People Keep Live Tweeting Overheard Conversations, And Why That’s Bad.

Earlier today, @NatalieZed sent out a series of tweets quoting a conversation that was happening in their living room. They later compiled them into a Storify, titled “We just need to be dudes together: A ukulele story,” and set the scene:

I am subletting a room for the summer. This sort-of-breakup of epic horribleness just happened in the living room. There was a ukelele.

To be sure, the guy seems like a twit and live-tweeting conversations is nothing new. Every week or so, I read or see a link to this sort of thing — a breakup, an obnoxious plane passenger, or a painfully awkward first date. The best ones (for whatever function of “best,” I’m really not sure) get compiled into Storifys or articles on the likes of BuzzFeed or HuffPo. If you’re unfamiliar with what I’m talking about, here’s a selection:

(That last one particularly creeps me out because it seems to include a surreptitious picture taken of the couple.)

I think it’s safe to say that the Internet sees this as funny — “hilarious” seems to be the adjective of choice. The formula’s familiar: a conversation takes place in a public place (although apparently not in NatalieZed’s case, which involved a living room), your intrepid tweeter gleefully live-tweets the conversation to the amusement and/or encouragement of their followers, and it either ends there or gets picked up by a larger website which compiles the tweets. With the advent of Storify, users can even cut out the middle-man and compile the tweets themselves.

While this sort of thing isn’t that common, there have been a few dozen high-profile cases and probably tons more low-level tweet-storms that don’t achieve the required critical mass of popularity. In fact, because of private Twitter accounts and the fact that some of these storms must take place over text or Facebook messaging, we don’t actually know how common it is.

Irrespective of its popularity — here’s why it’s bad.

When you live-tweet a stranger’s conversation in public (or worse — in private), you’re ignoring their privacy. Some might point out that, in a public place, anyone’s free to tweet whatever they want, and that’s true in the strictest sense, the United States Supreme Court has stated that people can still have “a reasonable expectation of privacy” when in public. In 1967, a man was convicted of a crime based on recordings of phone conversations he’d had (talking about illegal gambling wagers) which the FBI got from placing a bug on the outside of a phone booth. Katz challenged the ruling, saying that the recording violated his Fourth Amendment rights recording his phone conversations, and the Court sided with him, with Justice Stewart writing:

“One who occupies [a telephone booth], shuts the door behind him, and pays the toll that permits him to place a call is surely entitled to assume that the words he utters into the mouthpiece will not be broadcast to the world.”

So, even in a public place, it’s reasonable to expect privacy.

But even without going back 50 years to a court ruling, I think live-tweeting people’s conversations is weird because it, to however small a degree, implies that strangers have a right to your private life — if you’re having a conversation, it’s fair game for it to be written down, broadcasted, and commented on by other people online.

That’s creepy as all hell, because if the practice becomes widespread we’ll eventually have a world where all private conversations have to take place at home, which is surely the stuff of dystopia novels. It’s also somewhat unreasonable — if you think your boyfriend might flip his shit when you break it off, you don’t want him in your living room, and if we agree with the premise that private conversations can’t take place in public, forget about catching up with friends in a café ever again.

It’s also part of a wider problem — why should I care about some random breakup story that you’re tweeting about? This links into another problem I have with gotcha! journalism and our society’s voyeuristic tendencies, and is a subject for another blogpost, but for now, can we all collectively agree that we’re not entitled to other people’s private lives by virtue of them being in public for a brief period?