And Speaking of Pictures

There has been alot of discussion about the nature of the cyberspace. With it’s boundaries between public and private blurred, cyberspace – for some, is a city made of glass houses where curtains and blinds have yet to be invented. Indeed, some have locks on their doors, but more often than not, the peephole is still big enough to get the jist of what goes on.

With the popularity of visual social softwares such as Flickr, the question of public and private is kept alive. Back in the day, it was always my impression that one could not publish a photograph of someone without their permission. To be fair, I believe this was a relatively contrived law reserved for the rich and famous, since we have regularly been bombarded by dying children and injured people across the globe, and something tells me that their consent wasn’t quite obtained before becoming ‘national geographic’s’ most famous photograph. (And who has been caught in the flash in the background of a sports scene splashed across the front of the sports pages without their permission…) But I will continue nonetheless.

If I take photographs at a party, for my personal use, they often remain a private collection, shared only with my limited circle of friends. When these pictures are shared, they are usually contextualized for the viewer by my stories surrounding the event of the picture being taken. I have even been known to speed through or even hide a photograph once in a while due to its personal or simply embarrassing nature (come on – we have all had bad camera angles!!). I have even had friends ask me specifically not to share a particular photograph with others.

So – this brings me to my beef du jour. Why is it perfectly acceptable for people to post every single picture they have ever taken online in a very public, and poorly if at all, contextualized space? From both a personal and legal standpoint, why are the people in the pictures not asked their permission to be billboarded? What makes it ethical to blatantly splash photographs of people across the internet. What I find interesting is that more often than not, the person actually posting the photographs arent even in the picture – so in theory, their own identity is not compromised in any way (if only by association to the events depicted in the image). What makes it different in people’s mind to post these images online but not publish them in a magazine – or put the other way – why do people who post these (private) images in such a public space without conferring with those individuals in the picture? Has our perception of public and private become so entertwined that we no longer see an ethical issue here?


2 thoughts on “And Speaking of Pictures

  1. This is an issue that I’ve thought about a lot as my thesis topic encompasses notions of the public versus the private in online spaces. The subject emerged from my years of fieldwork with young people and the realization that my respondents notions of what constituted public and private were very different from my own. If a young person in grade 5 takes a picture of her teacher with her cell phone and posts it on her website – is that acceptable? Is it acceptable if it reflects the teacher in a negative light? If the context is not supplied? If the teacher is unaware that the photograph is taken? If I take a photograph of my young respondents I must have parental permission in advance in order to use it. When is posting a picture a violation of personal privacy and when is it not? Related to that, if I post a subject on my blog and that subject was part of a private conversation, does that violate the other individuals privacy? Is it intellectual property theft if I represent their ideas without referencing them? If I represent their ideas as my own? What if they have convinced me that their position is correct and then I post a version of the argument that convinced me – I’ve been convinced – does the idea now become my own? I think that this is particularly relevant to academic bloggers as ideas are our stock and trade. We discuss and share and help each other develop our thesis but what happens when these ideas are blogged. If I had a penny for every time I’ve heard an academic declare about an idea that appeared in a recent article “but that was my idea – I posted it first” Is posting a thought online the same as publishing that thought? Should it be? We throw out ideas and suggestions all the time in conversation but as soon as someone posts them does that give them ownership? We pay lip service to the philosophy that we don’t own ideas – that we share them, but does making our ideas ‘public’ online change this notion? In the competitive, egoist world of graduate student academia do we all have to run home after every inspiring café conversation and post every great idea before our colleagues do? And in the end does that help us or impede us? I think this is such a relevant issue and I have no answers only questions but I think that the broader ethical implications warrant further analysis.

  2. I have often thought about how to write about something that came up in a conversation with a friend that got me thinking. Often, I start by saying “in a conversation with a colleague…” but really, you make very valid points concerning the appropriation of ideas through conversation and blogging. Indeed, my blog hosts a creative commons license.

    A few times, I have actually thought about shutting down my blog space for many of these public/private arguments (among many other reasons…)

    I have read so much work on the public space of private blogs and academia ( to cite but one, and am still tossing and turning about what to do with my public blogging of private ideas… maybe it’s time to buy a new notebook and dig out a pen or two.

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