Beware the TikTok Eavesdroppers – The New York Times

Close your eyes and imagine the last gossipy conversation you had with a friend in a public setting. Maybe you were complaining about your spouse over a cappuccino in your neighborhood coffee shop. Or loudly talking over the din of the subway about your boss. You love your spouse, and genuinely like your boss, but you just needed to vent a little. Who among us, right?

The next day, you open up TikTok to find somebody recapping your conversation in excruciating detail — including the location and your shirt color. Enough detail that your boss or spouse would easily be able to ID you.

This week, I watched an influencer do just that on TikTok. (I’m not going to link in the interest of mercy, but the creator has over 150,000 followers and the video has been viewed nearly 2 million times.) The video’s creator describes overhearing a group of bridesmaids speaking ill of a bride. The creator describes the bridesmaids’ hairstyles, the dresses they wore and even a specific drink that was served at the event — all details she gleaned from eavesdropping. If this video was about your wedding, you’d know immediately.

My immediate reaction: I hope the bride never sees this. Followed by: There’s no way she isn’t going to see this.

That’s the way algorithms work, after all. TikTok’s secret sauce is serving up hyper-specific content based on what it thinks you’ll want to watch. In many cases it knows your contacts and location and interests. The “You” in For You Page is very literal.

Turning unsuspecting strangers into social media content is not a new thing. Perhaps you remember the 2018 saga of #PlaneBae, where a woman live-tweeted the interactions — including photos, though she blurred their faces — of a man and a woman sitting in front of her on a plane, dramatizing a meet cute for hundreds of thousands of people watching live online.

By the time the #PlaneBae news cycle ended, the consensus was that the whole mess was creepy and an invasion of privacy — a lesson we clearly still haven’t learned. And how could we, when the drama of strangers, real or imagined, is ripe for content. It’s free. It’s happening right in front of you. It’s a proven virality gold mine.

In 2021, a woman named Marissa Meizz made lemons into lemonade after a stranger overheard her friends discussing excluding her from a birthday party. The stranger posted about it on TikTok and the video eventually made its way to Meizz. In response, she founded No More Lonely Friends, a social community devoted to IRL meetups where people can make new friends.

That’s a happy ending to a story that could easily have been a lot darker. But just because Meizz made the best of it doesn’t mean she should have ever been put in that situation in the first place.

As the reach and distribution capabilities of platforms, like TikTok, get even more efficient and far-reaching, we’ve got to reassess the rules of engagement.

So much of social media has always been about turning whatever is in front of you into content. That’s the whole point, right? Sharing your life, or some filtered version of your life, as it’s happening. But in those situations, you’re in charge. You decide what version of yourself to present and how much of yourself to share.

Strangers who get turned into content don’t have the same control. Be careful out there.

Here’s what else is happening online this week.

How often do you think about the Roman Empire?

According to a recent TikTok trend, some people — more specifically, some men — are thinking about it a lot. “Every day” and “constantly,” these men reply when the women in their lives inquire. The women appear more or less baffled.

What’s going on here? Some historians have argued that there’s a uniquely masculine quality to the warfare and politics of ancient Rome, but I’m not convinced. In other videos with a broader sample, plenty of men say that they don’t think about it all that much. And there are certainly women doing deep and valuable work on the subject (The excellent “SPQR” was written by Mary Beard.)

Friends, Romans, countrymen: Help us get to the bottom of this. Send an email to [email protected] and tell us if you’ve got Augustus stuck in your head.

Callie Holtermann

Have feedback? Send me a note at [email protected].

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