This one’s gonna be tricky. I’m gonna sound like a big ol’ party pooper. I’m someone who believes in personal choice and I don’t make commands or tell grown adults what they “should” do. I’m sharing my thoughts and my perspective and I appreciate you letting me do that with you. So here we go.
Every day, I see pictures of people being shared on social media that are mocked, shamed, or used as punchlines for derogatory jokes and insults. I choose to not engage in this behavior and I don’t re-post it when other people do. Real talk? Sometimes that shit is hilarious when taken only as a visual. But those are real people and the reach of social media is immeasurable. That person picking a wedgie or wearing every pattern at once is not doing so for your bemused judgment or Facebook “likes.”
There are entire websites dedicated to the submission and mockery of these pictures, and there are cyclical hashtag “humor” campaigns that pop up like last year’s hugely popular #CookingForBae. When I look at those pictures as they tumble down my timeline with no relent, I see all manner of things that I would not do myself. Food combinations I would never put together and hairstyles I would NEVER wear. But I also see all that I can’t possibly see from a snapshot of a stranger’s life. I don’t know what other people’s circumstances are. Maybe they’re cooking on a hot plate and only have access to certain food options and Styrofoam plates?
The “but everything is public now” debate rages on as technology improves, and this is but another part of that cluster of ethical and legal issues. I’m not arguing the legality of snatching a private individual’s picture and using it for your own purposes. It’s easy and it’s not going to stop anytime soon. Only one or two generations of smartphones ago I certainly didn’t have the ability to save and share images so effortlessly. I can save any image on my screen with one touch. That’s huge. To paraphrase Kanye West, “no one [person] should have all that power.” Embarrassing pictures of private individuals, whether intentionally embarrassing or otherwise, often become memes that can circle the globe twice over in the time it takes to say “right-click and save.”
The absolute worst are the pictures snapped surreptitiously of obviously humiliating or embarrassing circumstances, or pictures taken specifically to mock someone. This honest first-person account of what it feels like to be that person lets us in on what happens after someone gets the “Oh my God, Is that YOU?” calls and e-mails. I know that the “imagine saying that to their face” guideline doesn’t hold across the board because some people are vicious and would do so with no qualms. But I don’t actually think most people are vicious. I think many just neglect to think of the people in the pictures as people at all.
And then there are pictures that people have shared willingly via social media where they are clearly celebrating or they think they look great. Such was the case when sixteen-year-old Rihanna fan Alexis Carter shared a picture of her prom outfit a few months ago, which was a re-creation of one of the pop princess’s most daring red carpet looks that young Alexis had had made for her by a family friend. Rihanna made the choice to mock her on social media, and Alexis became the butt of hurtful jokes across multiple platforms. Rihanna has firmly shown us that she is no one’s morality guide and I support her right to behave as she pleases. If she felt such an impulse to make fun of this young fan, she could have done so with her homegirls over drinks or whatever else. But the choice to publicly mock her, given Rihanna’s massive Navy fan base, quickly went viral. And Alexis was turned into the trending Twitter hashtag #PromBat and went from celebrating her prom night to crying about it on the nightly news.
My heart sank when Shaquille O’Neal chose to post a disparaging mockery of the simple, inoffensive selfie of a young man named Jahmel Binion, who has a disfiguring facial condition called ectodermal dysplasias and it too went viral. Rapper Waka Flocka Flame and Utah Jazz basketball player Trey Burke publicly joined in the insults, and all three were sued by Mr. Binion, who also created a social media campaign called Hug, Don’t Judge. If you are not a massively famous pop star or athlete, you might think you don’t have the power to wreak such havoc. But the reality is that a non-celebrity sized insult can reach a celebrity-sized audience with the touch of a button.
I admit that my respect for people’s privacy veers toward the extreme. I don’t even post pictures of random street scenes or selfies if there’s an identifiable stranger visible in the background. What if that person is recognized as being someplace they were not supposed to be at that time? Or what if, on the most basic level, they don’t want my whole Twitter timeline knowing where they are, i.e. Their Business? Or, heaven forbid someone has passed away and their loved ones come across a pic of them being mocked? Some of these pictures are circulated for years and this is a real concern.
In general, I love sharing pictures on social media. And I will admit I often stop myself because I’m terrified of public scrutiny or mockery at the levels of everyday viciousness that I see. So if you think I’m being sanctimonious or holier-than-thou, guess again. I’m sharing my thoughts and also admitting I’m scared shitless. Still, any picture of myself (not my family, just myself) that I have chosen to share is fair game in my opinion. Fair game to be used as a visual rimshot for a tweeted joke or as a quick way to express a comment, which is not the same as mockery or an insult. Insults will either be ignored or met in kind, but not everyone on social media is as prepared for the potential negative attention they could receive.
I’m not famous, but I’ve been acting professionally for close to two decades now. I’ve dated and had a breakup while paparazzi watched, and I’ve been both celebrated and mocked publicly. I’m mentioning that for perspective, not complaining. I make a distinction between private individuals’ personal pictures and images intended for public consumption, which is exactly why this isn’t an easily answered question. These days, it seems like every little thing is shared for public consumption. But still, there’s a spectrum. When I make myself or one of my comedic characters a meme, it’s not for self-promotion, but rather because I don’t toss about private individuals’ photos so I use my own instead.
Hey, I’ve worn unflattering pants. I’ve stumbled in public or spilled things. We all have. We’ve all thought we looked great at one point when maybe we missed the mark. Sneaked pics of these moments need not be such a major way that we get our giggles.
Pictures already meant for public consumption on a large scale? Images from movies, TV shows, and Internet entertainment? Sure. Personally, I also use animation or animal pictures to emphasize a potentially rude joke online if I want a visual punchline. In case you haven’t noticed, there’s no shortage of pictures of cats online. It may seem overly idealistic, but I am just not here for mocking complete strangers with whom you’ve never interacted and who have never done anything to you.
Sorry to be a party pooper. I warned you of that, and please believe that I like a good chuckle as much as you. And I also think we can have those chuckles without identifiable private individuals being publicly mocked. I know I’m not going to win this particular battle. But I’m not going down without a fight.