemical bursts of pleasure, and we hunger for the next fix.

“I Killed a Man”

The extent to which public performance has become a normal behavior in the Facebook age was underscored a few days ago. A video surfaced on the YouTube channel for “because I said I would,” an online project that bills itself as “…a social movement dedicated to bettering humanity through the power of a promise.”

At first, the style of the video is all too familiar: In blackness a man’s voice, pitch shifted to avoid recognition, states the name of the video: “I killed a man.” The blackness cross-dissolves to the man’s face, obscured by a digital mosaic, as he tells his story of drinking too much, attempting to drive home, and causing a fatal accident. This is Public Service Announcement territory, using a true story as a cautionary tale: Don’t do what this guy did.

Then, the story takes an unusual turn. The anonymous man tells how he met with lawyers who explained how they thought they could get him off from charges related to the incident. “And all I would have to do for that was lie,” he says. The video fades to black and he says “Well, I won’t go down that path.”

Again the black cross-dissolves to the man’s face. This time it is not obscured. He is clearly identifiable. He opens his mouth and speaks in his natural voice. “My name is Matthew Cordle, and on June 22, 2013, I hit and killed Vincent Canzani.” The cautionary tale has turned into something more powerful. We are now watching a modern entry into the Apology Project, but with anonymity stripped away. At the end, after offering an apology, Cordle slips back into PSA mode and urges viewers not to make the mistake he did. He even brands his message with our current era’s badge of sincerity, a hashtag: #saveyourvictim.

Where Allan Bridge’s answering machine offered the guilty a chance to confess without consequence, Matthew Cordle’s video does the exact opposite. With it he has sealed his fate. There seems to be no chance whatsoever that the charges against him will be dropped. Matthew Cordle will be going to prison for what he did.

Presumably Matthew’s lawyers aren’t happy with his performance as he confesses to the crime they told him they might get him off from, but plenty of YouTube viewers are. The ratio of likes to dislikes is roughly 18:1, although some heated back and forth in the comments shows some more nuanced reactions.

What does the emergence of a video like this mean? Have we turned a corner and moved to a place where staged performance is seen a valid replacement for soul searching? Will it become commonplace for criminal defendants to mount social media campaigns?

Apology as a Means to an End

Without doubt, the Apology Project clips that have been heard the most were chosen for their emotional impact. They are raw documents. Mouths pressed against telephone handsets fumble for the right words, and we hear the speakers’ breath as is goes in and out. In some, background traffic noise helps paint a mental picture of an apologizer in a pre-cellphone phone booth, trying not to make eye contact with passers by lest they see a stain of guilt or shame. The callers are leaving these messages to ease, if only temporarily, the weight of a secret burden. They are struggling with their consciences, and we hear the strain in their voices.

The impact of the “I Killed a Man” video comes not from obvious struggle, but from the crafted symbolism of sincerity. Cordle comes across as believable, and there is no reason to doubt his genuine regret for his actions, but the most apparent struggle in the video happened before the cameras rolled, as the videographer struggled to position lights just right to bathe Cordle’s face in honesty, with more than a touch of pathos. This is no self-shot confession on an iPhone — it is a complete studio production with multiple camera angles, pans, tilts, and slick editing. A soundtrack runs underneath Cordle’s story then fades out to emphasize the public service aspect of the video when he shifts gears and urges viewers not to drink and drive like he did.

Cordle tells us his motive for making the video is altruism. By embedding his story within the conventions of a public service message, he attempts to deflect questions about other motivations he may have for making the video.

More than two months went by between the fatal accident and the release of the video. There’s never been any question of Cordle’s role in the accident — he was arrested at the scene and his blood alcohol content was tested at over twice the legal limit. If his only goal was to own up to his actions and bring Canzani’s family peace, he could have confessed in a less public manner at any time. It’s hard to imagine the attention resulting from his YouTube gambit is doing anything but making life harder for the Canzani family.

That he sees the video as a tactical move in a legal chess game is evident in its most carefully crafted moment. Cordle doesn’t just describe that he was drinking, he states his reason for drinking is “because I have depression that I struggle with every day” while claiming “You know, I really don’t like the person I become when I drink.” A less adept video maker would have put this section in the unobscured section of the video, where we could see pain in Cordle’s eyes. Instead, it happens early, where the first-time viewer hears it told by an anonymous man in an apparent PSA. By the time we meet the de-anonymized Matthew Cordle, we’ve filed the message away without consciously registering it as the plea for leniency that it actually is.

But it’s hard to not consider that there’s another motive at play here. As a 22 year-old in 2013, Matthew Cordle is part of a generation that values fame like no previous generation has, and has at its disposal enormous and easily-accessible media distribution that can make that fame happen. Today, the only thing standing between any one of us and instant celebrity is our ability to create a message with resonance. Cordle may view the death he caused as a personal opportunity, the mother of all Facebook timeline life events. He may lose a few years to prison, but he won the Internet and when he gets out he’ll have a chance to parlay this 15 minute shot of fame into a repeat. Only time will tell if his redemption story gets him onto “Dancing with the Stars.”

Where his lawyers may have been pursuing a risky approach that would either get him off scott free or annoy the judge into imposing a longer sentence, Cordle has opted instead to accept guaranteed jail time and play instead for a shorter sentence by attempting to demonstrate he is not actually an irredeemable reprobate. The question is whether this approach turns out to carry risks of its own. A judge who sees the video as self-serving exhibitionism may opt for the longer sentence as well.

We may well be in for a flurry of copycat videos as miscreants of all sorts try to duplicate what works in this one. Perhaps the shelf life of the phenomenon will be short as the novelty fades and prosecutors learn to strip them of their emotional impact by showing them in context with other attempts. One can imagine the appearance of less and less competent videos, resulting eventually in a criminal confession so ineptly scripted and produced that it becomes an ironically viral phenomenon in the manner of Rebecca Black’s “Friday.”

Even if the “I Killed a Man” video proves to be an one-off and not the precursor of a trend, its very existence shows how much has changed in the past few decades.

The Apology Project was a provocative piece of art, in which those with something to apologize for were asked to contribute raw material. The brilliance of the concept lay not only in the subject matter it addressed, but in Bridge’s intuitive understanding that his answering machine provided a means to turn analog telephones into a distributed community of individuals having asynchronous conversations. The apologies gained in significance by being mediated into art. More than three decades after the project began, it is still being referenced and generating derivative works.

Matthew Cordle’s video is provocative as well, but in a more unsettling fashion. From a societal point of view the conversation happening on on its YouTube page is an irrelevant by-product of the media distribution tools we all now have access to. But to Cordle, that conversation about him may actually be the real goal of the video. Certainly for his victim’s family the real conversation, the only one that counts, will be the one that happens the day Cordle sits in a court room and learns his fate.

Allan Bridge’s Apology Project ended in 1995. That year, while scuba diving, Bridge was accidentally struck by a jet ski. Witnesses describe the unknown jet skier circling around following the impact and, on realizing they’d hit a man, opening the throttle and fleeing. Nearly 20 years later, no one has yet apologized for causing Bridge’s death.


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This post is categorized in: Art & Design, Law, Social Media, Society

About Brook Ellingwood

I'm a digital polyglot, occasional writer and 2011 graduate of MCDM. I'm the Director of Interactive at KCTS Television, but my opinions are my own.

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