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The Politics of Doorbells

Privacy, technology, politeness, and caution in the age of Instagram

A friend asked: Has anybody caught you taking pics of their door buzzer? And if you do get caught, how would you explain yourself?

I answered: One person has. I was taking the photo one morning of the buzzer at a generic, undistinguished apartment building. Someone was backing their car out of the multi-tenant garage. The person for some reason got out of their car before it was fully backed out, I think maybe to see if anyone was walking on the sidewalk, and then saw me. Instantly I was asked, quite anxiously, “What do you think you’re doing?” The person was upset. I looked back and said, “I’m taking a picture of the doorbell.” The person instantly calmed and said, “Oh, OK. Thanks. Have a good day.” I have some rules about the doorbells I photograph, and among them are anonymity — not only do I never post photos that show clearly evident names, I don’t even take photos of doorbells that have identifiable names clearly on them. The second rule is addresses. If the full address is on it, I don’t take the picture. Those two rules alone keep at bay a lot of the interpersonal weirdness (the perceived invasion of privacy in taking a picture of something that by definition is fully public). I’m also pretty careful that no one is watching when I do it. That morning when the driver got upset with me was a bad call on my part. The garage door was already open. I should have seen that coming.

By Marc Weidenbaum

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