Ever overhear a conversation so juicy -- or so obnoxious -- that you just couldn't wait to pull out your phone and tweet about it?
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Well, think twice next time, according to etiquette experts who say that the recent rash of much-publicized overheard Twitter conversations raises questions about how to conduct ourselves online.
ABC television producer Elan Gale tweeted up a storm last week while on a flight to Los Angeles when he began chronicling a confrontation with another passenger, referred to only as Diane, who was complaining loudly about not getting home in time for Thanksgiving dinner.
She has a connecting flight. Why doesn't anyone understand she has a connecting flight? Why do people not understand her needs?— elan gale (@theyearofelan) November 28, 2013
Soon, the conversation went viral on Twitter and the wider Internet, and millions of readers knew about Diane's bumpy flight with Gale.
Daniel Post Senning, an author and spokesman of the Emily Post Institute (and Emily Post's great-great-grandson) said that Gale's decision to live-tweet his confrontation with "Diane" exemplified the blurred lines that now obscure the divide between public and private.
Diane "has a reasonable expectation of privacy. They're having an intimate interaction -- a fight -- and to me that would not necessarily be something I would put out there. To use an old term, it would seem a little gauche," Post Senning said.
"At the same time, did it cross any lines? I would advise the woman in that situation to conduct herself so that you could be sure you could own it. You're out in public doing battle with a stranger, and you don't know what that person's deal is. I don't think there's a transgression on either side, but bad behavior on both sides," he said.
The airplane fight was only the most recent in a string of private conversations gone public, courtesy of social media. Just two weeks earlier, Twitter user Kyle Ayers live-tweeted a breakup he overheard on the roof of his apartment building.
"Do you love me?" -girl (OH BOY HERE WE GO, PEOPLE) #roofbreakup— Kyle Ayers (@kyleayers) November 17, 2013
"Look I'm not a guy who's into labels, Rachel. You knew that getting in." -guy #roofbreakup— Kyle Ayers (@kyleayers) November 17, 2013
"That was one where I was a total voyeur, I read the whole thing," Post Senning admits. "It didn't strike me as rude. Their identities weren't revealed. They were having an argument on a rooftop. Then again, it wouldn't occur to me to hear that going on and think I'm going to broadcast this."
Even celebrities occasionally get in on the action. Singer Sara Bareilles uploaded three videos to Instagram last week in which she'd recorded the voice of a woman in the gym with her who was talking loudly and, to Bareilles' mind, obnoxiously about her love life.
Ok I'll stop but this woman's house is where I go if I end up in hell.— Sara Bareilles (@SaraBareilles) November 22, 2013
In the end, Post Senning said, the best way to think about posting overheard conversations online is to consider both the content of the conversations and the context. If something was said at a private gathering in someone's home, or in a private place such as a bathroom, individuals have a reasonable expectation of privacy, he explained.
If the conversations are happening in public, all bets are off.
"On the one hand these are the stories of our lives and we share them the way we would in person, you know, 'I was out at dinner and heard the craziest conversation,'" Post Senning said.
"The content is the substance of the matter, so to think about what you're putting out there. That secondary context question, particularly as more people are thinking I'm going to record this and post it, is how do you do that well, how do you operate in the world where that's going on and still protect people's identities."