Taking someone’s photo without their consent and posting it on the internet is a crappy thing to do. It’s invasive, inappropriate, and can even put the other person in danger. In a world that made any sense, this wouldn’t require further explanation. This would be a commonly understood part of the social contract.
Instead, last week alone darkened the internet’s door with stories about the insufferable #PlaneBae saga, as well as one of the more distressing Dear Prudie questions in recent memory (no small feat).
In the case of the former, Twitter user Rosey Blair spent hours live-tweeting the flirtation of two strangers sitting in front of her on a flight, complete with pictures, garnering hundreds of thousands of retweets (she later made a thirsty attempt to parlay her viral fame into a job at Buzzfeed, which should tell you everything you need to know).
In the latter, a Dear Prudie letter writer looked to be let off the hook after getting caught taking an authorised photo of an overweight colleague and “[sharing] it in an online community where we discuss the obese people in our lives”.
Social media is terrible, and social media is amazing. It inundates us with panic-inducing news and rage-inducing hot takes; it also keeps us connected to our friends, professional circles, and news from around the world. But if you try to drink straight from the fire hose, you're going to drown - or get your head blasted pretty hard. The key is figuring out what social media is good for - for you - and then getting other things that you need from somewhere else.
The intent behind the two incidents — “Let me get some sweet RTs out of this cute love story happening between strangers!” vs. “Let me roast someone with a bunch of my arsehole friends online” — was, obviously, pretty different. But in both cases, posting the photos was a gross, borderline abusive way to treat another human being.
Again, this shouldn’t require explanation. People don’t tacitly sign a waiver agreeing to have their image, goings-on and physical location splashed all over the internet just because they dared to leave the house.
Blurring out their faces (or other identifying details) mitigates the harm a little bit, but even then, not really! Blair blurred out the faces of the couple in her Twitter thread, and the woman in the story — who, rightly, wants no part of any of this — has declined to have her name released, and since had to delete her social media profiles in an effort to protect her own privacy.
Just because you aren't sharing a photo or video with the intent of cruelty doesn’t mean that its subject wants to be at the centre of any type of public commentary, or that the results might not be personally devastating for them.
There are obvious exceptions to this rule. Police abusing their power, Nazis and white supremacists parading in the streets, anyone who otherwise seeks to do harm to others — these people no longer deserve respectful privacy and should be aggressively documented, the better to ensure they face consequences for their actions.
But strangers going about their business should be left the hell alone. Not everyone wants to be turned into content. And not everything needs to be.