Friday, November 11, 2011

Shame, Rediscovered?

In that Burger King, Andy Boyle thought he was listening to the disintegration of a couple's marriage. He was really hearing the crumbling of his own ethics and self-restraint. We can't stand by and let an alliance between technology and poor judgement disintegrate all decency, and turn every human exchange into another tawdry and destructive episode on a never-ending social media highlight reel.
- Dave Pell, Gizmodo, "The Day Privacy Died"

Those who are accustomed to reading through this blog are aware that I'm not a great fan of Gizmodo. Articles like the one quoted above are one reason why.

Quick recap: the article describes a situation where a couple started arguing in a public place -- a Boston area Burger King restaurant, to be precise. What made this argument different is that someone else in the restaurant decided that the argument would make interesting fodder for his Twitter feed. He posted snippets of the argument, pictures of the couple, and even short bursts of video taken from his smartphone. And as will sometimes happen in this age of immediate gratification, the tweets went viral and the video of the argument was eventually broadcast on ABC News.

Mr. Pell is horrified at the injustice perpetrated here -- not by the arguing couple, mind you, who decided to impose their argument on everyone else in the restaurant, but by Andy Boyle, the guy who tweeted the argument. Why? Well, Mr. Pell has this odd idea that an argument between two people in a public place is, nevertheless, just between the two people arguing.

That's pretty spectacularly wrong, but Mr. Pell goes one better -- in trying to explain the distinction between 'celebrities', who Mr. Pell seems to believe ask for this kind of thing simply by virtue of being celebrities, and 'non-celebrities', Mr. Pell uses the example of Anthony Bourdain, who had a nude picture stolen from a hacked device and decided to 'get in front' of the issue by posting the picture to his own Twitter account. How does Mr. Pell equate the two?

The whole incident doesn't paint a pretty picture of the state of our often obsessive culture. But I'm sure it didn't surprise Bourdain. He's a celebrity. He chooses to be in the public eye. He expects to occasionally have to deal with a violation like this because he knows the rules of being a celebrity.

But if Andy Boyle's actions are an indication of a broader trend, we are entering the age of the unintended celebrity, where the new rules state that we all run the risks associated with fame without necessarily enjoying any of its benefits.

Get it? If Scarlett Johannsson's phone gets hacked and naked pictures of her start showing up on the Internet, well, that's just the rules of being a celebrity, and a fair price to pay for all those celebrity benefits. But when the police do things in public that would be embarrassing to be revealed to a wider audience, it's valid to invoke the laws of privacy to prevent that revelation from happening.

This is, of course, exactly the opposite of the way things should be. If your phone is hacked, whether you're a celebrity or not, that's wrong, and doing anything with the information you get is equally wrong. On the other hand, if you do something in public, you should be prepared for the 'public' that can be made aware of your action to be much more than just those folks within immediate earshot.

If anything, this episode awakens some small bit of hope for me that, perhaps, etiquette is not entirely dead yet.

Etiquette can be best described as a set of social expectations by which society agrees to abide. There is no formal punishment for violating the rules of etiquette, but the informal punishment is always to make the violation known and thus causing embarrassment and shame for the violator. Of course, 21st century America seemed to be 'the land shame forgot', which made etiquette and social politeness all but impossible to enforce. Without even this informal enforcement mechanism, there's no real drawback to being impolite or boorish...

...Unless your boorishness might get posted to the Internet. Perhaps the picture of your scrunched-up face will be the target of folks writing LOLcat captions for a week, or maybe your rant against Hispanic people who don't seem to want to learn English will become the new hot ringtone.

Is that a good enough reason to mind your manners? Perhaps instead of the day privacy died, this will be remembered as the day good manners were reborn.