The internet has turned us all into snitches

To suggest that we live in a tech-enabled surveillance culture is nothing new. From paranoia about machines, who we suspect are always listening to us (despite studies claiming otherwise) to our own dysfunctional relationship with how we express our identities online (tellingly euphemized as “our data”) we have long given up on the idea of privacy. If God wills our every keystroke to be judged, then so be it. Protecting ourselves is too complicated, too encumbering, too much effort for benefits which hitherto have felt invisible.

If we’re all potential cops, then we’re all also potential criminals.

We also seem aware of the ways in which surveillance informs how we treat others.

The movement from pressing PrntScrn on your keyboard to copy your whole screen to your clipboard, usually to save an image you enjoyed (or, alternatively, to save a website) to the screenshot as a meme-format to their most prevalent iteration as “receipts” has been one of the most important digital behavioral shifts in the last 25-odd years — encapsulating our tech-enabled, and self-managed, surveillance culture.

Bad date gulag

On her Substack, internet princess Rayne Fisher-Quann describes the “feminist panopticon,” which reared its ugly, pernicious head in the wake of “West Elm Caleb.” For those lucky enough to have missed an episode of needless public humiliation, “West Elm Caleb” was a New York City-based serial ghoster whose bad dating app etiquette collided with TikTok’s algorithm, inspiring a flurry of videos of women “commiserating” over the harm he’d inflicted on them.

The press variously reported on this incident as genuinely newsworthy, or more in line with Fisher-Quann, as a proxy for everything wrong with cancel culture. Fisher-Quann put it most eloquently in her now-viral post:

i can’t help but feel as though self-policing measures of social control are being Trojan-Horsed into our cultural consciousness through lighthearted girl-power narratives about mean boys and unfaithful partners. we are building the panopticon every day, and feminism is being commodified and bastardized to support it.

Elsewhere, people ponder about the prevalence of “Karen” videos and their adjacent formats and the impulse that underpins that, not dissimilar from Fisher-Quann’s prognosis, we are all Warholian Stasi now — always at the ready to capture wrongdoing and often prepared to use it as a departure point for our own 15 minutes of fame. I often think of the 2010s trend of women being uplifted as quasi-folk heroes for calling out so-called nice guys on dating apps: screenshot-laden tweets of bad behavior endlessly amplified in Buzzfeed clapback listicles.

At a bare minimum, we use our shared power to police others in a bid for status and reification of our individual power. “Aren’t you a good little activist for capturing that white woman having a meltdown in a Victoria’s Secret?”can become something more vindictive very quickly.

I recall one particularly disturbing incident out of Loudoun County, Virginia, in 2020 during which a teenage anti-racist saved a video of a classmate saying a racial slur for years, releasing it only when she had been accepted to college. Her acceptance was swiftly rescinded. While the racial dimension had not been lost in conversation, the boy’s behavior was rightfully framed as not only symptomatic of our surveillance culture but as an example cruelly competitive we’ve become as well.

The digital prison cell

If we’re all potential cops, then we’re all also potential criminals. Research, including my own, on the impact of heavy Tumblr use on users indicates that this atmosphere increases self-censorship, even if you disagree with the stated claims and even if the ramifications have low stakes, e.g., they’re happening in a fan community you’re only half-heartedly a member of. To get more specific here, the K-pop and One Direction fan communities are notoriously stringent with what is and isn’t acceptable and have unique and strongly enforced social codes. In my interviews, even people who weren’t particularly invested in these community norms found themselves self-censoring not just in these online spaces but also in real life from exposure alone. There are a lot of reasons this happens, but one of them may be that some people are conditioned to avoid conflict. Now, imagine a scenario where the stakes are higher — like college admissions or your profession.

But this all said, not everyone bends the same way under pressure. What of the people who remain antiauthoritarian? Or who are prone to self-harm? Is the act of sending a transgressive Signal message, without “disappearing messages set to 1 second” enabled, even more transgressive than the content of the text itself? Can a text message you know might be screenshotted be an expression of self-destructive behavior?

This dynamic is curiously under-considered on dating apps and is incidentally also fertile ground for scolds on all points of the political spectrum. Even if we return to the West Elm Caleb saga, the criticism was less grounded in dating app dynamics and more so in the translation from personal (sharing screenshots with friends) to semi-public (TikToks that may go viral, but not reliably) to very public (journalists reporting).

Dating app limbo

What’s interesting is that dating apps are performative from the start and you enter with the expectation that you should not just be yourself; you are already self-policing across another axis. For most people, we hope that our dating app profiles stand at the intersection of “our best selves” and “the version of ourselves that is most attractive to other people.”

But what does the added possibility of “this might be screenshotted” do to how we approach others? And the multitude of reasons that we may be screenshotted, too — not just because our profiles or interactions are “cringe” but what if we upset someone, either via rejection or an even less clear reason? It’s here that an added point of friction becomes even more obvious.

Whereas there are certain cultural standards for what’s appropriate, say, in a LinkedIn profile or in a public park, they’re more nebulous when it comes to romance. You can become reasonably aware of what will set people off in either scenario, but romance remains the Wild West, especially online.

And paradoxically, what may represent us most flatteringly in a romantic context isn’t necessarily safe from mockery or being branded as offensive. This is the danger of sex and romance in general: what resonates with one person won’t resonate with all people.

To return us to dating apps, imagine the added nightmare of someone being on board with something that’s not conventionally socially sanctioned as romantic but you upset them for whatever reason and then they use that information against you in the form of a screenshot. In another world, these discoveries — that your romantic approach matches hers and isn’t “cringe” — may have been looked at as an opportunity for a unique connection. These are the building blocks of chemistry.

In today’s world, they may always be potential ammo, though. I wonder whether these more nuanced types of communication end up suppressed, or alternatively, if they’re more eccentric, such as an unusual fetish, they have an inflated air of being taboo. Neither possibility is healthy.

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