How important is privacy in a world where we increasingly put ourselves on public view online? According to Dave Eggers’s cautionary novel The Circle, the sacrifice of privacy in a world where social media companies urge us to expose more and more of ourselves online is a straight road to social corruption. When protagonist Mae Holland gets a job at fictional social media giant The Circle—inspired by companies such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter—she trades in her social integrity for public “transparency.” As she puts more and more of her life on public display, she rapidly climbs the company ladder. Swept up in the company’s philosophy that “privacy is theft,” she eventually carries around a camera 24/7.
After reading The Circle, Dutch documentary makers Tim den Besten (age 28) and Nicolaas Veul (age 31) wondered what would happen if Eggers’s dystopia became a reality and our entire lives were turned into one giant social media update. In a life-imitates-art experiment, they put themselves on live stream 24/7 for eighteen days. Besides being able to watch their every move, viewers could follow their heart rates, receive automatic updates of their emotional state, track their movements via GPS, and live-comment on Twitter via #SSM15.
In a world where boundaries between private and public are already blurring, Tim and Nicolaas wanted to find out what would happen if those boundaries disappeared altogether. What would be the physical and psychological effects? Would it make them —and their viewers—happy?
The result was a four-part documentary, Super Stream Me, which offers some important and surprising insights into what happens to us when all privacy is stripped away.
Of course there are the obvious moments that become awkward when broadcasted live to thousands of viewers. The first such moment presents itself right before a press conference, when Tim has to go to the bathroom. Visibly nervous, he puts the camera on the floor: “Oh, lord. I’m just gonna do it. Pooping is fun; everyone does it.”
He apologizes, then burst out in a loud “LALALALOEHLOEHLOEHLAAA!” to cover the noises while Nicolaas and the press are giggling outside. A Twitter commenter wrote: “So Tim takes off his glasses when he goes to the bathroom.”
Before he’s finished washing up, a viewer has already uploaded the clip onto YouTube.
“Great, now I’m the poop guy.”
It’s all the press asks about for the rest of the day.
The first time Tim takes a shower, screenshots, gifs, and memes of his penis immediately show up online, on fan sites and other media. “Oh my God!” Look! That’s a picture of my penis!” Tim exclaims when he logs onto his computer.
Bathroom visits, taking a bath, masturbating, recreational drug use, dancing alone: they all become embarrassing and trivializing moments once they’re recorded and saved for all eternity. But the importance of privacy quickly moves beyond embarrassment, as the experiment soon painfully illustrates what we sacrifice when we give up our privacy altogether.
As soon as Nicolaas and Tim turn their live stream cameras on, the effects of the project begin to manifest themselves. Their heart rates shoot up. Nicolaas immediately begins to narrate what’s happening to his viewers. “Why are you suddenly articulating like that?” Tim asks, annoyed.
During the first hour, thousands of viewers tune in to watch Tim and Nicolaas go about their daily lives. The constant surveillance of hundreds, sometimes thousands of strangers makes them hyperaware of what they’re doing at any given moment.
Tim and Nicolaas develop different ways to cope with their constant exposure to the outside world. Tim tries to ignore the camera and go about his life like he normally does. But he also starts to become an exhibitionist. After a few days of tiptoeing around “shameful” moments, he demonstratively begins to not care about his viewers. He plays around in the bathtub, yells at his viewers, walks around naked, whips out his penis when they discuss how embarrassing it would be to masturbate on camera. The alternative to his constant awareness of being viewed by hundreds of strangers seems to be to ignore the repercussions of his actions on live stream completely. While high at a music festival, he decides to read his phone number out loud. As soon as he does, his phone almost explodes from the phone calls streaming in.
“Guys, stop calling! It’s only a phone!” he yells at the camera, visibly shaken. He spends the rest of the night talking to callers about everything and anything. Days later, people still don’t leave him alone. They call, say their name, hang up. They don’t even want to talk to him; they just want to have a little airtime.
Nicolaas feels a constant responsibility to entertain his faceless audience. On the eighth day, he feels caught in the dilemma of showing himself and keeping up his self-performance:
I feel fake, and that makes me angry. Because I can’t say what I want to say or do what I want to do. I feel like smashing the camera. I have so many thoughts I’m not expressing. It makes me a more polite version of myself, but also a gross version of myself, like a Ken doll. As if I’m in a perpetual job interview.
His body also responds to the experiment in progressively disturbing ways. Nicolaas’s heart rate is constantly at the top of the scale. He experiences heartburn and insomnia. He usually doesn’t sleep before three in the morning and regularly wakes up with heart palpitations. When doctors analyze the data collected about his heart rate and emotional state near the end of the project, they’re alarmed at how quickly he’s begun to show serious psychological and physical signs of a burn-out or nervous breakdown—loss of concentration and sense of control, panic attacks, easy irritation, feeling haunted, displaced anger, lethargy, suspicion, high blood pressure, exhaustion, high emotionality, insomnia, and more. Most of these symptoms began only a few days into the experiment.
Normally people function in different social contexts throughout the day—work, time with friends or family, contact with strangers in public spaces—and time spent alone offers an opportunity for recuperation. But the perpetual connection of Tim and Nicolaas to hundreds to thousands of strangers changes that dynamic, leaving them with only one social context to function in at all times: exposure to an anonymous public. Without space or time for repose, their psyches and bodies rapidly begin to break down.
Tim responds differently to the project than Nicolaas, experiencing serious anxiety and paranoia. Within the first few days, he accuses his editors of hacking into his phone and not keeping to their agreements, and yells at an interviewer that she’s been briefed beforehand and came with a hidden agenda. On the fifth day, he confesses to his therapist that he doesn’t know what’s real and what’s fake anymore, or whether he can trust the people around them—as if he’s trapped in The Truman Show.
At one point, Tim is wandering around Amersfoort train station aimlessly. Unaware of what he’s looking for, he suddenly realizes he is desperately trying to find a place to hide, but can’t because of the camera. He stops under an escalator and turns the camera away while he starts sobbing. His sobs are interrupted only by the notifications of strangers’ comments streaming in.
The constant interference of anonymous outsiders also breaks down their own social circles. Besides not feeling like they can confide in each other anymore, friends begin to turn away. When Nicolaas visits his real-life friends with the camera for the first time, they’re initially entertained by the whole concept. But the camera soon starts to become an annoyance, changing the context of hanging out with loved ones. When Nicolaas puts the camera in a corner facing the group, so that his friends have a little more privacy, his online viewers immediately begin to protest, feeling cheated out of their access to the conversation.
And as viewers follow their lives over a longer period of time, they become more aggressive in their sense of entitlement. People yell at them on the street, tell them that they watched them sleeping, or offer their opinions on private conversations or events. One viewer even drives up to their house, films them through the window, and posts it online. The live stream seems to foster a sort of stalking tendency in viewers that might otherwise not feel acceptable.
Near the end of the project, Nicolaas and Tim wonder out loud whether we should really fear constant surveillance by the government, or if we should instead fear a future where we constantly monitor each other.
The project doesn’t last as long as intended.
At the end of day 14, Tim throws down his camera in a rage and hides in his bedroom. Unsure what to do, Nicolaas eventually sets up the camera in Tim’s bedroom and tells him he can talk if he wants to.
After a few hours, Tim leaves with a heart rate of 134 bpm and suffering from a panic attack. He leaves the camera, turns off his phone and goes outside. A passerby asks him where his camera is. Tim returns home after six hours off the grid.
The next morning, as Tim is crying uncontrollably, Nicolaas suggests they stop the project. “I feel a lot of confetti in my stomach when I think of that. I can’t envision continuing. I feel horrible,” Tim says, as he falls into Nicolaas’s lap, crying.
They decide to end with a bow, and the camera is turn black on 1,206 viewers after fifteen days, two hours, and eleven minutes.
Privacy is something we don’t miss until it’s gone. And when it is, the effects are incalculable, making it impossible to live that way. The philosophical warning in The Circle takes on another powerful dimension in Super Stream Me. Loss of privacy in an increasingly online world is not only morally questionable, but might be physically and psychologically dangerous. Already, many young people in their twenties and thirties are suffering from burn-outs from being constantly “on.” There is even a special term for it: infobesity, or “social media stress.”
Even though the example of being “on” in Super Stream Me is an exaggeration, there is a certain pressure that comes with being active in an online and public space that few of us seem to be immune to: a treacherous pressure to constantly respond, react, showcase, or simply stay informed on what’s going on outside our private lives. And while it may feel empowering to “stay on top of things” online, it often comes at the price of ignoring the needs of our bodies to relax and of our personalities to be expressed in different social and private contexts. Writer and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi has said that, in the camp, a moment of privacy was worth more than food.
The constant appeal of being in touch with others, receiving and sharing opinions, and showing ourselves online, urges us to keep putting more of ourselves on public view, exposed to the scrutinizing eyes of others. For most people, those eyes won’t do much harm. But in a time when people go viral out of nowhere and faceless crowds are easily rallied to scrutinize the writer of an unfortunate tweet or public quote, the possibility that you will end up in a situation where your every move is criticized is a reality of the world we now live in.