#Roofbreakup: Are average people no longer entitled to privacy?

Careful what you say. Someone may be live-tweeting your private conversation.
(Chris Ratcliffe / Bloomberg)

One unlucky New York couple became the subject of comedian Kyle Ayers’s tweets on Saturday night.

Using the hashtag #roofbreakup, Ayers spent the hours live-tweeting all of the sordid action, if you can call it that -- the banality of banality might be more appropriate -- and thousands of us plugged into Twitter, riveted as if it were an intense if awkwardly-scripted melodrama.

Though it’s feasible that it was a stunt cooked up by Ayers, he maintained the premise all weekend long, responding to dozens of rapt readers and retweeting media mentions of the drama. Everyone from Gawker to Buzzfeed to the BBC have recapped the events.

Either way, its premise rings frustratingly true, and it tells us a lot about where we are as a nation of emotional rubberneckers, stopped in our tracks by the boorish, clumsy humanity going on around us at all times.


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The particulars of the breakup will be familiar to anyone who’s ever been through one themselves, with feelings of insecurity, guilt and accusations of untrustworthiness being expressed in the inelegant, stilted patois of emotional frustration and hurt.

So why were we all so amused? There but for the grace of Twitter go I, you might think. But isn’t that the crucial point we’re overlooking here? We’re all so used to the idea that anyone anywhere can take our picture out in the world and upload it to social media that we’re either careful to avoid or, on the other side of the attention-deficit spectrum, to invite such attention with our actions. You don’t go out dressed up in a banana costume with your butt hanging out these days without the expectation that someone is going to snap your photo.

But our words are a little harder to protect from eavesdroppers. It’s easy to tell when someone is taking your picture and to react accordingly, but it’s a lot harder to do when it is someone just typing away on their phone; everywhere you go in the world now there’s someone there just typing away on their phone. The couple even noticed the live tweeter at one point and dismissed him as no one to worry about.


As the BBC piece pointed out, this is some ethically murky territory. When you stumble across powerful public figures casually discussing issues of national importance, that’s one thing -- it has a specific news value and there’s good reason to share it. But are average people entitled to no privacy whatsoever anymore? This wasn’t a huge public fight on the subway or something we’re all talking about here, it wasn’t Kanye West breaking up with Hillary Clinton, it was two people working through a moment of intimacy on a rooftop, going through what is, for many of us, one of the harder-to-deal-with arguments we can have: the end of a love affair. Perhaps some discretion should be considered? Or are we way beyond that point now?

No doubt there are millions of us who would love to have our own breakups broadcast to the world -- we have all been conditioned to invite exposure at every turn by social media -- but there has to be a line somewhere. Not sharing identifying details of the couple in question, or pictures, at least maintains some level of privacy in a situation like this. But perhaps some self-editing here on the part of Ayers and the rest of us who do this sort of thing should at least be considered. After all, how many of us are at our best when we’re discussing something this personal and potentially volatile? Instead of a situation that should be read for its relatable pathos, we’ve turned it into one of absurd comedy.

All I’m saying is, let the first person who doesn’t sound like a goofy, pathetic baby when they’re in the middle of a breakup cast the first stone, because, like it or not, the panopticon is real now -- but what’s worse is we’re all both imprisoned within it and the guardians in one of its watchtowers. That’s a hefty responsibility, and a frightening vulnerability, and one we should all take seriously, even when it’s over something meant to be funny. 


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Luke O’Neil is a Boston-based writer and frequent contributor to the Boston Globe, Esquire and Slate. Follow him on Twitter @lukeoneil47