Once, when I was younger and would dress somewhat outrageously, I caught a stranger recording me on his phone as I danced on the tube, on my way to a gay club. The video never surfaced online to my knowledge – perhaps he simply sent it to a group chat – but for months I looked over my shoulder when dancing.
Turning strangers into online content for the purposes of comedy and entertainment has become a global pastime. And we lap it up. A drunk person relieves themselves in the street, a loved-up couple gets a bit steamy in a supermarket, a man is in his own world loudly singing out of tune on crowded public transport – the content is endless. But the line between lighthearted 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 Fabric nightclub in London. The video was uploaded online with the caption: “Yo I’ll never be going Fabric again.” The intention was clearly to laugh at the man’s dancing, and the clip also invited a range of homophobic and ageist responses, with the man in question reporting to Vice that his “heart sank” when he saw tweets about himself.
None of us can expect a legally protected right to absolute privacy when we step out in public. There are, however, basic ideas that we’re all supposed to hold around respect and dignity, which mean we should not invade others’ personal space through intrusion or fixed observation. It’s an unspoken code that is evaporating at a time where there are rewards to be gained by selling out another person’s privacy, making them go viral.
Cases such as Peacock’s might seem obviously cruel or unwarranted, but clearly not everyone sees it that way. After all, most of us have recording equipment in our pockets, designed not only to capture but to disseminate content in an instant. It takes active thought to see that what’s going on is too often a kind of antisocial behaviour: a rigorous policing of fun, spontaneity and expression, a disciplinary mechanism for social conformity.
Sometimes recording is not as spontaneous as spotting a stranger you think is ridiculous and snapping: in our age of YouTube and TikTok there are also the curated setups where a stranger becomes a supporting character in a skit they’ve not auditioned for. Like Candid Camera for generation Z, it’s commonplace for strangers to be pranked or misled for the purposes of content. These pranks usually have less sinister or malicious intent than spontaneous recording, but the feeling of being degraded is often the same, with uploaders potentially monetising the content.
For instance, a Melbourne woman who was made to participate in a “random act of kindness” TikTok without her knowledge, described being filmed without her consent as “dehumanising”. 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 argument about that) but Skies didn’t see it that way.
“I had just run for and missed the train so I was already flustered and annoyed, and then that happened to me. I don’t know if my anxiety was kicking in but I was ready to fight,” he tells me. “I wanted to slap him but I had to think about where I was as a tall black man.” Though he felt he was being set up, he was still not prepared to see the video online. “My cousin sent it to me, because he’s of that age group. He was laughing, saying, ‘You’re so funny.’ But it didn’t feel nice. I got a bit of anxiety and my heart started pounding, I wasn’t ready for it.” Skies is powerless here – so long as footage is taken in public and does not reveal certain personal data, such as your bank details or medical history, you generally do not need the subject’s consent (though a professional production company making a prank show would certainly get written permissions from its subjects).
There are, of course, instances where recording strangers can be in the public interest: state abuses of power, such as police brutality, jump out. But we do need to start thinking more carefully about this dog-eat-dog culture of public spectacle. Take the example of someone, who appeared to be a school age child, filmed shouting at passengers on a commuter train this month after seemingly being asked not to vape. (It was viewed several million times on Twitter.) Many would argue that if you behave offensively, and cause a public scene, then you forfeit any right to expect a dignified social code of privacy, and that there should be appropriate social consequences for this behaviour.
Few people who negatively commented online seemed to consider that they might have been watching footage of a minor. Or that the intense gaze of multiple recording devices could have overwhelmed the subject, whose response was likely escalated by a defensive need to stand their ground and not look weak in front of the cameras. Their behaviour was certainly not appropriate, but what does it mean when bystanders can witness a young person vaping on the train and their first thought is to ridicule and humiliate? Would the incident have played out differently without cameras and the incentive to create content from other people’s meltdowns? And even if their behaviour was bad, was it really in the public interest for it to be shared, when the behaviour was simply disrespectful rather than violent or bigoted?
Until such practices become social faux pas there is the chance that you could step outside and become someone else’s ticket to social media stardom. The use of mobile recording devices has empowered us in many ways.; Beefing up privacy laws to prevent the filming of strangers in public would be undesirable, not to mention unworkable. What can change is social and cultural – reacting with grace to each other’s embarrassments, and minding your own business more.