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Cassie crying in EuphoriaCourtesy of HBO

In defence of being weird and embarrassing in public

Surveillance culture has taken over our lives, encouraging us to mock, bully and snitch on others for content. Maybe we should learn to mind our business

Statistically speaking, it’s not very likely to be filmed without your consent in public and end up as the unwitting star (or villain) of a viral post. For the most part, if you’re picking your nose on the tube, doing the robot at a techno night, or engaging in whatever mildly eccentric behaviour might attract the attention of a citizen vigilante with a smartphone, the chances are you’ll get away with it. The internet is flooded with new content every second, and it’s relatively rare for something to break through and attract wider attention (even if this happens to some poor soul every day). But it’s possible to be afraid of events that will likely never occur, and it’s possible for that fear to seep into everything you do, manifesting itself in subtle shifts of thought processes and behaviours, until you find yourself living as though you’re subject to online scrutiny even when you are out in the world.

There is no escape from the internet today, because even if you decide to respect everyone’s privacy, there’s no guarantee that they will do the same for you. It’s legal to film other people in public, which means we’ve never really had the “right” to privacy in public spaces. But thanks to the proliferation of new technologies, such as smartphones and CCTV, we are now constantly haunted by the spectre of surveillance, which has a profoundly impoverishing effect on our own wellbeing and the culture at large. As long as we are not harming others, we should be able to be weird, intoxicated, and embarrassing in public without the threat of viral infamy. That’s not to say that people should have the right to harass women or embark on racist rants without consequences, but the bar for when it’s acceptable to film other people without their consent needs to become much higher than it is currently. Violating someone’s privacy in this way is usually a far more antisocial act than whatever behaviour is being captured; it needs to become taboo.

When people talk about ‘surveillance culture’, they imagine it as a top-down phenomenon; the kind of brutal repression depicted in 1984; something which is perpetrated against us by the state, unscrupulous media companies, and multinational tech corporations. There are good reasons for this: London has the highest number of CCTV cameras anywhere in the world outside of China, and the British state has been implicated in a number of surveillance scandals, from GCHQ’s mass spying on the population at large to the police’s targeting of activist groups and social justice movements.  It’s also no secret that tech companies like Facebook and Google are mining our data and using our private experiences as raw material to sell to third parties. But we are not simply passive victims of surveillance culture: we are perpetuating it ourselves all the time. “Today’s emerging ‘surveillance culture’ is unprecedented,” writes David Lyon in The Culture of Surveillance: Watching as a Way of Life. “A key feature is that people actively participate in and attempt to regulate their own surveillance and the surveillance of others.” If you’ve ever logged into a burner account to check someone’s Instagram Story, or snapped a sly pic of someone on the bus before sending it to the group chat, you have engaged in surveillance. Even by uploading images and personal details from our own lives, we are facilitating our own surveillance, however enthusiastically we may be doing so.

These minor acts of surveillance aren’t always sinister (glancing at an ex’s Instagram is hardly Orwellian), but they do feed into a culture that is already having adverse consequences both online and in the real world. Because the possibility of being surveilled is now ever-present, we start to modify our own behaviour. We become inhibited, we self-censor, we begin to view ourselves as though looking from the outside. This is known as ‘the chilling effect’, something which can spill out from the internet and impact our offline lives. “The negative impacts on freedoms are largely consistent with other forms of surveillance,” Dr Ben Marder, senior lecturer in marketing at Edinburgh University and the co-author of the definitive study into this phenomenon, tells Dazed. “However, it’s largely more omnipresent given mobile recording devices are everywhere, and this will only get worse with new technology such as Meta’s Ray-Ban glasses. The negative impacts aren’t just felt if content were to go viral (which is relatively rare), it could be just a couple of key connections who may see it, such as family members or employers.”

Feeling self-conscious when you’re dancing at the club because someone might film you would be an example of the extended chilling effect. Waking up after a heavy night with a vague sense of dread that your escapades have found their way online might be a consequence of failing to alter your behaviour but nonetheless being aware of the possibility of having been surveilled. Most of us will have experienced these things to some degree or another. For some, it leads to an almost debilitating level of self-consciousness when out in public. You can fine-tune your emotional response to surveillance culture, but you cannot opt-out of it entirely. Even if you delete all of your accounts and throw your phone down a well, you will still be at the mercy of other people.

“The negative impacts aren’t just felt if content were to go viral... it could be just a couple of key connections who may see it, such as family members or employers” – Dr Ben Marder

Frankly, some people do deserve to be surveilled: if you’re screaming racist abuse on the tube, I struggle to care about your right to privacy, whatever I might feel about the underlying principle. So filming someone who is being genuinely abusive or violent might be an instance where surveillance culture is morally justifiable, but whether it’s effective is a different question. Despite an upsurge in viral videos of people being racist or harassing women and queer people in public, there has been no corresponding drop in rates of these offences. If people want to surveil violent bigots or misogynists, then fair enough, and it’s true that racist police officers have been brought to justice as a result of being filmed by members of the public. But it would be a mistake to assume that surveillance culture makes people safer on a day-to-day basis or tackles the underlying problems in a meaningful way. It’s also fairly common to see footage of such incidents taken by bystanders who whipped out their phones at the first sign of trouble but otherwise did not intervene. At times like this, surveillance becomes a substitute for action.

Often, the negative effects of surveillance culture seem to far outweigh the positives. Every week I see a video go viral of an individual or a group of people having harmless fun and this almost always results in a torrent of abuse: bizarre assumptions, censorious moralising, or straight-up hate speech. These posts become a Rorschach test for whatever prejudices the viewer already has. Say a video goes viral of a group of working-class young people dancing at a barbeque: if you’re right-wing, you can say they look like ‘chavs’; if you’re a liberal, you can say they ‘look like they voted for Brexit’. In either case, they’re fair game, and a disdain towards working-class people is common to both responses, regardless of their superficial political differences. Similarly, last summer a photograph of a random family enjoying a paddling pool in the street went viral. For right-wing racists, it was a picture of some ‘immigrants’ enjoying the sun at the expense of the British taxpayer. For liberal types, the issue was that these people weren’t taking Covid seriously enough or looked as though they voted for UKIP. All of these furious, contradictory denunciations were drawn from a single image.

You don’t need to spend long on social media to realise there is a real appetite for scolding people who are guilty of nothing more than harmless fun. Desire plays a strong role in surveillance culture, argues Lyon, and it often seems as though the desire at play is about feeling better than others. This also has a disciplinary effect, punishing people who deviate from social norms. It seems you are more likely to become the subject of viral mockery if you are marginalised in some way. A friend who was fat when he was younger tells me that people used to film him dancing in nightclubs all the time, something which imposed a kind of self-consciousness from the outside and robbed him of what should have been a joyful experience. Surveillance culture enforces these kinds of social hierarchies: who we deem worthy of mockery, and what that mockery is intended to achieve, are political questions. It also rigorously polices public sex, something which is at best prudish and at worst violating: last week I saw someone post a video of a couple fingering on a train, which is functionally indistinguishable to sharing revenge porn. “Well, if you don’t want to get filmed, don’t finger someone in public,” you could say. To which I would counter: mind your own fucking business!

If there’s one positive development in response to surveillance culture it’s that more and more UK clubs, such as Fabric, are banning phone cameras entirely”

While it’s not the most sinister application of surveillance culture, it’s particularly galling when footage goes viral of someone dancing weirdly on a night out. Being cringe is often just a consequence of being disinhibited and feeling comfortable, which is a good thing both for people individually and club culture as a whole. It’s a cliche, but I truly believe there is no such thing as dancing badly if you look as though you’re enjoying yourself. However lacking in rhythm you are, however bizarre your moves, if you’re capable of giving yourself over to the moment then you are not a bad dancer. Even if you do, unambiguously, dance like a weirdo, you are still infinitely cooler than the people who would film you on their phones or sit at home making fun of you. Alternatively, you’re not going to become the subject of viral mockery if you’re shuffling at the side, but you’re probably not going to have that much fun either. I hear people say all the time that these kinds of concerns are edging their way into their minds when they’re trying to have a good time. If there’s one positive development in response to surveillance culture it’s that more and more UK clubs, such as Fabric, are following the Berghain model and banning phone cameras entirely. 

Social platforms actively incentivise us to view other people as potential fodder. Because we’re constantly mining our own lives for content, it’s natural that we see the lives of strangers as fair game. I don’t consider myself exempt from this: if I see something funny, my first impulse is to post about it. This is an impoverishing way to look at the world at the best of times – seeing reality as a series of opportunities for whatever mild dopamine hit you might get off a few retweets – but when you’re exploiting other people towards this end, it’s downright ugly. The subjects of these ‘look at this weird person being weird lol!’ posts are sometimes behaving so erratically it seems like they might be experiencing some form of mental distress or substance abuse problem. Virality doesn’t distinguish between someone acting a little strangely and someone in the midst of a full-blown crisis. If you see a person doing a line on public transport, then photographing them and sharing it online – which happens often – is not a helpful intervention, whether or not they are an addict. Even if you’re sharing something in a spirit of gentle mockery or ironic approval, the consequences for the person depicted could well be severe. I think we have a collective duty of care towards the hapless protagonists of these videos and photographs. We might not be able to dismantle surveillance culture at large, but we do have a degree of agency when it comes to resisting it at an individual level. We should try not to share these posts even in a spirit of defence (a trap I have fallen into myself many times).

Most of the time, social media surveillance is just a particularly destructive and wide-reaching form of snitching. One of the most important lessons we learn when we’re young is that it’s a bad thing to be a grass; that it’s loathsome and pathetic. Children really do understand that tattling on one another is detrimental to the social fabric, that it inhibits solidarity, even if they wouldn’t describe it in those terms. We forget this playground truth at our peril. I’m not sure where exactly the bar is for when it’s acceptable to take a photo of someone in public and post it on the internet without their permission – but it needs to be a lot higher than sitting in a paddling pool or getting fingered on a train.