On a recent weekend night, a friend of mine had too much to drink, leading to some embarrassing but funny moments. These moments were inevitably captured and uploaded to social media as part of the fun. At the time it seemed natural. But thinking about it later, I wondered: Was it wrong to have shared the video without our friend’s consent? Were we unnecessarily using them for our own benefit? Sharing pictures and videos of our friends and family has become automatic in a lot of contexts. Parties, game nights, random embarrassing or funny moments — time spent with those closest to us is a consistent source of content for our social media. But should it be?
Not without their consent.
When thinking about this, I found a thought experiment helpful: Would you be willing to show the picture or video in question as part of a slideshow to a room of your followers? If not, maybe posting it deserves a second thought. We’ve been conditioned to assume anything and everything belongs online as part of our perpetual digital performance. See something, post something. This mentality makes everything, including the people closest to us, a means to an end — the end being a post that entertains or fulfills our particular social media goals.
There is a difference between capturing moments and taking scripted snapshots. Capturing a moment involves recording something that is happening, usually spontaneously (think a picture you take of a friend doing something at a party). A scripted snapshot is where everyone involved decides to come together to take a picture or video (think the picture you take after a family event). I’m writing about capturing moments and posting them. Scripted snapshots involve a level of consent that makes posting them unsurprising. Capturing moments, however, usually involves a level of intimacy that makes posting them more invasive and problematic. We do things with our close friends and family that we don’t do with anyone else because of the trust, acceptance and bonds that come with those relationships.
The funny thing about the real world is that we are invisible to most people outside of our inner circle. But when we are recorded and put online, we are suddenly visible. People who would otherwise have no interest in what you’re doing are suddenly captivated by the face staring back at them. They have a whole digital profile (name, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, etc.) to attach to the content that they’re seeing, making the irrelevant and meaningless relevant and meaningful. Our close friends and family are the only people who can break through this wall. They are the only ones who care enough to record our everyday moments, and therefore they are the only ones with the power to make the quotidian permanent, searchable and visible to everyone else.
Asking for consent when sharing moments would respect those closest to us and encourage critical thinking about privacy. Asking permission acknowledges people’s autonomy and personal preferences. It treats them with respect and avoids making them simple fuel for social media. Asking permission also forces the poster and the subject to consider the costs, benefits and motivations of a post instead of participating in the automatic sharing process common today. It would resist the commoditization of our lives and encourage conversations about social media use and privacy that rarely occur. Do parents’ embarrassing moments need to be online? Should their kids’ be? Should your friends’ weird habits or drunken revelry be posted? Maybe. Maybe not. But the question should be asked.
As more and more people feel like they have lost control of their privacy online, asking before posting moments would be a small step toward regaining control. Yes, it won’t eliminate the constant tracking from tech companies, data brokers and everyone else with a vested interest in the surveillance economy. But it would encourage more awareness about privacy and the effects of technology and potentially foster healthier relationships. Thinking back to my friend, holding off on posting until asking them would have cost next to nothing (other than instant gratification) while potentially avoiding making them an instrument, embarrassing them or creating anxiety about who saw the video. It seems obvious that asking for permission before posting moments is the right thing to do in a close relationship. We care for our close friends and family in many different ways. Why should their presence online be any different?
Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.