Public Transport And The Rise Of ‘Stranger Shaming’

tube litterEver eaten on the tube, sat with your legs too far apart or broken any other unwritten rule of public transport? Your picture might have made it onto one of the increasingly common Twitter or Facebook accounts set up for ‘stranger shaming’.

For the uninitiated, ‘stranger shaming’ is when someone takes a photo of you without your consent or knowledge and uploads it to a social media account for the purposes of mockery. Sophie Wilkinson recently found herself on the wrong end of several hundred comments berating her for having the temerity to eat a salad on the Metropolitan Line. A quick look through similar stranger shaming Twitter accounts (we’re not naming them, you can find your own if that’s your bag) in the rush hour shows a casual willingness for people to take easily identifiable photos of total strangers accompanied by abuse and piss-taking.

While it’s not illegal to take photos of random strangers, it’s treading a fine line between harmless and harassment, especially in an age when every other person in possession of a keyboard thinks they’re MI5 and starts trying to identify that random stranger. Fans of the genre argue that if someone has their feet on a seat or a badly-positioned rucksack, they deserve to be called a cunt by 700 people on Facebook. Wilkinson disagrees, saying in her blog post:

“There are a plethora of unofficial codes of conduct that people are encouraged to adhere to on the tube – no running down the up escalators, don’t put your feet on the seat, stand up for pregnant women/old people. None of these are enshrined in law, they just come as part of not being a dick – so I’d sort of like to see, ‘Ask your subject before you photograph them’ up there, too”

Wilkinson also contacted TfL’s Director of Enforcement and On-Street Operations, Steve Burton to ask about their stance on stranger shaming:

“If someone doesn’t want their photo taken it is obviously inappropriate to do so. If any customer has concerns about such behaviour, believing there may be a sinister motive, they are advised to speak to our staff or the BTP.”

Which brings us neatly on to Project Guardian, the initiative involving the British Transport Police (BTP), Transport for London (TfL), the Metropolitan Police and City of London Police. Taking a photo of that woman asleep on the train with her knickers showing might just get you more than five minutes of LOLs on Facebook. A relative of one of Londonist’s contributors witnessed exactly this and the unlucky camera-phone wielder found himself arrested at his destination.

Travelling on public transport with the hell that is other people can be nerve-frayingly infuriating but taking unwanted pictures of your fellow commuters doesn’t elevate you above them. In short, don’t be a dick.

Photo by chutney bannister in the Londonist Flickr pool.

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Article by Beth Parnell-Hopkinson | 709 Articles | View Profile

  • Steven

    but its ok for TFL to photograph and film you without your consent 24hrs a day? and use images to generate millions in revenue through fines. I think you have your priorities skewed.

    • Nick

      I’m by no means a fan of CCTV but get your facts right: they don’t use the CCTV for ticket fines. There was an excellent tube documentary a while ago (on BBC4, I think) that showed that fare enforcers were given only anonymous (think random digit IDs) data, had to identify likely times and location a person would be evading fares, then look out for a person doing so in person.

      There’s also a big difference any between using advertised CCTV for security, and taking embarassing photos of people on the tube without their permission.

      Because I’m sure someone will bring it up, I also think that TfL’s using CCTV footage of people falling down the escalators was on the wrong side of that line, although I think at least they did blur faces?

    • BethPH

      Think you’re missing the point slightly unless TfL have taken to posting CCTV images on Facebook with the caption ‘look at this twat’.

    • Hayley

      You implicitly give your consent for TFL to film you by using their services. Signs and announcements tell you that CCTV is in use across all buses and underground lines, and I’d be surprised if anyone thought they weren’t being filmed. If they use their cameras to prevent or penalise people misusing the system, that’s perfectly acceptable.

  • Andy Thornley

    I love the tag ‘not being a dick’ on this story.

  • SL

    What was the person in the story arrested for? Being a dick?

    • BethPH

      IIRC, outraging public decency or something similar. Though he was obviously a dick too, that’s not yet an arrestable offence.

  • smersh

    Buy a pair of cheap glasses frames (this isn’t a hipster thing) and attach a couple of infrared LEDs powered by a watch battery to the front, one on each side. Wear them.
    This will effectively blind out any camera pointed at you.

    • pablo fanque

      … but they’ll spot you anyway because your’e the one with an led

      taped to your glasses

  • george

    next time sophie&C, the real dicks in this nonsense, could eat their $@# in a park

  • http://www.jonnyvirgo.com Jonny Virgo

    London’s transport is crowded and often consequently unpleasant to use. However, we need to find a way not to sink to a passive-aggressive level of intrusion. We are all human actors with problems, levels of ignorance and some of whom just have bad days. If someone is doing something truly anti-social why not let them know? If they continue then that person is unlikely to be bothered by a photo online so why post one?

  • CanAmSteve

    “photos of people on the tube without their permission”

    What a *fascinating* discussion, highlighting how the right/left; open/closed spectrum is really just a circle with the Taliban a hair’s breadth from Libertarians.

    Space is short, but there is no “expectation of privacy” in a public place. A person photographing even the most controversial example (woman’s knickers when asleep) is breaking what law? (Creepy, sure – but illegal? Please state statute. Note we are not talking about “upskirt” photos or another abnormal perspective).

    If the woman (or man) was a free spirit who decided to ramble naked on the Tube, would the (no doubt thousands) who photographed him/her be breaking a law? Would there be mass arrests or one (or none?)

    Another tack – if I accidentally went out without my pants and exposed myself on the Tube to thousands including children, and someone took a photo of me, would *they* be the one breaking the law?

    How is *photographing* an event different from *seeing* the event? I submit that in law in this still-freeish society, there is no difference.

    Now, what is *done* with the photograph may be subject to regulation (and civil – usually not criminal – law) and if I should photograph a “dick” on the Tube, and place the image on Instagram with the opinion that I think he/she is a *dick*, individuals not named Richard may have concern – but slight. If you subsequently comment that “Dick should die” then is that my transgression or yours? I submit it is the poster (who is not necessarily the photog) or commenter(s) who err – not the photographer(s).

    The hysteria over paedophilia has over-sensitised the UK to photography, as if photography is some sort of precursor to crime. Be aware, it is absolutely legal to take photographs of anyone of any age in public in the UK. That is the law. I’m not saying many people know the law even as well as they can read the Daily Mail, but that *is* the law. Shame the police have to be reminded so often, as the false arrest payouts cost the taxpayer.

    Of course the root of this issue is our rage against the loss of common courtesy in our society. The Tube is a magnifier of this – people pushing onto cars (and its corollary – not exiting until well after the train has stopped), hogging seats, eating smelly food, listening to loud music, yelling at the top of their lungs, putting on fingernail polish (flammable as well as stinky), smacking people with backpacks, standing on the left and myriad other “transgressions” that are never, ever enforced since they are simply customs. Those days are over, folks get used to it. There ain’t no rules anymore.

  • hostile_17

    With TFL leading a constant barrage of treating people like naughty children, with constant announcements and signs, it’s no wonder they’re creating a breeding ground of hatred.

  • ceedoubleu

    I wonder if the Dick who took umbrage at me asking him to get his laptop off my lap is reading this? The Dick had obviously had a bad day at work, probably sacked for being an arse and thought that gobbing off rather than apologising was a neat solution.

  • Bcrra

    Don´t do to others (or in front of others) what you don´t like them to do to you (or in front of you) ….. easy but very complicated rule … so just be quiet and clean at least.

  • James Guppy

    What about taking photos of people without their permission through the activity of street photography…there are many wonderful images taken on the Tube.
    Candids where the intention isn’t to humiliate but merely to show life unwinding in all its technicolour aspects. Asking your subject before you photograph them totally changes the dynamic of the picture – frankly, it kills it.

    It is a step towards the recent absurd law passed in Hungary
    where you have to ask everyone’s permission before taking a picture (even in a crowded market etc).

    By all means stop the haters using images in a negative way –
    but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    • opaqueentity

      Does depend on what you are going to do with it though. At least this article does mention it is actually legal which is more than a lot do.