Privacy, Oversharing and ‘The Narrative Clip’

Mashable’s associate editor of branded content, Dani Fankhauser, spent two weeks inconspicuously capturing photos of what was directly in front of her in 30 second intervals with a “new kind of photographic memory” called the Narrative Clip — a wearable camera about the size of an iPod.

“I wore it to a cocktail party, on a run, out to sushi, on a walk through Central Park and at my desk for a full workday,” wrote Fankhauser.

Despite technical glitches with lighting and positioning observed by Fankhauser, the social implications of taking one’s picture without their knowledge are far reaching. Think Reddit. The argument that just because a person is in a public place means they give up any expectation of privacy is at the very least stripped of moral and ethical scrutiny.

Google Glass, for example, raised questions of privacy and acceptable technology in several high-profile cases and, in some instances, was banned even before it was made commercially available. Though Google has fought the legality of the bans with some success, eight states are considering regulating the use of Google Glass; Google is currently lobbying at least three of them to withhold, reports Reuters.

Over the weekend, San Francisco social media consultant Sarah Slocum said she was attacked in a local bar for using Google Glass. She posted on her Facebook profile that she was “verbally and physically assaulted” by jeering and hostile patrons who allegedly pulled the device from her face. She also posted a video of part of the incident to YouTube.

According to The Washington Post, the San Francisco incident follows a handful of reports of negative, sometimes violent reactions reported by Google Glass users as the “new technology causes rifts with restaurant owners, law enforcement officials and movie theater owners.

While several people Fankhauser interacted with were curious about the clip, nobody in a public place approached her to ask what she was wearing.

The oversharing epidemic may reflect an erosion of private life through the proliferation of social media. On an individual level, privacy protects our dignity in that it affords us a degree of autonomy and the space to be ourselves and to define ourselves. As we engage with society at large, a sense of privacy helps us feel secure that those we do not know do not in turn know all about us. Privacy is also important in the social context of democracy.

Narrative clip

The justifications often given for video surveillance such as security or an appeal to the greater good do not apply here — especially when a lay person is snapping photos of unsuspecting others in public, which is not quite the same thing as an individual using surveillance cameras for the protection of home and property.

Consent is a major consideration in the justification of surveillance. While photos can not be considered video surveillance, the rapidity at which this device snaps photos comes creepily close. Fankhauser admits to being aware of feeling creepy herself:

“I felt a bit of guilt while wearing the Clip — after all, there are certain social norms that go with pulling out a camera, even a camera phone, and then framing a shot and snapping a picture. It’s a clear, albeit sometimes nonverbal, process in which the subject of the photo is offered the opportunity to opt out of the photo. That wasn’t the case if you were sitting across the subway car from me this week.”

Apart from fleeting pangs of guilt, however, Fankhauser’s biggest take-away lessons were that the clip is not “suitable for all activities,” at a desk job, for instance, and that “there is a learning curve for the Narrative Clip,” namely the most suitable place to wear it on one’s clothes. One would think even tech enthusiasts would be more troubled by the clip’s potentially negative consequences.

A crucial ingredient encouraging online exhibitionism is the “tension between privacy and potential celebrity.” In addition to privacy considerations, there are concerns about the ubiquitousness of individuals recording the minutiae of everyday life to share on social media platforms. The Narrative Clip’s name itself implies an ongoing story, or narrative, told by the “lifelogging” camera’s ability to “capture, store and relive special moments with the world’s smallest wearable camera.”

Narrative Clip

Social scientists call this sort of incessant online contact “ambient awareness,” a peripheral social awareness spawned by constant contact with one’s friends and colleagues via social networking platforms. Psychologists also point out that seeing daily updates from hundreds of people may increase the formation of “parasocial relationships,” which sap our emotional energy, crowd out real-life people and threaten true intimate relationships.

Perhaps stopping to capture a moment, event or landscape does not diminish its authenticity. Fankhauser admits, “I’m as guilty as the next person of missing out on a moment by pulling out my camera instead of simply enjoying sights, but as I saw others carefully frame a view to get the perfect shot, I wondered if this was sometimes part of the experience,” adding, “taking a picture is not just admiring something, but creating a diminutive piece that is your own.”

But are these digital slices of life in print-sized miniatures creating a society of narcissists, or making us more mindful? It isn’t an easy question to answer, and it likely comes from subjective evaluations at the individual level. Clive Thompson examined these issues at the dawn of digital intimacy through interviews with avid social media users, concluding, “in an age of awareness, perhaps the person you see most clearly is yourself.”

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