Beyond Their Control: When Digital Images Go Viral

Beyond Their Control: When Digital Images Go Viral
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I talk a lot about how the internet can magnify or amplify because of its viral nature. You see this when teens post inappropriate photos or videos of themselves, and they end up being forwarded around school (or more than one school). Suddenly that image or video is beyond their control. You can try to get people to remove it, but it's hard, if not impossible, to remove every instance where that image might show up. The best you can do is try to bury it in Google search results so it's harder to find.

When someone else uploads your image and it goes viral, it's even harder to control. This is what happened to Allison Stokke, an 18-year-old track star who also happens to be very attractive. According to the Washington Post, reg. required, "a year-old picture of Stokke idly adjusting her hair at a track meet in New York had been plastered across the Internet." Here's a little bit about what transpired:

A fan on a Cal football message board posted a picture of the attractive, athletic pole vaulter. A popular sports blogger in New York found the picture and posted it on his site. Dozens of other bloggers picked up the same image and spread it. Within days, hundreds of thousands of Internet users had searched for Stokke's picture and leered...

...She had more than 1,000 new messages on her MySpace page. A three-minute video of Stokke standing against a wall and analyzing her performance at another meet had been posted on YouTube and viewed 150,000 times.

In Totally Wired, I told the story of Ghyslain Raza , who is best known online as "The Star Wars Kid." After schoolmates uploaded a video they found of him pretending he was a Jedi Knight battling with his lightsaber, it became one of the most viral videos of all time. It also caused him to drop out of school, and his parents to sue the families of the kids who posted the video. Allison Stokke and her parents seem to be dealing with the situation the best they can, realizing that it's is essentially out of their control but taking precautions to make sure Allison is safe. Her family struck me as being pretty grounded and realistic about the whole experience, as demeaning as it has been for Allison. Her mother was quoted in the article saying:

"All of it is like locker room talk," said Cindy Stokke, Allison's mom. "This kind of stuff has been going on for years. But now, locker room talk is just out there in the public. And all of us can read it, even her mother."

She was able to have a fake Facebook profile that popped up taken down.

In a culture obsessed with finding fame and celebrity, the internet has made some teenagers "accidentally famous." And with that fame, comes some very adult attention. The kind that led Allison's parents to seek a media consultant. Or the kind that led teen "Internet It Girl" Cory Kennedy's mom (Los Angeles Times, reg. required) to send her away to special school in order to get her out of the limelight. The Washington Post, by publishing Allison's photos online, only fuels her internet fame even more. I'm not going to republish her photos here.

I wish I had some tips to offer on how to prevent this sort of thing from happening. The reality is that in today's totally wired world, your digital image just isn't your own -- especially if it's being taken by someone else (including the media). Once it's online, this type of internet celebrity is possible whether you asked for it or not. The most you can do is just be aware that this can happen and be prepared to deal with it if it does.

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