Cellphones, social networks make eavesdropping OK?

Cellphones, social

networks make

eavesdropping OK?

By Sharon Jayson, USA TODAY

David Smith has heard — or rather overheard — it

all while on planes, including the sexual details of a

stranger’s hookup at a business meeting.

“It feels like you’re eavesdropping, but in another

sense, you’re forced to share something that falls

under the heading of ‘too much information,’ ” says

Smith, 54, of Austin, a retired consultant and

frequent business traveler.

A century ago, when the first home phones were

“party lines” shared by neighbors, “worrying you

were being listened in on was a common feature of

American culture,” says sociologist Claude Fischer

of the University of California-Berkeley.

Oh, how times have changed.

Now, we’re not only unconcerned about overheard

phone calls, we purposely broadcast our personal

business to large groups of “friends” and “followers”

on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.

SECRETS: Some people still keep a diary in age of

Facebook, blogs

As a result, we’re fast becoming a nation of casual

eavesdroppers, where every day we tune in to a

constant stream of updates on what others are

saying and doing, from where they’re about to eat

lunch (complete with photos) to their conversations

with others.

All this sharing, some experts say, may be feeding a

tendency toward exhibitionism, and devaluing the

very privacy that earlier generations so desired.

But not everyone says the rise of widespread social

snooping is such a bad thing.

Eavesdropping is an “evolved human practice that is

natural and often beneficial,” says John Locke, a

linguistics professor at the City University of New


“We teach people they should mind their own

business,” he says, but “that’s extremely bad advice.


Illustration by Alejandro Gonzalez, USA TODAY
Thanks for oversharing?

It’s dangerous because you won’t see the terrorist

next door making a bomb; you won’t see the kids

being abused, or the husband beating up a wife. If

there wasn’t any eavesdropping, if people minded

their own business and ignored what they saw and

heard, how would you prevent and how would you

solve crimes?”

Locke, author ofa new book, Eavesdropping: An

Intimate History, says apes keep an eye on each

other to maintain order, and we humans have

neighborhood watch programs.

But eavesdropping is more than just listening in. It’s

glancing over at someone else’s laptop screen to

see what they’re doing. It’s peering into an

apartment window as you walk by. It’s catching a

glimpse through a door that’s slightly ajar. It’s

trolling Facebook to see what your friends are

saying to others.

And yes, it’s a bit thrilling, he says. “There is

something quite tantalizing about this behavior.”

But is it really eavesdropping if they’re broadcasting

and we can’t help overhearing?

“I don’t regard it at all as me eavesdropping,” says

Etti Baranoff, who has overheard plenty of cellphone

conversations in 15 years of traveling twice a week

as an associate professor of insurance and finance

at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

“We think no matter where we are, we are in our own

living room, but we are not. We are walking with our

phones as if we are in our own homes.”

No keyholes needed

“It’s a generational and cultural change,” says W.

Keith Campbell, a professor of psychology at the

University of Georgia in Athens.

“That old image of sticking your ear to a keyhole —

we don’t need to do it anymore,” Campbell says.

“Our personal lives are much more open.”

What’s changed is that more private behavior, such

as personal phone calling, happens in public today,

says social psychologist Robert Kraut of Carnegie

Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

It may seem like eavesdropping, but the “victim” is

no longer the person being eavesdropped on, he

says — it’s “the overhearers, who can’t get away.

What had once been private behavior is now being

shoved in their face.”

Fischer, author of Made in America: A Social History

of American Culture and Character, says it’s ironic

that “a cellphone call overheard while walking down

the street is a throwback to (party lines) where

everybody knew everybody’s business.”

Whether eavesdropping is by choice or forced

makes a big difference, Locke says.

“If someone is speaking low, people will lean in the

direction of the message. But if people are speaking

loudly on a cellphone, they’ll back the other way. We

resent the fact they are broadcasting personal

information. We want the option of tuning in.”

This dichotomy is evident in new research on public

cellphone use. One study, to be presented to the

National Communication Association in November,

included 15- to 20-minute observations of 19,741

people using cellphones on a college campus from

2005 to 2008. Researcher Yi-Fan Chen of Old

Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., found that

mobile devices “blurred boundaries between public

and private spaces.” Her 2009 survey found

cellphones were most often used on the street,

observers said, “in a loud or annoying manner.”

Another study, in the journal Behaviour &

Information Technology in 2004, found cellphone

conversations “significantly more noticeable and

annoying than face-to-face” at the same volume.


“There is an idea in social psychology that you can

talk about intimate things to strangers because they

are not part of your network and are not considered

to be a risk,” Campbell says. “If you’re actually in

public and clearly don’t know people, it’s almost

seen as a private space.”

Some say today’s mix of easy information sharing

and celebrity-driven media culture is making us

more narcissistic. With Facebook and Twitter, we’re

more willing to showcase our lives for all who want

to look or listen. We can tell our friends our

innermost thoughts, but those who aren’t so close

also see.

“Go into an airport and you hear people talking in a

particularly loud voice, so people think they’re

important or have status. There’s a subset of people t

hat ties in more with narcissism and attention-

seeking that are using these channels to get

attention,” says Campbell, co-author of The

Narcissism Epidemic.

Gleaning new information

But the fact that you can watch or listen on social

networks without engaging “has some real

advantages,” says Keith Hampton, assistant

professor of communication at the University of

Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

“It’s exposure to little bits of information you would

never otherwise have had access to,” he says. “And

little bits of information can be really important. You

have access to new ideas, and not from very close

social ties that know what you know.”

Pop culture expert Richard Lachmann, a sociology

professor at the University at Albany, State University

of New York, says it’s not just the idea of privacy

that has changed. He believes the very nature of

eavesdropping is up for debate, since people are

willing to share more and more personal


“Everybody still has a notion of eavesdropping. It’s

somebody trying to hear something they haven’t

been invited to hear. What’s changing is what goes

in that category,” he says.

“It used to be people had a real long list of things

that were private and only heard by a few, and a

short list of things that would be public. For many

people, that’s moved from one list to another.”


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