Why the trend of surveilling strangers online proves we are horrible

Posting embarrassing pictures of strangers is a way of policing individuality

Posting embarrassing pictures of strangers is a way of policing individuality

Should we be posting awkward pictures of strangers online? (Unsplash)

This story was originally published on March 15, 2019.

You see it all the time on social media: someone sees another person doing something stupid or looking ridiculous.

So they take a discreet photo and post the stranger's image to, say, Reddit or Twitter, usually to the amusement and occasional mockery of their followers. With the ubiquity of smartphone cameras, pretty much anyone can do this.

But should they?

In a recent paper called "Surveilling Strangers," Lauren Cagle says no.

Cagle, an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky who studies rhetoric and ethics, argues that these "strangershots" as she calls them, amount to policing people's behaviour and limiting our own ability to explore our identity.
Lauren Cagle

She spoke to Spark host Nora Young about her concerns with strangershots.

You argue that it amounts to a kind of policing of what's acceptable behavior, or what it's acceptable to look like, even. Can you expand on that idea?

Surveillance isn't just something that happens in a sort of top-down creepy Big Brother kind of way. It's also something we do in everyday life. Anytime we look at others and go, "Oh I can't believe that she's wearing that!" Or, "Oh I can't believe that he let himself leave the house looking that way!", we're making these surveillance-based assumptions about what it is ok to look like and be like in public.

And it's one thing to do that in the privacy of our own heads, but it's a very different thing when we use the technologies that we have available to us to take photographs to surveil other people, and then post the pictures as though to say, "this is not okay."

When we do that, what we're doing is we're saying there is something called 'normal', and "you are not." We are policing what counts as normal, and who falls outside of those boundaries.
If a person never finds out [that the image was posted online], is there still a problematic or ethically dubious impact of sharing this kind of content and commenting on this kind of content?

I think so. There is also a normative question of what should you do. And so often, in so many arenas, technology outpaces that normative ethical question. And we're so busy trying to keep up with what we can and can't do that we forget to ask "should we?"

Every time that we engage in this behaviour, whether we're the ones taking the strangershot and posting it online, or whether we're the person commenting, liking, sharing or retweeting, what we're doing is we're classifying new norms around what we should do — without taking a moment to step back and question if this behavior is leading to the kind of world that we want to live in.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Click the listen button above to hear the full conversation.


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