Private Lives in a Public Era
Writer Ella Dawson posted a piece on her blog (subsequently posted to Vox) entitled “We Are All Public Figures Now,” in which she tackles what she sees as the erosion of personal privacy due to social media and other factors, and what she thinks it all means. It’s an interesting read and I recommend it, and also, I agree with much of it, in spirit, if not in the letter of the law.
More specifically, relating to the letter of the law, “public figure” is means a specific thing here in the US, and in fact most people aren’t one, even if you have a Twitter or Facebook or other social media feed. It takes a reasonable amount of effort to become one (although if you want a shortcut, get elected to something). There is such a thing as a “limited public figure,” which essentially carves out a slice of your life for which you can be held up for public comment and scrutiny. But even then, that’s not most people. It takes some work in the US not to be a private individual, and I suspect most people don’t want to make that effort. So from a strictly legal, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan point of view, no, we’re not all public figures, nor are we likely to be found so.
But it is absolutely true that these days, far more of our daily activity is able to be made public, though use of phones, cameras, social media and other tools. Words or activity that would previously be confined to a select few — and would be expected to be private — can now be transmitted to a much wider audience, very quickly. This includes words and actions you might have reasonably expected would not be in the purview of the public at all.
For example, the instigating action of Dawson’s piece, in which a passenger on a plane livetweeted an apparent “meet cute” between two other passengers in the row in front of her. The livetweeter, among other things, illustrated the tweeting with photos (with faces scrubbed but even so), noted the two people being tweeted about had active social media accounts, and did other things to make it easy (or easier) for the people following the livetweeting to suss out who these two people might be — and indeed, they were found online — at which point the Internet does what it does, for good and ill, and then it came for the original livetweeter.
None of these people, it should be noted, are public individuals — the meet cute couple certainly not, but also not the livetweeter, even if they later admitted hoping to get a writing gig (being a writer also doesn’t automatically make you a public figure). And also, the couple chatting away at each other almost certainly did not expect to have their private conversation documented by someone else, particularly in a way that made it possible for their identities to be discovered by total strangers. Now, you can argue whether or not a commercial plane qualifies as a public or private space, and we’d be here all day about that, but I think it’s reasonable to say that the two people chatting with each other believed their discussion would not leave the confines of their airline row. Thanks to this, neither of the two of them will likely think that again.
And the question (or a question, anyway) is where the proper line should be for things like this. If the livetweeter had posted the rundown of their discussion, but without pictures or identifying details, would that have been kosher? If the couple had been excessively loud, so that anyone in the surrounding rows could have heard them, would they have been fair game? If one or the other had been making an ass of themselves, would, say, pictures, be back on the table? Is there a hard and fast rule for what is acceptable to tweet about strangers on airplanes? Is it different if they’re in a cafe? Or at a political rally? Is it different if retelling is not livetweeted but is instead saved for a blog post or article at a later time?
This is all interesting for me for at least two semi-competing reasons. The first is that I am a writer; I do a lot of observing of other people and listening in public. Occasionally I’ve written about what I’ve seen or heard. I tend to be very expansive about what’s fair game to listen and look at in public and quasi-public spaces (i.e., if I can hear your conversation when I’m on the street or in a cafe or on an airplane without making an effort to, I’m not going to feel like it’s out of bounds to pay attention to what you’re saying, and maybe you should be quieter, my friends). But I’m equally aware that not everything I hear or see needs to be documented, commented on, or be offered up for public enjoyment on social media, not in the least because the people I’m observing are usually just leading their own private lives. My awareness of my own megaphone, and my responsibilities in using it, comes into play here. I have to make judgment calls about whether what I see is commentable, and how so, and when so. Whether you agree with those judgment calls will be your own decision to make.
The second is that I’ve been on the other end of this equation too: I’ve had my public whereabouts and whenabouts commented on in real time by people on social media, and not when I was doing something meant for public consumption, like a panel or tour event, but when I was just loitering about in an airport or a coffeeshop. And you know what? That’s a little weird. It doesn’t bother me, generally, and I’ve personally never been made to feel unsafe because of it, and sometimes it’s even nice. But on the other hand, what’s comfortable or acceptable for me is not necessarily so for anyone else in a similar position, and in any event I’m not sure it will do anyone on social media any good, least of all me, if someone takes a picture of me scratching my ass or picking my nose while I’m waiting at a boarding gate. I’d want people to exercise the same judgment as I try to have in a similar situation.
(And for the record, with that couple on the plane, in the same situation I probably wouldn’t have tweeted anything about them, or if I did, I suspect I would have kept it to a couple of non-specific tweets — but I might have stored away the meet cute scenario for later, if I ever get around to writing a contemporary romantic comedy, which, hey, I might, so there.)
With a lot of this, honestly, a little empathy goes a long way — remembering that other people have lives beyond their capacity to be tweet fodder or story material for you, and that for the most part they want to keep it private, and reasonably have that as an expectation. As should you, if the situation was reversed. What’s “public” is a lot wider now, but in the appropriate times and places, we can still extend the courtesy of privacy, or, if not that, then anonymity.