In a viral world, is Privacy a thing of the past?

So this week I’ve discovered that I suffer from Memephobia: the fear of being caught on camera in public doing something stupid, and unwittingly becoming a viral meme on the internet.  Now at first, this may seem like a fairly irrational thing to be afraid of.  However, throw in the fact that four in five adults in the UK now own a smartphone, and it doesn’t seem all that unlikely that you could be unsuspectingly filmed tripping up while going about your daily business, to later find that your embarrassing moment has been shared hundreds of thousands of times and viewed all over the world.

Now, becoming an overnight internet sensation isn’t always bad – it can bring with it fortune and fame.  A prime example of this is Mason Ramsey, more widely known as the “Yodeling Walmart Boy”.  In case you’ve been living under a rock with really bad WiFi signal for the past few months, Mason was a normal eleven year old boy from Illinois, USA who delighted a bunch of shoppers back in March when he belted out a rendition of the country tune ‘Lovesick Blues’ in his local Walmart.  But it wasn’t just a handful of locals who enjoyed Mason’s toe-tapping impromptu yodelling – his performance was captured on camera, and became an instant online smash hit.  The video now has some 50 million views on Youtube, and Mason has appeared on The Ellen Show, performed at the huge American music festival Coachella, and his yodelling has even been remixed into a bass-heavy club anthem.  Yes, really.

Arguably, none of these incredible opportunities would have ever headed young Mason’s way if it weren’t for the HD cameras and online connectivity that are now at our fingertips constantly.  But while this advancement in technology is often regarded as a extremely positive, it can also be a little unnerving when you really think about it.  Big Brother IS well and truly watching us through the teeny tiny cameras we keep in our pockets, and he has the power to capture our private moments, unsuspectingly at any moment.

What really got me thinking about this was a story that went viral earlier this week, of two strangers who hit it off after ending up seated together on a plane, which isn’t all that remarkable.  However, a fellow passenger, Rosey Blair, who was sitting behind the pair, decided to share live updates online documenting the whirlwind romance as it unfolded.  These posts, which included some sneaky photos and detailed things like how the couple were brushing arms and sharing a menu, were followed eagerly by thousands of social media users.  Within hours, national news channels were jumping on the story, and T Mobile and Alaska Airlines offered Blair and the couple free in-flight WiFi and flights.  The identities of the mystery couple were also outed, and while one half of the duo embraced his newfound fame and even appeared on TV, the lady involved proceeded to quietly delete her Instagram and Twitter accounts.


Creepy or cute? Some of the posts Rosey Blair created about the couple in front of her on her flight…

While the story enchanted thousands who felt they’d witnessed a modern day fairytale unravel, others questioned just how ‘cute’ broadcasting a private conversation between two strangers really is.  However, as platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter increasingly incorporate live broadcasting features into their apps, this kind of issue is likely to only grow more relevant.  It raises a lot of weird and unsettling questions about the social media drenched society we now live in.  Is this simply the way it is nowadays?  Do we need to expect that we could be recorded at any time, in any place?  Is privacy now a thing of the past, a novelty we’ll tell our kids about?

I honestly can’t say I have the answers to any of these questions. Some online users criticising Blair’s posts suggested that this type of invasion of privacy online should be a criminal offence.  But I can’t help but wonder just how enforceable that would be, and whether it would take some of the magic and fun out of the new online world.  After all, without it, I wouldn’t have the super catchy Walmart Yodel song stuck in my head right now!  But, on the other hand, without it, I wouldn’t have the super irritating Walmart Yodel song stuck in my head right now…

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