Over the weekend, New York comedian Kyle Ayers livetweeted the conversation of a couple as they broke up on the roof next to him.
This week, Ayers account of the breakup has gone viral. Today, in the LA Times, writer Luke O'Neil wonders if we should be more disturbed by what Ayers did. As civilians, aren't the roof breaker-uppers entitled to privacy?
This wasn't a huge public fight on the subway or something we're all talking about here, it wasn't Kanye West breaking up with Hillary Clinton, it was two people working through a moment of intimacy on a rooftop, going through what is, for many of us, one of the harder-to-deal-with arguments we can have: the end of a love affair. Perhaps some discretion should be considered? Or are we way beyond that point now?
In Ayers' defense, he kept the roof couple anonymous, which ought to count for something. And what he did isn't even very new. Writers have been pillaging the miseries of strangers forever. And unless they're journalists, they don't need to justify their work based on its news value. They steal from life and then they hope their work justifies that theft.
But I get O'Neil's discomfort. Up until now, I've mostly ignored the #roofbreakup story because watching strangers chortle about it hasn't felt fun. Who among us wants to break up in front of a comedian looking for something to tweet?
I think the last complicating factor to the #roofbreakup story is that while it looks like it's about privacy on the internet, it's just as much about privacy in a dense city. It reminds me of an essay that writer Melissa Febos wrote about how New Yorkers respect a public solitude that visitors can mistake for apathy:
One afternoon, I was riding a Brooklyn-bound Q train with my mother, who was visiting from Cape Cod, when our conversation lulled. We each glanced around the subway car at the other passengers, their heads bobbing in unison, the eyes of the man across from us doing a creepy back-and-forth twitch as he watched a train whizzing by in the opposite direction behind us. Some people read, or pushed buttons on their smart phones, but most just stared without expression at the floor or the garish overhead posters for Dr. Zizmor's cosmetic dermatology. My mother (who is, notably, a psychotherapist) leaned into my shoulder and whispered, "Everyone on this train looks depressed."
I snorted, whispering back: "No, Mom, they just have their train-faces on." In a place where we are so rarely alone, we find privacy in public.
The problem is, we often don’t want to show our emotions to our true intimates either. The apartment I share with my girlfriend is so small, it can be easier to find privacy outside. During a recent fight, we reached an impasse; we were clearly not going to reach a resolution. We rarely fight, but when we do, it feels like there isn’t enough room in our apartment for both of our feelings. And there’s nowhere to have a phone conversation that the other won’t overhear. So I went outside to walk the dog.
The internet is its own place, but if you live here you live somewhere else, too. I think it's possible that what Ayers did looks one way when you view him as a person who exists online, and quite another when you view him as a person who lives in your city.