All You Need to Be a Modern Digital Stalker Is a Smartphone
Smartphones have turned us into creeps—snapping strangers’ photos, tweeting about the person next to us on the train. It’s time to check ourselves.
It’s hard to describe the feeling of seeing a photograph of yourself, taken without your knowledge. It’s a realization of vulnerability: you didn’t even notice someone using a device aimed at you. That particular moment now exists “forever.” Where Lincoln has a statue, you have a picture of yourself mid-sneeze.
Or perhaps, like Sophie Wilkinson, a picture of you halfway through eating a meal.
Wilkinson, an editor at DeBrief, was on a train, eating a rushed meal. A man sat opposite her, took out his phone, and surreptitiously photographed her eating. She knew about the Facebook group “Women Who Eat On Tubes” and assumed, correctly, it was the target destination of the picture. Why else would a complete stranger photograph her mid-meal?
As she explains:
I tried to tell myself I was being paranoid; that he’d simply been drafting an email ... But each day afterwards, I scrolled through [Women Who Eat On Tubes]. After a couple of days I gave up looking, because I didn't have time to scroll through all the entries.
Then a friend emailed to say she’d seen me on the site. At first, I replied ‘OMG LOL’ because I felt some accomplishment in knowing that I wasn’t unjustifiably paranoid;… But then I saw the comments. ‘I would like the name of her finishing school. Fail,’ went one. ‘Entering or exiting her gaping orifice??’ another. And: ‘Bloody hell… no one is going to take it off you.’
As Wilkinson highlights, the rather strange Facebook group has amassed more than 12,000 followers. The most important detail, however, is that the pictures are all taken without the subject’s consent. There are other similar Tumblr and Facebook groups that Wilkinson indicates, like “Men Taking Up Too Much Space On The Train” and “Sleepy Commuters.” There is also a “Women Doing Their Make-Up On the Tube” Tumblr.
According to Buzzfeed’s Cate Sevilla, “the people behind WWEOT say they are ‘not judgemental’ and that the group does not ‘intimidate nor bully’ women.” Yet, as Sevilla indicates, “Each picture usually includes the location, time, and line the woman was eating on, as well as a detailed description of how they were eating, plus multiple photos.”
Consider the immediate comments to Wilkinson’s photo. Consider, too, a similar Tumblr with such “non-judgemental” or insulting titles like “Three little pigs” —because any woman eating is obviously a pig and not just a hungry person.
Why is there such a detailed, stalkerish nature to the group? What purpose does detailing time and location serve except to make the woman realize she was being watched, and make her more fearful, hesitant, and ashamed?
The ubiquity of smartphones and the widespread connectivity to the Internet seems often used for petty, if not harmful, ends. The pettiness could be no issue—photograph all of your children, rainbows, sunsets, and kittens. However, when you use that same tool to shame women who are just hungry; when you target people you think too large; when you target harmless people at all, to indicate how ugly and stupid you think they are, then a reconsideration of behavior is needed.
Smartphones are not just phones: they are recording devices able to reach potentially millions of people. Just ask any woman who’s been a victim of “revenge porn” (it’s neither revenge nor porn, but exploitative imagery); or perhaps Justine Sacco with her single Tweet that echoed around the world; or any number of people who have had their jobs lost or lives ruined because of a picture upload or status update.
These are, of course, all different cases—a victim of exploitive imagery is not the same as a person sending a racist-sounding Tweet or death threat. The point is that this technology isn’t neutral: it’s powerful.
The problem is precisely that such power is unreasonably easy to use: a simple click of the button and your target’s life could be completely ruined in the same manner we pass on cute cat pictures. You don’t know where that picture of the eating woman will go or what people will say (actually, you should, if you recognize how awfully women are treated online). All this should at least give you a moment’s pause if you actually care about other people.
But this all becomes irrelevant since there are many who are genuinely keen on such behavior—as indicated by the numerous members of those creepy groups. WWEOT, for example, has 15,000 members. Consider other examples, like successful crowdfunding of a camera device that let’s you take surreptitious pictures. The product originally advertised “upskirt” shots of women (photographs taken without consent) as an actual incentive to obtain the product.
The final stroke of circular frustration is that there’s little repercussion for the “photographer.” After all, they’re not the ones having their faces photographed. This isn’t about “anonymity makes people do bad things”—it’s about the lack of consequences, since all the focus is on the supposed “dumb” person who dared to eat, sleep, or do whatever the photographer arbitrarily decided is offensive, in front of the photographer. Wilkinson correctly calls this “stranger shaming,” but it’s also recognized as “public shaming.”
It should begin to cease and only we can do it. It shouldn’t be victims leading the charge, but also potential or past voyeurs who won’t unthinkingly photograph harmless people again.
It’s almost always been the case that technological progress seems to lead—or not strictly align with—moral.
These debates happen still today: what can we publish? What can we write? Who can I interview or profile and how? What can I draw? Be it a piece of technology, an ability, or even a right, a good rule of thumb for using any tool is that if that tool will affect others, you should at least be considering, for a moment, how and why you’re using it. The Internet is the most remarkable tool humanity has ever created, probably (aside from the sometimes equally vile but necessary waste management systems). It provides freedom, but that is no reason to think you have freedom to do what you want with it.
Of course, there’s legal recourse related to threats, defamation, and so on. Yet, this assumes all crimes will automatically be handled sensitively and the offenders brought to book—which especially, in an age where the police can’t keep up with social media, can be meaningless.
Criminal law shouldn’t be the only reason you do not behave badly; if it is, then people are not moral beings but robotic, amoral prisoners. Unfortunately, this is the mindset often encountered in debates about abusive behavior that isn’t 100% criminal. Women Who Eat on Tubes and groups like it have defenders who use grey legal areas as defense.
For example, consider this from Natalie Gordon, a friend of the WWEOT’s creator, in the Huffington Post:
WWEOT is a harmless, tongue-in-cheek group with absolutely no malice or agenda, seeking simply to dramatise [sic] the ridiculousness of its own inanity. Does it throw into question women's privacy […]? If you want privacy when you eat here's an idea: Do it somewhere, you know, private. No one is breaking into anyone's home here. The photos are taken on 'Public Transport'. The clue is in the name really. You give up your image rights when you leave your house and consent to be photographed in public isn't a legal requirement in the UK.
“Because it’s not criminal,” goes this logic, “it’s not wrong.” Law is not morality, since law itself could be wrong: consider debates on capital punishment, drug legalization, etc.—or the obviously wrong laws from recent history like apartheid. If the law isn’t a guide to morality, then this indicates people can and obviously already do better.
Gordon’s assertion might be technically true, but that doesn’t lead to her conclusion that people shouldn’t complain, nor does she support her claim that the group is harmless when women are indicating their fear, anger, and victim-hood, and when they’re organizing protests and responses.
Abusers almost never consider themselves abusers—it’s just a joke, a little fun, stop overreacting. Almost no one wants to think of themselves as acting wrong, as being the bad guy. Yet, that is the case here—and the only defense is to claim “but it’s not criminal.” (Or, as the Just World phenomenon suggests, victims “bring on” wrongdoing themselves because bad things only happen to bad people. They must be doing something wrong, like leaving their private property, eating, perhaps wearing a short skirt, make-up, etc.)
Photographing women without consent can cause unnecessary suffering for no good reason. This is what needs to be conveyed strongly—doubly so when the group’s creator says “[the photography of WWEOT] should cherish its subjects in the way a wildlife photographer cherishes a kingfisher in a river.” Yes, “wildlife,” which never consent to photography; which are not persons; which are “fascinating” and there for others’ benefit, not their own.
This isn’t just about being photographed without consent. It’s not even primarily about a strange Facebook group. It’s about recognizing that people are moral beings with powerful tools, and that we’re so unthinking in our morality, but so quick with our trigger fingers.
We’re all guilty of it because all of it is so new. But that’s no reason you can’t curb your photographing of stranger, your sharing of videos mocking harmless beauty queens fumbling at speeches, your laughing at people we deem ugly or unfashionable.
None of these behaviors are particularly new—but they’ve become remarkably easier for us to partake in. And, for that reason alone, they can be more detrimental to others. This requires you to remember you’re dealing with real people, not 2D strangers who you’ll never meet or see again. Everyone is a public figure now and, with that, all things that happen to them can become public too.
Let’s celebrate our freedom of technology, but be ethical about it, too.