Taking and uploading selfies can be empowering for a lot of people. Theresa Senft and Nancy Baym say as much in What Does the Selfie Say? Investigating a Global Phenomenon. They write that although the act of taking, uploading, viewing, exchanging, or commenting on images can’t empower (or dis-empower) someone, it can facilitate their empowerment.
For example, someone might upload a selfie and receive overwhelmingly positive comments. This would likely make them fell better about themselves. Or many individuals taking and sharing selfies together, using a hashtag for instance, could enact political change or simply begin discussions around an issue. This could be seen as an example of political empowerment. It is important to remember, however, that the practice of uploading and sharing photographs can also make us feel dis-empowered, particularly when it comes to the circulation of our images and our inability to control it. This is what this blog post will be focused on, the effects that the uncontrollable spread of images (not just selfies) online can have on us.
In Kevin Kelly’s The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, he calls the internet “the world’s largest copy machine.” Described as a free-flowing river of copies, as soon as something is uploaded to the internet it becomes a part of that river, and is just about impossible to keep track of.
Kate Palmer Albers, a professor from the University of Arizona in the US, has two interesting examples of the ways the spread of images online can make us feel like we have no control over them.
Her first story is fairly short and involves an unnamed colleague of hers who she refers to as Jane. Jane wasn’t very happy with the photo of herself that had appeared online and while trying to get it taken down, she found that a woman from Eastern Europe was using the image as her own profile picture. A woman Jane had never met saw her photo and decided to use it, and Jane couldn’t stop her.
The second example is slightly longer, it’s about an American artist called David Horvitz. In 2014 he uploaded a photo of himself to Wikimedia Commons, an image database that anyone can access and use. David’s intention was to let his photo spread online and ideally track it’s progress. This is where he ran into a problem.
Tracking the spread of a single image online is a near-impossible task considering the rate at which images can multiply online. Once content is uploaded to the internet it will inevitably be copied, reposted, and forwarded an unknowable number of times. After its initial upload David simply couldn’t track the image’s spread. His example is important because it shows us how easy it is to lose control of an image. I believe this is one of the reasons why selfies – and other images spread online – are seen as “places where control is lost.”
Our final example is one that I think you’ll like, mostly because it’s about memes, and everybody loves memes. One of the most important characteristics of memes is that they spread fast. They’re shared, saved, edited, and reposted all over the internet with frightening speed. This is pretty amazing, but it also means that they’re impossible to control.
The story begins with 11-year-old Maggie Goldenberger. One day while joking around with her friends, Maggie took a photo of herself wearing some truly outrageous clothing, holding several Goosebumps books. The photo was uploaded to MySpace and Facebook, and that was where the image’s story ended. Until 12 years later, in March 2012, a Reddit user named xWavy, a.k.a. Jeff Davis, discovered the image while browsing a publicly visible photo album on Facebook. He then shared the image with the Reddit community where another Reddit user called plantlife added a caption, which left us with the image below.
As I’m sure you all know, the image went viral, with people creating countless versions of their own as it spread across the internet. What I find most interesting about this example is time. This photo was online and unnoticed for 12 years until xWavy stumbled upon it. But once he did, it spread like wildfire, and Maggie had no control of the photo’s spread or subsequent usage whatsoever.
As these examples have (hopefully) shown you, it’s fairly easy for the spread of images online can make you feel dis-empowered. They can multiply and spread faster than you can follow them, flowing through the “river of copies” and ending up in all kinds of places. While seeing your photo taken and distributed all over the internet can be empowering for some, for others it is anything but.