November 22, 2013 2:57 pm

#BreakingUpOnTwitter

‘Where once the onus was on an individual to respect someone else’s privacy, now it is on the individual to protect it’
An illustration of Kyle Ayers' #roofbreakup tweets©Lucas Varela

“RACHEL IS WALKING AWAY.” With these four words the Brooklyn-based comedian Kyle Ayers signalled he was nearing the end of a 40-minute real-time running Twitter commentary on the break-up of a couple in his building.

The drama apparently began last Sunday when Ayers heard the star-crossed lovers arguing on his rooftop. Sensing a social media opportunity, he announced he would cover the split live on Twitter. We have only his word that it actually happened but his #roofbreakup tweets went viral and even if it didn’t end well for Rachel, it looks likely to work out for Ayers.

The dialogue is not exactly the stuff of Stoppard, though there was a filmic quality to the guy’s “I’m not talking about love on a roof in Brooklyn.” But, largely, it was the kind of incoherent, angry invective one might expect. She wanted him to commit to living together; he dodged any such commitment and dissed her friends. The exchange had its comic moments: She: “Are we going to live together?” He: “Yeah but what is, like, living together?” For those who saw it live, it must have made decent entertainment and it’s cheaper than Broadway, though it had none of the surreal drama of the Glasgow train break-up live-tweeted by another comedian in 2012. That one involved an ex-girlfriend in Rome, the custody of a horse and allegations of impotence in Bognor.

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Robert Shrimsley

Either could be spoofs and both do seem a little too entertaining. But the dam has burst and even if these are fake, genuine ones will follow. The one unusual aspect is that Ayers seemingly lives very close to one of the couple and may be called on to account for his activity. I look forward to the live tweeting of #paybackinthelaundryroom.

Although the couple did spot Ayers, it seemed not to occur to them that he was tweeting their row, and it apparently did not occur to him to give them some privacy. We can only be grateful that he was not in the crypt for the denouement of Romeo and Juliet. “JULIET IS STABBING HERSELF :-(((” Or: “It’s all over. Escalus is going for pizza.” Think how he might have improved the end of Casablanca: “She’s actually going to end up in Czechoslovakia. OMG.” “Apparently they’ll always have Paris – yeah, right.”

In Ayers’ defence, he did not identify the couple and, with his ear for the absurd, he added to the hilarity of life. But the real-time nature of the tweets give a sense of dabbling in people’s misery, so the question posed by #roofbreakup and other efforts is where are the boundaries now? Do they exist only in places where people are required to check in their cellphones?

Where once the onus was on an individual to respect someone else’s privacy, now it is on the individual to protect it. Everything is on the record; anything that can be captured is fair game. The companies that are shaping our future, the Facebooks, Twitters and Googles, do not believe in the right to privacy. To them, insisting on privacy is a selfish, wilful denial of something to others. As the protagonist in Dave Eggers’ new tech satire The Circle puts it: privacy is theft.

It seems ironic that as the web breaks down virtual boundaries, it is enticing people to recreate physical ones. You need higher fences to keep out Google Street View. Keep your conversations behind closed doors if you don’t want to read them on Twitter; and wear sunglasses and a hoodie if you don’t want to be identified by Google Glass. With potential intrusion so widespread we can now all experience the trappings of celebrity – well, apart from the designer clothes and accompanying riches. Although in the future, it is not so fanciful to believe that having spent years building their profile, the most successful people may minimise their online presence to safeguard their privacy.

Perhaps the largest irony of all is that at a time when many are complaining about governments spying on citizens and the harvesting of personal data by tech companies, the greatest threat to the privacy of the individual is the action of other individuals.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com Twitter: @robertshrimsley

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