The Day Privacy Died

The other day, while sitting in our car with the windows down, my wife and I had a heated argument. Bad words. Yelling. A fist or two slammed into our Volvo's center console. Though we both received nominations, we never reached consensus on which one of us was wrong, and the whole thing blew over by time we pulled into the garage.

I tell you this story because I figure you'll probably hear about it anyway. So it might as well come from me.

That seems to be the lesson offered by Andy Boyle. Boyle was at a Burger King when a young married couple at a nearby table had an argument. The fight was loud enough for Boyle and other patrons to overhear. The fighting couple was certainly aware of that. They chose to argue in public. They, in effect, gave up their right to privacy among those at the restaurant. But should they have assumed their fight would be broadcast on Twitter and eventually featured on ABC News?

Thanks to one guy who decided to take a break from his Whopper and start tweeting, that's exactly what happened. Andy Boyle opened with this missive: "I am listening to a marriage disintegrate at a table next to me in this restaurant. Aaron Sorkin couldn't write this any better."

From there, he went on to live-tweet the fight, describing details of the argument, even going so far as to broadcast photos and videos of the couple.

Getting a large dose of overly personal details from someone's life on Twitter or Facebook is nothing new. Plenty of people broadcast the content of arguments, share intimate details about their marriages, and even mourn the death of a loved one online. But usually those experiences are shared voluntarily. Most people get to decide for themselves which parts of their lives they want to share on social media.

But maybe the ubiquity of smart phones and new technologies, coupled with a decreasing respect for boundaries, has changed the equation. You no longer get to decide when to share. You don't even get to decide whether you want to use Twitter or Facebook. If you leave the house, you're on social media.

Recently, a nude picture was stolen from celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain and sold to gossip site TMZ. When Bourdain got wind of the sale, he decided to go pre-emptive and post the photo to his own Twitter account.

The whole incident doesn't paint a pretty picture of the state of our often obsessive culture. But I'm sure it didn't surprise Bourdain. He's a celebrity. He chooses to be in the public eye. He expects to occasionally have to deal with a violation like this because he knows the rules of being a celebrity.

But if Andy Boyle's actions are an indication of a broader trend, we are entering the age of the unintended celebrity, where the new rules state that we all run the risks associated with fame without necessarily enjoying any of its benefits. There's a new reality show and you're the star, whether you like it or not. Someone should follow you around all day yelling, "action!"

The one glimmer of hope I've found in this whole unfortunate mess is the immediate negative reactions others have had, not to the couple's decision to fight in a restaurant, but to Andy Boyle's decision to share the details. Almost everyone I've talked to is repulsed by what took place at Boyle's Burger King table. Some didn't even want to read the outtakes of the fight. The curiosity about someone else's life was outweighed by a disgust with the messenger.

In that Burger King, Andy Boyle thought he was listening to the disintegration of a couple's marriage. He was really hearing the crumbling of his own ethics and self-restraint. We can't stand by and let an alliance between technology and poor judgement disintegrate all decency, and turn every human exchange into another tawdry and destructive episode on a never-ending social media highlight reel.

If our disgust with this kind of secondhand sharing is widespread enough, maybe there's still a chance such invasions of privacy will be the exception and not the rule. But I wouldn't bet on it.

The only thing I know for sure is that the next time my wife and I have a fight, I'm rolling up the windows.


Dave Pell sends out quick, entertaining looks at five items from the top of the news ... and a few from the bottom. Give your inbox some awesome. Subscribe at NextDraft.

Image: Andy Broyle