A filmmaker’s sister recently went to the hospital. The doctor who treated her subsequently sent her a friend request on Facebook, a gesture she found invasive and offensive. Her filmmaker sister tweeted about it, and since it was something to do with a woman (and not a maulana forcing himself upon a minor in a car, for example), everyone has had many opinions about it. The useful thing to come of this is the discussion it has sparked: what are the limits of the private and personal online?
We’re a generation new to the internet. People of my generation—thirty-somethings—have experienced the clear line between life before the internet and life after. We’ve seen the development from screeching dial-up and the two blue-flashing computers in the sidebar to the tidy little arches of wi-fi. We’ve gone from snail-slow to lightning fast. The trouble is that while we like our toys and using all the Modern Things, we have no clue about the etiquettes of using them. We are that singularly clueless team of wannabes who are wearing their fashionable clothes backward. We bumble along on Facebook, thinking it’s perfectly all right to meet someone in an elevator, at a dinner party, on a plane—and then look them up online and add them to your social media. We think up ridiculous e-mail addresses—sweety420, bobby_dear, etc—and put them on our CVs with nary two thoughts about how idiotically unprofessional that looks. We share phone numbers with others without asking the owner of the number whether they are all right with it.
The problem with not knowing or caring about the rules is that it becomes so easy for an ordinary, innocent way of communicating with other people to be hijacked by perverts and harassers. It also turns online spaces into completely uncontrolled wilderness where every dog becomes a lion, as is the case in Pakistan. The rules of online etiquette exist to make the experience safer. Doctors all around the world, including Pakistan, are clearly told that social media interaction with current patients is unethical and not allowed. The same applies to lawyers too—some professions have higher standards of client privacy because the information shared is of a highly private nature. As a teacher, one imagines something of the same. The reason is that Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and so forth are private spaces. You control the content. You control who can or cannot add you. Technically, people are supposed to ask your permission before they take your photo or upload one of you to their social media. Similarly, a stranger adding you to their social media is disturbing and should be discouraged because it is an invasion of your privacy, plain and simple. One glance at your ‘others’ inbox on Facebook should be enough to convince anyone—nobody has ever seen all those “hy how r u sweety” messages and overflowed with joy and bonhomie.
The average doctor in a hospital probably sees at least fifty patients a day, if not more. Imagine how you would feel if one day, out of fifty or eighty patients, you got singled out for a Facebook friendship request. That means your doctor remembered your name from your file (or looked it up later), got online, did a search of you and clicked ‘add’. Nothing in this process indicates an accident or that favourite excuse, your account being hacked. As a doctor, you can’t do that because, quite plainly, nobody goes to the doctor when they are healthy, and all illness is gross in some way or another. One is putting one’s dignity in the hands of a professional because you need their help. You are vulnerable. And what is otherwise treated like a harmless irritation becomes something much more serious because of that vulnerability.
What is vital to remember in all this is that everyone has the right to privacy both in life and online, and that is a facet of being given dignity. Many famous people actively shield their children from paparazzi and media interest for this reason, because their children’s daily lives are not meant to be public entertainment. Similarly, the information we share on the internet is permanent, and we seem to completely forget this. Our information—photos, job details, even location check-ins—is as public as the limits of our social media are. You have a right to not be solicited for friendship by every Tom Dick and Harry that decides they like your profile picture. You have a right to express your discomfort at complete strangers trying to enter your private space and be taken seriously. This mentality is only a carry-on from real life, where men think it’s perfectly acceptable to verbally harass you in public, because you’re there and therefore available. Women on a bus, women in shops, women walking down the street—it’s all the same, and that same attitude of entitlement applies to online interaction, only ten times worse.
The second thing to remember is that harassment is unsettling and disturbing at every level. It is myopic and dangerous to dismiss small-scale harassment, because that only suggests how deeply we have internalized our misogyny that unless someone is physically harming you, you don’t think anything is amiss. What does it take for harassment to be taken seriously? A rape? Attempted murder? Kidnapping? Nothing less than life-threatening will do. But if you don’t mind being sent anonymous sexy texts or being phone-called thirty times in a row by a stalker, then you’re a fairy unicorn from outer space, because that person doesn’t exist, male or female. Nobody has ever heard “zara smile tou karein” from the car next to yours at a red light and felt like the luckiest person alive. The feeling is the same when it happens online. It’s the same behaviour, only a different medium. Ironic then, that if you report harassment you’re a crybaby; but if you get fired from your job for being a lech you’re a misunderstood family man.