Once, when I was younger and dressed rather outrageously, I caught a stranger recording me on his phone dancing to the tube, on my way to a gay club. The video never surfaced online as far as I know – maybe he just sent it to a group chat – but for months I looked over my shoulder while dancing.
Turning strangers into online content for comedy and entertainment has become a global pastime. And we patch it up. A drunk person relieves himself in the street, a couple in love becomes a bit stupid in a supermarket, a man is in his own world singing out of tune in busy public transport – the content is endless. But the line between light-hearted teasing and digital harassment seems to be getting thinner by the day.
Recently, a 64-year-old retired man, Michael Peacock, was filmed dancing enthusiastically at London’s Fabric nightclub. The video was uploaded online with the caption, “Yo, I’m never going to Fabric again.” It was clearly intended to make fun of the man’s dancing, and the clip also provoked a series of homophobic and ageist reactions, with the man in question telling Vice that his “heart sank” when he tweeted about saw himself.
None of us can expect a legally protected right to absolute privacy when we go public. However, there are basic ideas we should all have around respect and dignity, which means we shouldn’t invade other people’s personal space through intruders or fixed observation. It is an unspoken code that is evaporating in an age where there are rewards to be had by selling another person’s privacy, making it go viral.
Cases like Peacock’s may seem blatantly cruel or unwarranted, but it’s clear that not everyone sees it that way. After all, most of us have recording devices in our pockets, designed not only to capture content, but also to distribute it in the blink of an eye. It takes active thinking to see that what is going on is too often a form of antisocial behavior: a rigorous oversight of pleasure, spontaneity and expression, a disciplinary mechanism for social conformity.
Sometimes recording isn’t as spontaneous as spotting a stranger who you think is ridiculous and snarky: in our days of YouTube and TikTok, there are also composite setups where a stranger becomes a supporting character in a skit they haven’t auditioned for . Like Candid Camera for generation Z, it is common for strangers to be fooled or misled for the sake of content. These jokes usually have less sinister or malicious intent than candid shots, but the sense of humiliation is often the same, with uploaders potentially monetizing the content.
For example, a Melbourne woman who was forced to participate in a “random act of kindness” TikTok without her knowledge described being filmed without her consent as “dehumanizing”. A friend of mine, Kyle Skies, recently fell victim to a YouTube prankster, in which he was provoked by a series of annoying questions. The video is incredibly funny (there’s no arguing with that) but Skies didn’t see it that way.
“I had just run and missed the train, so I was already confused and annoyed, and then that happened to me. I don’t know if my fear kicked in, but I was ready to fight,” he tells me. “I wanted to hit him, but I had to think about where I was as a tall black man.” Although he felt he was being set up, he was still unwilling to see the video online. “My cousin sent it to me, because he’s of that age group. He laughed and said, “You’re so funny.” But it didn’t feel good. I got a little bit of anxiety and my heart started pounding, I wasn’t ready.” Skies is powerless here – as long as the footage is made public and certain personal details, such as your bank details or medical history, are not revealed, you generally don’t need the person’s consent (although a professional production company making a prank show might sure would). obtain written consent from the nationals).
There are, of course, cases where the inclusion of strangers can be in the public interest: abuses of power by the state, such as police brutality, stand out. But we need to think more carefully about this dog-eat-dog culture of public spectacle. Take the example of someone, who appeared to be a school-age kid, filmed this month yelling at passengers on a commuter train after apparently being asked not to vape. (It was viewed several million times on Twitter.) Many would argue that if you engage in offensive behavior and cause a public scene, you forfeit any right to expect a dignified social privacy code, and appropriate social consequences should be met. are. behaviour.
Few people who reacted negatively online seemed to consider that they might be looking at images of a minor. Or that the intense gaze of multiple recording devices could have overwhelmed the subject, whose reaction was likely escalated by a defensive need to stand firm and not look weak to the cameras. Their behavior was certainly not appropriate, but what does it mean when bystanders see a young person vaping on the train and their first thought is to ridicule and humiliate? Would the incident have turned out differently without cameras and the incentive to make substance of other people’s breakdowns? And even if their behavior was bad, was it really in the public interest to share it, when the behavior was simply disrespectful rather than violent or bigoted?
Until such practices become a social faux pas, chances are you’ll step out and become someone else’s ticket to social media fame. Using mobile recording devices has made us stronger in many ways; Tightening privacy laws to prevent strangers from being filmed in public would be undesirable, not to say unworkable. What can change is socially and culturally: responding to each other’s shyness with grace and minding your own business more.