I like Ellen DeGeneres. Lots of people respect what she does and she has a reputation of treating people right. However, I was surprised when I came across a clip from her popular daytime television show where she unsuspectingly broadcasts compromising Facebook photos of random audience members, a sketch I saw for the first time yesterday, and there seems to be at least a few more of these on YouTube.
I get it, it’s a gag on context collapse: photos taken in and for one time and place are dislocated onto broadcast television, to unexpected and hilarious results. Cute. However, the reality of this is not so funny, and The Ellen DeGeneres Show should know better.
The problem here is that Ellen is setting a precedent that it is okay and fun to share each others information to a larger audience than was initially intended; that blasting compromising photos from someone’s Facebook profile to other audiences, large or small, is a funny joke. For many, it isn’t.
Ellen’s lighthearted joke takes the form of much modern bullying; especially what is often called “cyberbullying” (however, bullying flows back and forth on and offline which makes me a bit uncomfortable with the “cyber” prefix). From private photos emailed to entire classes to Facebook photos ending up with their parent’s bosses, broadcasting social media information to new and unintended audiences causes real harm. There are countless stories of just this sort of action leading to deep and long-lasting embarrassment, distress, depression or worse.
Yes, The Ellen DeGeneres Show likely only used photos posted as “public” on Facebook meaning that, technically, the audience for the photos was always potentially the whole world. However, the reality is that most users post photos to Facebook not under expectation they will be broadcasted to the entire nation. Indeed, this is precisely why the skit is supposed to be humorous in the first place: that the photos are being taken out of context and made far more public than the users originally intended. This level of publicity was technically possible but certainly never practically probable. We know this, and Ellen knew this. It is the source of the humor, but it is also the reason why glorifying this behavior is unacceptable.
Violating privacy is not just violating the written privacy policies of websites, it is knowingly violating the intentions of other users, regardless whether it is technically or legally possible to do so. Corporate, legal documents do not decide privacy, we do. And sharing information without prior consent is a violation. Sharing compromising information to a colossal audience without prior consent is a massive privacy violation.
Simply put, just because we can scrape public data like Facebook photos doesn’t mean that we should. This was the issue with Girls Around Me, an app that made news earlier this year for displaying the physical proximity of women along with many details about their lives. The app achieved this simply by using public Facebook and FourSquare information. It did not create new data, but took existing fully-public data out of its original context and into a new, creepy, sexist context. The Ellen DeGeneres Show is certainly not as despicable as that app, but the mistake is the same: knowingly moving someone’s personal information into an unintended context is often dangerous. And knowingly moving compromising information into an unintended context as public as a popular national broadcast television show such as Ellen’s is especially wrong (Ellen’s show reaches millions of people every day).
And, importantly, this bully-like behavior has greater consequences for more vulnerable individuals. While many do not mind seeing their most compromising Facebook photos blasted to others, even the entire country, some may be unequally damaged by these violations. Google wasn’t thinking about vulnerable populations when, with the introduction of Buzz, they made visible who people emailed most. But this indeed caused real harm, for example, a woman with an abusive ex fearing for her safety. Facebook wasn’t thinking of these sorts of social inequalities when they suddenly made friends lists and other information visible that, for example, implicitly outted queer teens with bigoted parents. I’ve written before how compromising photos are forgiven much quicker for males than females. And, most dramatically, while no one wants their rooms secretly recorded, the fact that Tyler Clementi was gay certainly made his situation exponentially more terrifying, and one that ended tragically.
After tweeting my disgust over The Ellen DeGeneres Show’s privacy violation stunt, others predictably responded that this is a lesson to double-check privacy settings. Or, disappointingly, that these folks deserved what they got for being brazen enough to post these photos or not smart enough to remember to lock them down (as if that is ever truly possible) and should be happy Ellen gave them an iPad in compensation for glorifying online privacy violations.
However, watching the Ellen clips, these are not lessons on social media privacy management, they are attempts to make violating user privacy fun. Given the real consequences at stake, violating personal privacy is not fun and Ellen DeGeneres probably can’t send iPads to everyone harmed by her example.
Also, maybe, just maybe, before we start telling victims of privacy abuse how to behave better, perhaps we should first be calling the violators out; you know, say what they did is wrong.
Our hearts are in the right place, but why is the first reaction to blame the victims? Instead, let’s make very clear that taking other people’s data and putting it in front of new audiences is not cool. Doing this has been shown to be damaging to others. And that The Ellen DeGeneres Show specifically preyed on compromising data to broadcast to the entire nation sets a terrible precedent; one that I hope is not imitated.
The lesson should not be that we should all cover up and hide; it should be that misusing others data is wrong.
Ellen: please stop doing this and maybe run an episode on bullying and being responsible with others online data. I’m a fan, and you are better than this.
Nathan Jurgenson is a PhD student in Sociology at the University of Maryland. Follow him on Twitter: @nathanjurgenson