Can We Not Record Strangers' Conversations And Put Them On Twitter?

Have you ever had that experience where everyone’s laughing at something and you’re just sitting there in silence, internally screaming WHAT THE FUCK WHAT THE FUCK WHAT THE FUCK???

That happened to me when I read about this “hilarious” livetweet by a Canadian blogger of a “douchebag” on his first date at a cafe. I’ve been seeing this shared all over the internet, including by lots of my friends, always with comments about how “hilarious” it is and how much of a “douchebag” the guy is. At first I kept asking myself what I was missing about this, but then I realized that maybe it’s other people, and not me, who are missing things.

“But you can’t help but overhear people sometimes!”

Let’s start with the obvious fact that, while overhearing people in public places is inevitable, intentionally paying attention to them when they clearly don’t mean to include you is not inevitable, and documenting their conversation for the purpose of spreading it around on the internet is even less inevitable. Haven’t we been saying this all along about online stalking? If you know that someone would not be comfortable being listened to and recorded–and you should always assume that a stranger would not be comfortable with you listening to them and recording them–the correct thing to do is to not listen to and record them, unless there is a compelling reason to. Sorry, but making fun of an egotistical dude is not that compelling a reason. I’m talking about stuff like, protecting others from violence or abuse.

“But he’s an asshole!”

Some people also apparently believe that it’s okay to violate someone’s assumed boundaries/privacy because “they’re an asshole.” Here’s an uncomfortable fact many of us don’t like to think about: someone out there thinks you’re an asshole. Yes, you. Many people probably think that I’m an asshole. There are probably many people who think that the things I say to my friends in public spaces are so completely ridiculous and laughable that they should livetweet them to all their Twitter followers and see what happens. There are people who think that you and your partner sound totally ridiculous when you’re out on your dates, too. And since people tend to have friends and Twitter followers who agree with them, their “hilarious” livetweet of your personal conversation might get quite a bit of traction online.

“But no, the people who think I’m the asshole are wrong! They’re the assholes!”

Good luck with that.

The thing is, you never really know someone’s story. Often when people shame someone online, they end up with a completely wrong impression of what was really going on. This is a particularly painful example of that–a person who was shamed online for sitting on a folding chair on a treadmill and watching TV. This viral photo, I suppose, was meant to be some representation of Everything That Is Wrong With Fat People These Days. Of course, they got it wrong:

It’s not just the fat-bashing that hurts. Or the humiliation, the shaming, this last safe societal prejudice. All that is bad, of course. What really hurts, though, is how much the boys who took that photo of me “doing it wrong”—and the thousands of people who see it—will never know.

They’ll never know how experiences just like this began dividing me—early—from my body. That the taunts of “fatty” and “blubber” and “lardass” when I was 6 made me stand at my bedroom window and wonder if it was a long enough way down to the ground; that when the kids at lunch poked my stomach with pencils to see if I’d deflate, I honestly wished I would, with a long, satisfying “sssssss”; that by the time Ms. Gleby was leading my entire sixth grade Phys Ed class in laughing at me, I no longer had a body at all. I was a floating head, and I was determined to think of my physical form as a brick that I had to suffer the inconvenience of dragging around. My body wasn’t me. It was despicable. It was nothing.

The people who laugh at this picture won’t know that every jeer, every “mooooo,” and every “sorry, no fatties” made me more and more successful at being bodiless.

And they won’t know how scary it’s been to decide to maybe make a different choice.

They’ll never know what came before that treadmill-sitting moment: 80 minutes of aerobic exercise. They’ll never know how long it took me to feel worthy of motion, worthy of joining a gym, how long it took me to decide that moving actually felt good, and then the discovery that this was the way to reunite my floating head with the rest of me, to feel my body at its most basic, a biochemical machine that supports me. That’s what I am on a treadmill. That’s what bodies are. They are not appearance. They are purpose. It’s so hard—irrationally hard—to remember that. The world makes it hard to remember.

I’m not saying that the guy on the date had some deep back story that was causing him to appear to be a douchebag when he really wasn’t. Maybe he really is a douchebag. Maybe he really is terribly sexist. But it’s important to remember that we’re seeing this guy through one person’s lens, and that person was clearly motivated to make him seem as ridiculous as possible in order to create a bunch of viral tweets.

I’m not going to throw out some platitudes about never judging people or thinking that they’re silly. Judge, but like, consider that you’re maybe not the ultimate arbiter of whether or not a total stranger that you’ve never even interacted with is A Douchebag?

“But it was anonymous, so what’s the problem?”

Yes, shaming people online anonymously is worlds better than shaming them online and actually naming them (or posting photos of them). However, keep in mind that when something goes viral online, you lose control of it. There have been plenty of instances in which internet mobs have deliberately identified and named previously-anonymous people in viral stories. Sometimes this has disastrous effects, especially when these internet mobs are incompetent (as they are wont to be) and name the wrong person.

Even without a mob, though, some random Twitter follower could be like “Oh hey, I’m in that cafe too! That guy is [insert physical description here].” And someone else could be like, “Oh, I totally worked with that guy once and he was such an asshole.” And before long, the fragile veil of anonymity is gone, and someone is getting named and shamed online for something really quite insignificant.

Besides, they still know it was them. They still have to deal with the humiliation of thousands of people mocking them for it. It’s easy to claim that being an asshole means you deserve this, but do you really? And, as I said earlier, I’m pretty skeptical of any attempt to label a total stranger an asshole on the basis of one person’s tweets. (Not that that’s not at all the same as not believing someone who claims that someone harassed or assaulted them. It’s different when you 1) name a specific thing that the person did and 2) they did it to you.) I’m more okay with shaming people for doing specific harmful things to other people, because–although this is a controversial point–there is some evidence that this can (in certain types of situations) be an effective way of preventing people from hurting each other and/or helping to repair the harm already done. Being egotistical and annoying is not that sort of offense, though.

“So what, sharing stories about other people online is always wrong?”

Nope. It’s a spectrum and there are lots of different ways to talk online about one’s experiences offline. Posting about it on a private friends-only account is different from posting it publicly. Sharing the location is different from not sharing the location. Sharing a line (or a few lines) of dialogue is different from obsessively documenting an entire conversation. Sharing something positively (i.e. “Here’s an awesome compliment a stranger gave me!”) is different from sharing something negatively. Sharing something in order to warn people of a problem is different from sharing something purely for the purpose of ridicule. Sharing something that was said to you is different from sharing something that you overheard that was not meant for you to hear. (To that end, this would’ve felt somewhat less creepy if it’d been livetweeted by the woman who was on the date with the guy.) Sharing something to your audience of 50 Twitter followers is different from sharing something to your audience of 20,400 Twitter followers, which is how much the blogger in question has.

I could go on. Point is, there’s a lot of nuance. A decision to share something after a careful consideration of some of these questions would leave me feeling a lot more comfortable than a broad claim that “well it’s anonymous” or “but he’s an asshole.”

I feel like a lot of the response to this is stemming from the deep frustration many people have with 1) dating, 2) egotistical people, and 3) sexism. (Keeping in mind about #3 that, as far as I could tell, there wasn’t really any clear sexism in the livetweet. Just a guy being incompetent at engaging a woman in conversation. Which could be sexism, could not be.)

I get it. These things are really quite frustrating and I actually have no patience for any of them, including dating. But 1) unless it happened to you personally, this is not your story to tell and 2) there are plenty of ways to share these stories with friends and get support and laugh about it that don’t involve viral tweets. I’m a huge fan of posting on Facebook (not publicly) and of having a group Facebook message going with close friends, where everyone can share their various frustrations and triumphs.

I’m just not here for this creepy eye-f0r-an-eye “if someone is an asshole then it’s now acceptable to do just about anything to them” thing.

And lest it seem like I’m doing the irritating “can’t we all just get along and not be mean to each other” thing, let me be perfectly clear: a world in which the response to this blogger’s livetweet is “whoa wtf that’s creepy and obsessive what are you doing” rather than “LOL SO HILARIOUS LOOK AT THAT DOUCHE” is a world in which we are all safer. Because the world we have now is one in which, apparently, people actively eavesdrop on each other, record each other’s conversations, and make them go viral online for the purpose of ridiculing them.

Do you want to live in that world? Because in that world, anything you say can be used against you for no particular reason. Even if you did nothing ethically wrong or actually harmful. You can wake up one morning and have your entire Twitter feed ridiculing something you said to a friend on the subway yesterday, and even though it’s anonymous, you will know, and your friend will know. Your boss could call you into their office and ask why you were talking about sex positions with your girlfriends at a bar over the weekend. The top search result for your name could be a “hilarious” livetweet from one random hour of your life you wish you could forget.

So, we could live in that world if y’all really want to. Or–or–we could decide, and persuade others, that obsessively recording a stranger’s entire conversation and putting it online is a weird and creepy thing to do. We could recalibrate our response from “LOL WHAT AN ASSHOLE” to “um why are you so preoccupied with what random strangers are saying on their dates?”

I’m not scared of dudes who talk about themselves too much and say silly things about what it’s like to be a writer. I am, however, terrified of all these vigilantes who think it’s their role to police the relatively innocuous faux pas of total strangers.

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Further reading, since I didn’t want to get too repetitive:

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Can We Not Record Strangers' Conversations And Put Them On Twitter?
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3 thoughts on “Can We Not Record Strangers' Conversations And Put Them On Twitter?

  1. 1

    I saw that pop up on my feed several times, though I never got around to reading the original post/tweets.
    I didn’t get around to thinking about it much either; not having read it I didn’t know how bad it was. But I really like your take on it, and on trying to be decent to each other while not jumping to conclusions on a limited viewpoint.

  2. 2

    I couldn’t agree more. Eavesdropping is not cool. Eavesdropping and broadcasting what you hear on the frickin’ internet? So far beyond not cool that you’re no longer even in the same state. Possibly not even on the same planet.

    Also, do we really want to take this person’s word that they’re giving a completely honest and unbiased account of the events in question? Are we sure there hasn’t been any editing, interpolation, or additions, to make it a “better” story? (Actually, are we even sure it’s real?)

    Whenever I’m having a conversation in a public space, do I now need to take active steps to ensure that nobody is earwigging and posting it all on Twitter? Is this really the world we want to live in?

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