There’s a lot I love about the web. And as passionate as I am about attribution and misappropriation, I’m still kind of smitten by the way an image can take on a life of its own.
Case in point: Back in 2007, my laptop was stolen. Mainly as catharsis, I posted these selfies from the webcam of the replacement computer: The five stages of grieving for your stolen MacBook.
Those familiar with the stages of grieving will recall there’s one called anger. In my case, it looked like this:
Apparently it was evocative. One entrepreneurial sort dropped me a very flattering message to ask if he could use me as the
mascot visual identity for a site where people could vent; I declined with thanks.
And I didn’t really think about it again until Alex pinged me today, having seen my jawline pop up in her Facebook newsfeed:
Given that the image linked to a post refuting pseudoscience around vaccine safety, I’m fairly comfortable with that. (“But Rob, it was written by someone whose username is wonderbraforyourdick.” “Nope, still okay.”)
But it turns out that my snarling mug graces more than this one post. It’s on a Buddhist discussion board:
…another Buddhist discussion board…
…an oddly similar Buddhist discussion board…
…a public relations student blog…
…a science news-sharing site…
…another discussion board where the participants hold my education in excessive esteem…
… someone’s deviantART site…
…this, which I just plain don’t understand…
…and a Portuguese site that apparently hates both Sonny With a Chance and Internet Explorer in equal measure.
But the one that completely floored me was Cracked, which during my childhood was a truly awful competitor to MAD Magazine, and today is a sometimes brilliant humour website. My photo illustrates a 2009 post entitled 5 Scientific Reasons People Act Like Assholes (judging by the URL, it was originally titled “5 Scientific Explanations for the Angry Dickhead”):
Comedy’s kind of my bag, so winding up on Cracked.com isn’t a bad thing per se. But “poster child for assholes” really isn’t how I’d pictured it.
Neither is any of the rest of this. My face is floating out there on several sites, unidentified and uncredited, as a symbol of seething rage.
And yet, for the most part, anger’s the furthest thing from my mind. I published the photos under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial Attribution Share Alike license, and while the authors of most of these posts are neglecting the attribution and share-alike side of things, there’s a spirit of sharing that seems to underlie most of it.
My professional life — speechwriting, communications, social media, training and coaching — has centered around helping people express themselves. So if something I’ve created is helping them get an idea or a thought across, that’s on-mission.
(Cracked, on the other hand, is a commercial site, and should know better than to use people’s content and likeness with neither permission, attribution, a link or compensation. Ditto Psychology Today. And a bunch of self-promotion sites from practitioners of various flavours.)
But I can easily imagine how other people would feel differently. I’m coming at this from a place of privilege, and as danah boyd has pointed out, “privileged folks don’t have to worry so much about people who hold power over them observing them online. That’s the very definition of privilege. But most everyone else does.”
It’s easy enough to track down the origin of my photo with a service like TinEye or Google Image Search. I’ve ranted about attribution before; suffice to say I think it’s both the right and the legal thing to do, and the same applies to using people’s likenesses.
I don’t mind being a meme — well, mini-meme. Others might. A little respect, due diligence and even asking first can go a long way to avoiding, well, this: