Some time ago I was going through my social media feeds when something caught my eye. A person I barely knew posted a selfie with himself and partner, both facing the camera and making a surprised face, with an older lady in the background fanning her face and clearly suffering from the heat, with the following message superimposed: “On the way to Spain, lady already hot before even getting on the plane”, or something to that effect. I don’t know why, but I found the message extremely condescending and insulting. Perhaps it was the fact that the lady in question was probably suffering from menopause and was experiencing her own personal summer, or that she had a low threshold for heat. What really shocked me was that there are people willing to publicly shame others with a mobile phone in the interest of getting a few likes on a social media story. It also struck me as extremely creepy to photograph another person without their knowledge, particularly doing it to criticise something that to me seemed entirely trivial. I could not understand the mentality that thought this was acceptable behaviour. Needless to say, an unfollow ensued.
Since that time, it seems like what I call “shaming selfie” has only become more prevalent. I started noticing variations of the theme all across the Web, the setting is usually the same, a person carefully pointing the camera towards someone else in the background, while making an exaggerated face, implying disapproval to what that person is wearing, doing, eating. It may be my curmudgeonly old self speaking, but I despise this trend, it seems like a generation that has been raised on the selfie sees nothing wrong with sharing other people’s image online, while those of us photogenically challenged may not wish to have our picture splashed all over the Internet. This trend came to a culmination when Playmate Dani Mathers posted a selfie making a face of disgust while at the same time sharing a naked elderly lady in the background. The backlash was swift, and she was charged for invasion of privacy (a misdemeanour under California law), and Mathers pleaded no contest and was sentenced to serve community service.
I have been thinking about this in the last week as a result of the #PlaneBae saga. In case you haven’t followed it, on July 3rd blogger Rosey Blair and her boyfriend were on a flight to Dallas, and asked to exchange seats with a person, joking that “she might meet the love of her life”. Blair then went on to document on Twitter and Instagram a supposed budding romance between the passengers in front of them, taking pictures and publishing them, albeit with their faces covered (the Twitter thread has since been removed). I saw this being re-tweeted by countless people as a heart-warming story, an example of why the Internet is great, as someone in my timeline put it. As soon as I read this, I felt a sense of unease, I seemed to be alone in thinking that this was a horrible intrusion of privacy, listening in on a private interaction, recording it and sharing it to the world felt completely wrong.
As the story became viral, Blair hinted at her new followers that they should try to find out who the couple were, and the Internet quickly found out their identity. The man in the story enjoyed the attention and went along with it, but the woman did not have such a good time. Part of the story had hinted heavily that there had been some sort of sexual engagement in the plane’s toilet, so the woman was harassed online and had to remove her social media presence. She then made a statement condemning the recording:
“I did not ask for and do not seek attention. #PlaneBae is not a romance – it is a digital-age cautionary tale about privacy, identity, ethics and consent.
“Please continue to respect my privacy, and my desire to remain anonymous.”
I think this episode epitomises that there is something wrong with current culture of treating people as mere content, and it challenges the idea that we are simply actors in someone else’s timeline. While the law is all over the place on this issue, the first thing that has to change is the culture that applauds such violations of privacy to take place. In a fantastic article on the subject, Ella Dawson writes:
“I don’t think there is any such thing as a “private person” anymore. The vast majority of us constantly groom our internet presence, choosing the right filter on Instagram for our brunch and taking polls of our friends about our next Facebook profile picture. We don’t think about this as a public act when we have only 400 connections on LinkedIn or 3,000 followers on Tumblr. No one imagines the Daily Mail write-up or the Jezebel headline. We actively create our public selves, every day, one social media post at a time. Little kids dream of becoming famous YouTubers the same way I wanted to be a published author when I was twelve.
But there are also those of us who don’t choose this. We keep our accounts locked, our Instagram profile set to “friends only.” Maybe we learned a lesson when a post took off and left the safe haven of our community, picked apart in a horrifying display of context collapse. Maybe we are hiding from something: a stalker, an abusive ex, our family members who don’t know our true queer identity. To some of us, privacy is as vital as oxygen. Without it we are exposed—butterflies with our wings pinned to the corkboard, our patterns scrutinized under a magnifying glass. For what? For entertainment? For someone else’s mid-workday escapism? For a starring role in someone else’s bastardized rom com?”
I am sure that at some point we will have to do a more thorough legal examination of the implications of sharing people’s images without their consent. In many ways, we already have some sort of protection via human rights law, data protection, and a myriad of other disparate image and personality rights, but the truth is that if you are not a celebrity, recourse is hard to find. What is evident is that we must start by having a discussion of what is ethical behaviour when it comes to making other people part of your social media stories. Consent has to be at the heart of it, and I only hope that the Mathers and PlaneBae stories may help us to navigate towards a sane solution that respects people’s privacy.