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It’s challenging to explain the problem of people thoughtlessly making other people into social media content, because if you provide examples, you only draw more attention to something that shouldn’t be happening in the first place. Or, worse, you confuse your point and sound like you’re being critical of people who film police or otherwise try to document dangerous situations.
Suffice it to say that on a regular basis, a photo or a video will go by in some social media feed or another in which a totally ordinary person doing a totally ordinary thing — eating lunch, walking down the street, talking to friends — is removed from all context and made into a snotty comment about how the world is. “Why are they on their phone instead of looking at the beautiful sky?” “Why are they talking to their friends too enthusiastically about that movie I didn’t care about?” “Why are they wearing those shoes?” “Why are they walking like that?”
And if you look at the numbers on the post, it will turn out that some totally ordinary and unwilling person has been viewed in this quite dehumanizing context by a million people.
In fairness, this was a pretty predictable result of everybody having a camera with them at all times. Who hasn’t wished they had a camera to document the amazing “small person walking huge dog” moment they spontaneously got to enjoy? Or a video of the man giving his friend a speech about … whatever, Robert De Niro or whether people should roll up the cuffs on their pants? Curiosity happens, and surprise happens. The observation of and interest in other people in public is not inherently exploitative; it’s often lovely, actually.
Surveillance of them, not so much. This isn’t to say surreptitious video of people engaged in some sort of harmful or dangerous treatment of somebody else is wrong, or that you need to ask permission to film somebody who’s harassing the clerk at Target. But if the person isn’t doing anything wrong, if you are purely using someone as a curiosity, what exactly is the reason you know not to say, “Can I take your picture?” Deep down do you know the person might not want you to? That they would not allow it if they knew about it? “Can I take a picture to use you as an example of how boring I think your clothes are?” Nobody says that. What is that person doing by wearing those shoes that entitles you — not legally, but personally — to do something using their image that may be a deeply unpleasant experience for them?
Is the answer to walk around with your head down, ignoring the world of hilarious weirdness that’s often around you? Of course not. Here’s one answer: Become a storyteller. Instead of publishing a photo of those three people you saw wearing almost identical yoga pants and tank tops to demonstrate how basic you think that is as a standard uniform, put a little effort into describing them with words in a way that doesn’t allow anybody to identify them. This is what language is for! You are telling a little story about something that you saw. You can be just as cutting as before, maybe more so. You’re just not making anybody famous without their consent.
We need an etiquette of pictures and videos of strangers, I think. We’re far enough into the “practically everybody has a camera” age that we know how it goes, how much people often do not welcome attention they never asked for, and how you just never know when your post you expect to be a small deal will become a big deal, bigger for someone else than for you. There are digital stickers you can put over somebody’s face if you don’t know whether they want their picture on your feed. There are ways to offer descriptions and preserve anonymity. There is your group chat to share things with; there are your texts. We’re all finding our way through a very different environment than existed maybe 10 years ago.
But bear in mind: Standing there with your phone out taking a picture of people who are innocently eating lunch might qualify as pretty weird behavior to some people. And one of them might also have a phone.
This piece also appeared in NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter so you don’t miss the next one, plus get weekly recommendations about what’s making us happy.
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