What would you do if someone ran up to you in the street with a camera and asked for your pronouns? Run? Laugh? Answer? Sometime in early 2023, a non-binary person had to make that decision. Their response resulted in an onslaught of hate comments in a video uploaded to Tiktok.
“The first guy literally said ‘I just want everyone’s attention’”
“HE will never contribute more than a vegan meme to society”
This is the TikTok ‘street interview’ trend, where random people are approached, questioned, and their responses are posted online with little thought for consent. It may be rude, invasive, and frankly strange, but it’s also undeniably popular. At the time of writing, the hashtag #streetinterview had 5.2 billion views on TikTok, with almost all videos following the same format of putting strangers on the spot with awkward and often inappropriate questions.
Under UK law, passers-by do not need to be consulted before filming. This means that anyone in public can be publicly recorded and there is little to stop creators plucking whoever they want out of a crowd to put them on the spot and share their obvious discomfort with the world.
Power imbalance is inveitable during these exchanges. The interviewer is in control of the direction of the conversation and will often catch the interviewee off by sticking a microphone and camera in their face and asking them an intensely personal question. The interviewee might feel pressured to play along and answer the questions without being informed on what the interview is for or where it will be posted. Furthermore, some TikTok street interviewers engage in aggressive behavior in their interviews. They may persistently ask questions, even when the interviewee has clearly stated they do not wish to participate. In some cases, interviewers have followed individuals down the street or into stores, continuing to ask questions despite the interviewee's discomfort.
Busy streets at night are shrewdly chosen to find disinhibited young people under the spell of a few too many drinks, with many women borderline sexually harrassed for a ‘joke’ by male interviewers. One instance showed a young woman backing away nervously on camera repeating; “I’m not answering that” when asked about her sexual preferences. Playing off sexual harassment for laughs and likes takes an already uncomfortable trend into territories of discomfort that are clearly unacceptable (if chasing people down the street on camera, asking any other question was acceptable in the first place).
Casual provocation presents itself in other ways too. People have reported online abuse from ‘take it or double it’, where strangers are stopped and asked on camera if they would like to either take an item or double it and pass it on to someone else. One recent example involved a woman seemingly choosing to take a stack of cookies, much to the amusement of the online audience who were quick to shame the woman for her weight. If this wasn’t bad enough, it turns out this video was a setup, where the woman was told to take the cookies before filming started, and without the time or context to make an informed decision, she agreed. Since then her explanation has since been shared nearly 30,000 times. “That was completely set up and staged”, she explained, “...and yet harassment still happened with her [the creator] fully knowing that.”
In a similar situation, an Australian woman said she felt “dehumanised” after being filmed without consent for a “random act of kindness” TikTok that went viral. In the video the creator asked her to hold a bouquet of flowers while he put on a jacket. Then instead of accepting the flowers back he wished her a good day and walked away, essentially ‘gifting’ her the flowers. Maree’s shocked reaction was caught on camera. When she asked if she was being filmed the group lied and told her “no”.
"He interrupted my quiet time, filmed and uploaded a video without my consent, turning it into something it wasn't, and I feel like he is making quite a lot of money through it.”
This is not to say that all street interviews are necessarily malicious or harmful. There are many great creators out there who are conducting entertaining or insightful interviews with the informed consent of their participants. What is concerning is the growing trend of ‘gotcha’ style street interviews that overstep bounds and are posted without consent all for the sake of views. Public spaces have become a playground for creators to manipulate, creating clickbait content that can be seriously detrimental to those caught in the crossfire. Next time you watch those types of videos, take them with a grain of salt. What you’re seeing might not be the whole story and the participants might not be as willing to take part as they seem.