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
M — May 3, 2012
You bring up such valid points. Thank you for writing this.
Cheri Lucas — May 4, 2012
I agree with you, Nathan -- I actually didn't watch this clip to the end so I don't know if it was revealed that these audience members gave her permission to do this, but that consent doesn't matter. As you said, it sets a precedent that it's OK (and harmless fun) to share each other's information to a different variation of "public" than was intended.
Meghan — May 16, 2012
Hello this is Meghan, the third girl in the clip. I really liked your article and thought it brought up many good points. While I am an easy going person and hard to offend, I can't lie that I was pretty humiliated! Fortunetely my bosses that saw it thought the segment was hilarious. Many people have assumed that Ellen had access to these pictures because my facebook settings weren't tuned to "private", but that is not the case. I have no idea how they got access to these photos, and my only guess is that because I have "liked" and am "a fan" of the Ellen DeGeneres Show facebook page, that it gave them access. Again, thanks for shedding light on a different view point. I'm still a fan of Ellen and didn't take her joking to heart! ;-)
Participatory Comedy » Cyborgology — May 25, 2012
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Hey Ellen DeGeneres, Violating Privacy Isn’t Funny « n a t h a n j u r g e n s o n — June 19, 2012
[...] This post originally appeared on Cyborgology – read and comment on the post here. [...]
Kate — May 1, 2013
I thought the runner you see (female, wearing black) talking to members of the audience during and before the photos are exposed were checking it was fine? If not then that is definitely not cool. This shouldn't be promoted in a way that makes it acceptable and an example to follow.
Mel — May 15, 2013
The fact is, anything you put on the internet, ESPECIALLY on a social media site INTENDED for sharing is fair game to the whole world. It is very well known that you never put anything on your Facebook that you wouldn't want your boss to see. Ellen didn't do anything wrong~ and I'm sure that she did get permission, just to avoid any unhappy people, but the fact is the photos are public. Your "intention" is completely irrelevant because when you post them online, the only intention that comes across is "I want to share these". You don't get to specify with whom, no matter what the privacy settings say.
People need to take some responsibility onto themselves rather than being so liturgical and ready to place blame. You want something to be private? Send it in a private email (with a request to keep it private) or show it to a friend in person. Whatever gets out there otherwise is your own fault and no one else's.
Mache News — September 26, 2013
Hold the phone please! Ellen has a team of lawyers and accountants and a whole host of experts to run her show. There is no WAY they would let her break privacy laws. The fact they are in the audience means they have been given a courtesy day at the studio to see the show in exchange for usage of pictures. Don't be a fool.... Ellen is a businesswoman and in charge of a massive production - Their enemy will be law suits. Trust me, they knew she was using the pictures.
Participatory Comedy | David A Banks — March 6, 2014
[…] classy kind) and heteronormative swill that I contemplated not even writing this post. Unlike Ellen or even It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Tosh.0 is meant to be (as far as I can […]