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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Hey, how about a Spider-Man reboot about his social media life? (Couldn't get any worse.)
Does It Matter Who The Person In The Picture Is?
Another question to consider: Should there be different rules depending on who's in the photo? I recently posted two pics of strangers to my Twitter with zero backlash. Was that because both the men I gently teased online were well-dressed white men? What if they were women or part of a visible minority? Would that change the equation of whether posting a pic of a stranger online is ethical or unethical? Should it? Posting them here, on a commercial site, requires blocking faces, which would totally ruin the joke of one of the pics, because I snapped a photo of an incredibly well-dressed but sinister man who I thought was going to murder and eat me. But the other pic sort of works even without a face:
Is this wrong?
Yep, that was my joke -- that the dude on the subway seat across from me looked like a young hipster Carl Sagan. Do I need a release for that? In my opinion, I do not. In my opinion, that tweet is defensible. If I had a friend sitting next to me (or any friends at all), it's the joke I would have told. I told it to the web instead. He knows how he dresses. He knows how he wears his hair. I stand by my assertion that he bears a resemblance to a dead astronomer. Is that too cruel to post? No one seemed to think so on my Twitter. Would it change if I snapped a pic of a dude who looked like a young Neil deGrasse Tyson? I would hope it wouldn't, but to tell you the truth, while I intended to do that test, I just didn't have the balls to find out.
Does It Matter If Your Intent Is To Shame?
And now we get to the biggest question, but before I ask it, I'll just phrase it as a statement for those yelling it at the column for the first four entries: "It's not about pic posting; it's about shaming, jackass!" First off, I don't think that's true. For some, as addressed above, the mere posting of the pic is the sin, with nothing more necessary. But let's ask your question (with your personal attacks removed, thank you very much): Does it matter if the point of the pic is to shame? I'm not convinced that's always wrong. I'll ask other questions: Is there no conduct that can be held up to derision? Is public criticism always wrong?
For example, what if you saw M. Night Shyamalan in the street working on his adaptation of The Last Airbender
before it was set to film -- shouldn't you pic-shame him before it's too late?
Previously, I wrote about the practice of parents publicly shaming their children, which I think is horrible because it's selling out your child to strangers and breaking trust more than instilling ethics. But while I believe that most name-calling and shaming is mean-spirited and awful, and Buble's pic with hashtags included is unseemly and indefensible, I'm not ready to say there is no behavior you can capture with your phone you can't comment negatively on in a public way. Take the NPH pic. That man on the subway definitely broke a norm of societal behavior. Who takes off their shoes? It's weird. NPH called it out. Big deal. (It's also a shitty tweet, but it was more entertaining than most of the last Oscars.)
But forget about NPH. Is there nothing that can be snapped and mocked? I mean, we use closed surveillance cameras and show the footage online and on television to catch criminals and terrorists. We don't get permission first for that. Is that the line? You can record and shame someone only if they're breaking the law, but not if they're breaking a societal norm? I'm just not convinced there are these hard-and-fast rules. Obviously, if you take a pic of someone and say something shitty or mean or racist or sexist, then your act is shitty or mean or racist or sexist. The indefensible doesn't become defensible just because we put it online. But at the same time, I don't believe gentle ribbing, recording the people of the world with a comment, or even sticking it to people who have it coming is always wrong. There aren't always clear-cut lines of proper online behavior in an ever-changing virtual world.
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