curiosity on demand

Consuming media for which we are not the intended audience is a type of cultural eavesdropping.

Every article we read, movie we watch, and album we listen to is an interaction between a speaker and an intended audience. Sometimes a speaker's intended audience is “everyone within earshot,” anyone capable of listening. But often, a speaker's audience is more narrow: teenagers navigating body image issues, white-collar professionals with child care concerns, first-generation college students coping with campus life, LGBT millennials looking for a decent movie to watch on a Saturday night.

How often do we listen to music we are not fans of? Read books that impart lessons that don't apply to us?

Until recently, the only people motivated to do this were those eager to learn about the world around them, expand their tastes and perspectives, or those with a public presence and the means to respond.

The internet has thrashed this dynamic. Now, we are able to do more than simply eavesdrop. Whether on social media or in comments sections, now we are able to interrupt conversations.

The social contract around eavesdropping in physical public spaces is fairly clear:

  1. Don't make it obvious you are eavesdropping
  2. Don't interrupt the conversation, no matter your personal reaction

Follow those two rules, and you are free to listen comme vous préfèrez: record a surprising perspective in your journal, subtweet the conversation to a friend, despair at your inability to parse this year's slang.

Alas, humans (specifically their brain parts) experience a profound difficulty transferring lessons from one domain to another. What we follow in the real world we forget in the digital.

A common scenario: A rap blog publishes a glowing review of the latest, hottest trap record. The comments section below the review fills with people complaining that the review is biased, that this blog always rates trap music highly even though it sounds terrible, and why don't they review the latest Wye Oak album, which is way more relevant in 2016? Interrupters.

Or: Lena Dunham posts a message on Facebook about her experience as a female screenwriter in her 20s. She directs the message toward other women. In the comments, hundreds of men respond with their hot takes. Interrupters.

What we frequently fail to recognize is that we are not part of every conversation that we are able to observe online. Sometimes, we are eavesdropping. And as in the physical world, we must follow the social contract:

We may listen. We may learn. We may not interrupt.