The Problem of the Unintended Audience

The unintended audience is the new norm.  And with it, we have burdened ourselves with the worry of not knowing where our communications might surface.

Nothing represents the challenges of connecting with others better than the ease with which a person can use newer media to eavesdrop on messages not intended for them. The digital revolution has led to popular media platforms favoring content that started as private communications. Some of this visual and textual material is used as digital clickbait, feeding our appetites for the kinds of gossip that used to exist mostly in supermarket tabloids.  Some intrudes more awkwardly, as when a forwarded e-mail goes to more eyes than it was supposed to.

In simpler times it was possible but awkward to listen to someone’s conversations through a wall or a shared party line. Broadly speaking, our secrets were more easily kept. Physical spaces usually created privacy.  And we didn’t have access to tiny recording technologies such as smartphones, or permeable channels of communication such as social media.  Privacy was an attribute an individual could choose.  It made life easier.  It was not something we planned to give up as citizens swept up into the digital world.  After all, if we wanted a peek into the private lives of others, we had theater and then film. Even in Shakespeare’s day audiences could spend hours witnessing the sordid backstories of Europe’s kings and queens.

The absence of the fourth wall is key to drama’s attraction. But what was once mostly limited to the theater is now a feature of everyday life, as cameras and mics invade most spaces. Few television police procedurals or legal narratives would be complete without the exposure of private communications that somehow contradicts claims of innocence. They reflect the fact that real life investigative bureaucracies regularly seek permission to eavesdrop, using off the shelf technologies that now make digital searches relatively easy.

The right to access personal data is at the core of the current legal battle that pits Apple against the federal government. The FBI wants to hack data from the cellphones of criminal suspects, like those who murdered innocent citizens in San Bernardino last year.

In recent decades we have added to the expectation that there is entertainment value in witnessing events not originally intended for public view.  Most reality television shows gain attention by using the camera to capture moments of private humiliation or subterfuge. Think of the hapless business people who open their professional lives to public view in exchange for help and cash from reality “stars” like chef Gordon Ramsey or hotel consultant Anthony Melchiorri.  Add in a range of other factors, including the natural habit of the young to be careless in their monitoring of their digital posts, and it’s easy to see how a multitude of messages can quickly verge out of their lanes. Remember the turning point in the 2012 presidential election?  A private fundraising event hosted by Mitt Romney was secretly recorded by a hotel employee. In his spiel to potential contributors Romney wrote off much of the nation as lazy and unreachable, writing off his electoral chances at the same time.

Privacy was an attribute an individual could choose.  It made life easier.  It was not something we planned to give up as citizens swept up into the digital world.

It is now the rare individual who has managed to hold on to the presumptive right touted  in many European countries to not be observed.

All of this is a reminder that as rhetorical creatures we are less able to select our own audiences. There is no longer a clear connection between who we wish to address and who actually receives our messages.  An assumption that others can eavesdrop into personal and professional communications complicates what used to be a source’s prerogative to clearly target receivers without unwanted blowback from outsiders.

So the unintended audience is the new norm.  And with it we have burdened ourselves with the additional worry of not knowing where our communications might surface.