A Thin Line Between Documentation + Surveillance

In the wake of the PRISM leaks, I’ve been a bit perplexed by the responses of some of my Facebook acquaintances. A number of them have openly expressed their disdain for PRISM (and its implications), which given their general critical and political dispositions is no surprise. And to be clear, I don’t begrudge them for their (or mine for that matter) disdain.  But what has fascinated me is how some of those individuals who express their anger for the US Government’s PRISM practices-citing it as an invasion of privacy and state sponsored surveillance-also behave in similar, boundary crossing ways: documenting strangers to publicly (via FB) shame for a good laugh. What confuses me is trying to understand what, if anything, distinguishes documentation in this instance from surveillance. Humor me here as I think aloud.

What I am seeing in my FB feed is basically trolling: people taking pictures of strangers on the bus or at restaurants who are dressed “funny” or have some other aspect about their behavior that these acquaintances find humorous or worth sharing with their “networked public” (see: danah boyd + alice marwick’s paper) via FB.  It’s usually a post via FB with a caption that reads something like “Look at this sap” or “Maybe we need to gay makeover this tired queen’s outfit” (I’ll save my thoughts for the overuse misuse of “shade” for another post). A more popular example of this kind of behavior is the People of the CTA Facebook page, where people post pictures of the people they see on Chicago’s public transit and followers troll their asses off. You get the gist: see someone who looks ‘funny,’ document them and distribute to your friends. 

So when people do this on a micro level, they are documenting, collecting what they deem odd when they deem it so for their personal archives. And at any time, anyone could become an object in this personal or potentially public collection. And when said object is posted, people laugh and maybe even share with their friends. Things only get 'real’ when we are confronted with someone we know in one of these pictures. But I’d argue that in our culture of ubiquitous documentation (via Instagram and the like), are we not already accepting a certain level of surveillance from our peers? Aren’t we already at the point where we risk being 'watched’ by someone, somewhere? And why is it okay in the interests of humor and bullying to tolerate this behavior but openly voice our disdain when it’s done in the name of 'national security’? 

 I am interested in trying to understand where the boundaries between surveillance and the above form of documentation are located. Moral? Epistemic? Cultural? For me, PRISM and snapping pictures of strangers to ridicule are disturbing. But why do we not read something like “People of the CTA” as a kind of surveillance? It seems silly and frankly too simple to reduce it to just a difference of state power or individual power, though I think the distinction is one worth making. I suppose one could argue that what constitutes public and private information differ greatly in those two examples, which is a fair point as it raises issues of consent.

To me they seem like different manifestations of a similar kind of logic.That it’s okay to take what we want without consent because we’re amused, because we can. And for me, this attitude of taking what we want because we can is no different if it’s coming from the state or our friends. It’s dangerous in every instance. Maybe it’s an indication of my cynicism that I am not as bothered by the prospect of the state watching me, as I am by the prospect of someone deciding they don’t like what I have on and deciding to subject me to public shaming on some social network somewhere. This isn’t to say that I think one is worse than the other but rather, to see surveillance play out in the guise of humor or trolling or whatever creates troubling norms. It trains us to stop seeing each other as beings who demand respect and empathy. This training at the hands of peers is what scares me more than anything. 

What are people’s thoughts on the matter? 

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