5 Ethical Questions On Posting Photos Of Strangers Online

Recently, mediocre singer (but excellent future infomercial host) Michael Buble got in hot water for posting a pic he snagged of a woman in shorty shorts:

Identity obscured in this reposting.

And some were offended when Neil Patrick Harris took a break from being a horrible Oscars host to expose the unusual behavior of this New York City subway rider:

Identity obscured in this reposting.

I was a little surprised by the amount of backlash these guys got. Regardless of the accompanying comment, it seemed many were upset by the mere concept of posting pics of strangers. Was that a bad thing in and of itself? Doesn't being out in public remove a person's expectation of privacy? I'm not claiming to have all the answers, but it seems the ethics involved in posting pics are evolving along with the technology that enables it, so I thought I'd list some of the questions we should be asking about this practice.

#5. Is There A Difference Between Being In Public And Being Online?

For some, this issue is very simple: It's wrong to take pictures of people without their permission. I'll admit that stance is clear and straightforward, but I also don't find it compelling. No one disputes that drilling a hole in a dressing room wall to snap pics is wrong. Everyone agrees using a telephoto lens to take shower pics of your neighbor can't be defended. Indeed, let's cut to the chase: NONE of the things Cracked's own Felix Clay does to achieve erections are justifiable.

Especially this thing. Yes, every pixel of this photo had to be censored.

But when you're out in the world, can you really expect that no one will take your picture? You're putting yourself out in public. If people don't need permission to look at you, what is the ethical reason they'd need permission to save one millisecond of that glance? What changes the ethical question of holding an image in your memory versus holding it in your phone? I think if we answer that question honestly, it's the things that might be done with the photo and not merely that someone memorialized a millisecond of your appearance or behavior that you were already showing the world.

Unless you believe cameras steal your soul, a photo taken in and of itself can't be the offense. I mean, while many were up in arms about the Buble short shorts pic, no one cared about the cashier in the background whose face was actually showing. So let's look at the next step.

#4. Does The Accompanying Message Matter?

Once the picture's taken, lots of things can happen, and I'd suggest not all of them are creepy or improper. But now the ethical debate gets a lot less clear. Let's take the Buble pic from above as an example. When I first saw the pic, I didn't see any of Buble's craptastic hashtags, so its meaning was a bit more ambiguous to me. His hilarious and classy tags included #babygotback, #hungryshorts, and #beautifulbum, which to me do seem pretty creepy and lame. But what if he had typed, "OMG, I'd love to get my wife these shorts, but the girl wearing them didn't speak English. Does anyone know who makes them?" Then would that still be a creepy thing? The permission-less posting of her shorts? Doesn't the message underneath matter just as much as the photo?

And, removing the words and looking only at the photo, can we always be sure what we're seeing? Some looked at Buble and saw a frat guy saying, "Check out this ass I want to eat." Others saw a member of the patriarchy "slut-shaming" or "body-shaming" the unidentified woman in the photo. Seeing the photo, (without the hashtags) my first thought was neither of those. I thought the point of the photo was Buble merely saying, "Uh, I guess this chick enjoys shorts two sizes too small for her." I thought that was the point because, of the three comments above, that is the one I'd be most likely to make -- a comment on her fashion choice, not a shitty, fratty, bro-like comment or a body-based insult. I was being subjective.

????????? ?????????/iStock/Getty
For example, to me this is a picture of an absentee dad using my college fund to get breast implants
for his new girlfriend. What do you see?

And that's sort of the key point. Even if there were a defensible position regarding Buble's post, once you put something out on the world wide web, it can be interpreted countless ways. And while it's annoying enough to have your blog post or YouTube comment misinterpreted, it was at least your choice to make. When you subject someone who never asked to be part of your photo to those e-opinions, you bear greater responsibility.

#3. Does The Size Of Your Audience Matter?

Related to point #4: Does the size of the photo-poster's audience matter? Although it's tempting to think of ethics as an absolute philosophical science of right and wrong, I would offer that size does matter. (Insert penis joke here. Which is also what Cracked's own Felix Clay hears before sex.) Anyway, if part of the problem of posting pictures without permission online is exposing people to the scrutiny of moronic humanity, then the more followers you have on Instagram or Twitter, the greater the chance you'll subject some stranger to the Net's garbage. You might post a picture of some adorable mother and son in the park doing mother and son things, but if you have enough followers, some twisted deviant is going to make a stupid "taboo milfy porn" joke.

Ryan McVay/Digital Vision/Getty Images
Yes, gather enough people online and even lovely things can be horrible.

Personally, I've posted pics of strangers to my Twitter with comments below, and no one has ever given me a hard time or made a reply that led me to regret posting. Partially, however, that's because I have 27,000 followers, not millions. (Unlike really talented Twitter celebs, I was never cool enough to be on a reality television show.) So I would offer that, while right is right and wrong is wrong, and while the size of your audience can't be the complete analysis, posters do bear some responsibility to know what they're exposing their camera subjects to. With a great following comes a greater responsibility.

Mike Coppola/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images
Hey, how about a Spider-Man reboot about his social media life? (Couldn't get any worse.)

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