Eve’s apple, Pandora’s box and the internet

One night in Seattle, my friend gets hit on in a line at Dick’s Drive-In. My friend and her suitor exchange Instagrams. The moment we load back into her car, we go on our phones. After finding his full name on his Instagram, we Google him. In less than a minute, we learn several things that didn’t come up in conversation, like his age, his job and where he went to college. We laugh, we put our phones away and we go on with our lives with a few extra factoids about him in our pocket.

We live in an age where privacy sometimes feels like an impossible relic. Not that we don’t desire it (most people do), but to believe in privacy, both for others and yourself, feels naive. The internet has opened a door that can no longer be shut. Like Eve’s apple and Pandora’s box, our world is irrevocably changed. If anyone tries hard enough, they can find anything. 

For most normal people, this state of constant surveillance doesn’t lead to anything serious. Okay, you find out your crush has Imagine Dragons on most of her Spotify playlists, which is tragic, but fine, you still like her anyway. You find out a guy in your class had an internship at Amazon and that his favorite movie on Letterboxd is “The Wolf of Wall Street,” which you probably could guess from vibe check alone. You learn that the guy who asked you out is 26 years old and that he has two younger siblings. These things are publicly available (even if you don’t necessarily think of them that way), and possessing knowledge of them is largely harmless.

For certain individuals, though, all of this public information about you is something that can be weaponized.

Illustration by M Hu.

It used to take more work to invade people’s privacy. Paparazzi had a name – it was a specific job with a specific skill set. For regular citizens, invasion of privacy would usually require some degree of stalking and other kinds of research. The internet, however, has democratized invading privacy by allowing pretty much anyone to do it. You don’t need to leave your room; you just need to know how to work a computer. The person you’re stalking does the hard work for you, too: they give you their location, what they’re doing, who they’re dating, who they’re hanging out with or their school. Other times, they don’t even need to do it because other people or institutions will tag them in a tweet, upload photos of them or make posts about them.

The internet has also let this destruction of privacy become a communal activity. There aren’t just isolated individuals utilizing this information – there are communities of people, all of them working in tandem to stalk and profile an individual, analyzing Instagram posts, dropping off sightings and so on. Sometimes, these communities are dedicated to this kind of thing (see: lolcow.farm, the now-defunct prettyuglylittleliar.net, r/SmolBeanSnark, etc.). Other times, pre-existing communities spontaneously band together at an inciting incident. Most recently, for instance, numerous Try Guys fans responded to the video of Ned Fulmer cheating on his wife like they were sleeper agents and that blurry clip of a nightclub was their waking code, leaping to scour Reddit, make timelines and analyze previous Try Guys YouTube videos. 

The way these behaviors are perceived varies. Being active in a communal internet stalking group is taboo and would be regarded as deranged by most people. Suddenly and temporarily lunging into internet-stalking someone, because everyone else is doing it, is a little more ambiguous – let’s call it a neutral behavior. Either way, relishing in these kinds of invasions of privacy ranges from slightly perverse to completely fine – maybe even normal. That’s what frightens me the most: we perceive this insanely open access to the individual dramas and details of people’s lives (and our own) as another fixture of modern life.

Then again, what other option is there? We certainly can’t turn back technologically. Solving the urge to invade other people’s privacy is just as impossible: after all, gossip and other people’s business is a time-old fixation. Before video exposés by YouTubers and TikToks, we had tabloids and TV. Before tabloids and TV, we had satirical plays and stories. This is the same old human impulse reformulated. The trouble now is the ease, speed and frequency with which we can grant those desires. Maybe the only thing we can really hope for is a race to the bottom: overstimulation to the point of numbness. Knowing everything so that nothing can matter anymore. There are worse solutions.

Source: Whitman Wire