What's privacy anymore?
 
News media look at documents left inside the home of suspects Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik in Redlands, California, on Friday.
Credit:

Mario Anzuoni/Reuters 

I and a lot of my fellow journalists felt queasy from the live footage of the inside of the apartment where the suspected San Bernardino shooters lived. We didn't really need to see the closets and the kid's toys. Nor the ID cards and bathroom. There was really no point, but we stared at the newsroom TV. It seemed wrong, yet we journalists all knew we most likely would have gone in.

To some degree I think we are desensitized from seeing and knowing all kinds of things about other people's lives that we wouldn't normally know. In the context of news coverage and social media it can feel perfectly OK to know too much. In real life it is a different story.

For instance, one morning not too long ago I noticed my neighbor had a different girlfriend than he did the day before. They'd had three cigarettes together before 7:30 a.m. I knew this because his mom won't let him smoke in the house. He and his girlfriend smoke on the patio in full view from where I do my morning yoga.

Over the years I've known a lot about what goes on over there. And I'm sure they know way too much about my household. You expect that in an inner ring suburban neighborhood where the yards are small and the houses close together. Neighbors are going to know things that we pretend we don't.

But now I also know things about people I don't live near. Thanks to Facebook, I can read between the lines to tell who had insomnia last night. I can tell when my friends are feeling insecure. Sudden switches from never posting to multiple braggy posts or visa versa are a dead giveaway that I should reach out. It still feels a little icky to me but, more and more, knowing these things about our social media connections on Facebook and Instagram has become the norm.

New apps that are all the rage like Venmo are even worse. If you're over 30 you likely haven't even heard of it. But if you're younger it's often part of daily life. It's like PayPal for your personal life. If you go out to dinner with friends, one person pays and the others use VenMo to reimburse. No checks, no cash, no splitting the bill on multiple credit cards. This is how young adults pay each other back. But here's the thing. When you transfer money to a friend using Venmo you list what the payment is for. And that is posted for all your connections to see.

It's a whole new level of public disclosure of what used to be considered ultra private — your social circle's spending habits. I would think knowing what people are paying for on Venmo would be just another way to fuel FOMO (the fear of missing out.) But a younger woman I work with says it's actually kind of fun to know who is doing what with whom.

Still, I like to think I feel a little sordid when I witness things that were supposed to be unseen. Though I'll confess when I was a kid, one of my favorite things about going to my grandparent's 18th floor Manhattan apartment was what happened when it got dark.

People in the big city didn't seem to close the curtains like the people in suburban Nashville did. I could stand at the windows and watch the goings on in the apartments across the street. The guy watching TV. The couple eating take out. The woman wearing only a bra. I could see the unmade beds and the sleeping dogs. It was better than television. These were real-life stories to be imagined. And half the fun was knowing I was seeing what I should not be seeing.

As an adult I want to believe that I shouldn't want to know these things; that it's best not to know; that I'd rather just look away.

But then again, I couldn't drag myself away from those apartment windows years ago. Nor ignore the video of the alleged shooters' apartment the other day.

Tamar Charney is program director of Michigan Radio. She has a thing about Iceland and a fear of vampires. See her previous commentaries here.

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