Have you ever been unintentionally “cybercreepy”? I have. A few weeks ago, after stashing my bathing suit and towel in my locker at my gym, I reached for my cellphone to check my email.
“You can’t have a cellphone in here!” an older gymgoer rebuked me. Thinking he feared I was about to conduct a lengthy phone call about how I like enough mustard on a sandwich such that the salami comes alive but not so much that it becomes a mustard sandwich, I explained to the man that I was only checking my email. “No, it’s not that,” he rightly explained to me. “There are naked people in here.” I apologized and skittered off.
The more common iteration of unintentional tech-based creepiness, of course, is a kind of peekaboo that is thrust upon you. It starts with a colleague handing you her phone so that you can look at her vacation photos. You begin swiping through her sunshiny mementos – palm tree, cabana, palm tree, palm tree – when, suddenly, blammo: There’s your friend in her starkers. A large hole has now been rent in the time-space continuum; even your watch stops ticking.
Or consider the ravages of autocorrect and autofill. Maggie Robbins, a psychotherapist in private practice in New York, said: “Last fall, by accident, I texted one of the people I work with – I dislike the terms ‘patient’ and ‘client’– about a lunch plan I had that day with a friend. I sent something like, ‘Really looking forward to seeing you this aft!’ ”
Robbins added: “I texted the person about an hour later to apologize for the gaffe. It was treated as humorous. But the potential for creep-out was very high, especially as many of my texts to friends are downright silly.”
We bumble, we misrepresent. At a point in history when invasions of electronic privacy are mostly the product of corporations and governments, and when online privacy seems ever more likely to become a luxury good that we’ll have to pay for, it can be helpful to lay claim to our own culpability, too.
“To quote Pogo, ‘We have met the enemy and he is us,’ ” said Linda Ellerbee, the host and executive producer of “Nick News With Linda Ellerbee.” “We’ve always been able to make great fools of ourselves. It’s just the technology has gotten faster and more broad.”
Ellerbee speaks from experience: In 1972, while working for the Associated Press in Dallas, she wrote in a personal letter to a friend some remarks that were critical of her employer, and then accidentally sent the letter out over the AP newswire. Ellerbee was fired. “It was hugely embarrassing. But I just had an opportunity most people didn’t have. Now everyone has the opportunity.”
The etiquette of these gaffes is usually fairly cut and dried: you goof up, and then you offer remonstrance. But the landscape becomes more complicated when the gaffes are fueled by a larger degree of intentionality.
Colin Summers, an architect, said: “A few years ago my son Rudy and I decided to try the Veggie Grill in Santa Monica. I thought it would be grilled vegetables and was sorely disappointed; it is soy product masquerading as meat. While we were sitting poking at our food, I checked in with Facebook, which had a new feature that told you who was nearby. It said there was someone in Veggie Grill with us. Paula. I didn’t recognize her, but I figured she was one of my wife’s friends who’d migrated over to my Facebook page. I glanced around at the mostly empty restaurant and said, ‘Paula?’ A woman sitting alone with her book and food looked up. ‘Yes?’ Very confused. I didn’t know her at all. I glanced back down at my phone. Back up. ‘Uh, Facebook told me you were here. Just checking.’ ‘Oh. OK.’ Not even an ‘Enjoy your dinner’ or anything!”
Yes, Summers comes off as slightly cheeky. But Paula seems downright chilly. Let’s look now at a recent tweet from Emily Bell, a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, and the director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. It ran, “That thing where you show a colleague a locked Twitter account of a Mexican drug lord and they ‘accidentally’ send a follow request from you.” In a phone interview, Bell said she’d been reading about the arrest of the head of a drug cartel in Mexico, and had sought out his Twitter account.
“I couldn’t resist going through his followers list and seeing who he’s following.” Bell showed the account to a colleague at Columbia, who playfully sent a follower request from Bell’s account. Bell laughingly asked her colleague: “ ‘What’s going to happen to me? You have submitted a request to someone who is clearly engaged in violent acts. What happens when this drug lord gets this weird request from a middle-aged professor at Columbia? What’s he going to think? Something awful, I imagine.’ ” Bell summed up: “It was very Larry David. The whole thing was very Larry David.”
In the end, is there any wisdom or advice to be extracted from those who have spent time in the cybercreepy trenches? Bell said: “The only way to make sure that everything is safe is don’t make a digital copy of it” Ellerbee added, “My only two pieces of advice are 1) Remember that almost no message or thought was ever lost for 30 seconds’ conscious thought first, and 2) Disable autocorrect now.”