Who cares about my dog pictures? Ownership of social media content+data

A quick content analysis of my Instagram profile reveals that it’s about 25% pictures of my dog, 25% pictures of knitting, a smattering of selfies to show off geeky tshirts, and a few other things: landscapes, coffee, cross-stitch versions of famous paintings that hang on the wall at my favorite cafe. I have 57 Instagram followers. Unlike Twitter, my account isn’t particularly public-facing so nearly all of these are people I know. Therefore, when I post a new picture to Instagram, some subset of 57 people are going to see it. This is my mental model of my audience. Not the entire readership of Buzzfeed, not the researchers at an academic conference, and definitely not the patrons of an art gallery in New York.

And that is how most people think about social media spread. Many of us even think of audience as much lower than that upper bound, based on heuristics like how many people interact with our content; there’s one study that shows that Facebook users tend to estimate their audience at about a quarter of its true size. But unlike Facebook where many people use privacy settings (e.g., “friends only”) to control that upper bound, with Twitter and Instagram it is much more common for content to be completely public. In other words, my perceived (and likely) audience for that picture of my dog is 57 people. But the true upper bound of that audience is every person on the Internet. With that in mind, here are three very different situations that challenge this perception of audience and ownership.

1. My dog pictures are fine art?

If you haven’t heard about this in the news recently, the brief facts are these: artist Richard Prince created an exhibition of Instagram photos, some of which sold for as much as $90,000 a piece. The images were taken from Instagram without permission of the users, and the only addition that Prince made to each image was an added comment. At least one of the Instagram users has taken legal action, but it was another photographer so that’s not surprising. The most interesting reaction has been Suicide Girls turning around and selling prints of their Instagram post for $90 rather than $90,000.

I of course have a lot of thoughts about this particular case, because copyright, appropriation, remix, fair use… In particular, I went on a bit of a rant on Twitter about a Washington Post article and how they framed the issue. (For the record, your Instagram photos definitely belong to you. The existence of fair use of content as a possibility does not change this.) As to whether Prince’s art actually is fair use of those Instagram photos… let’s just say that it takes a lot for me to put down my “ra ra fair use!” pom poms, and even I am not convinced. Unlike the previous fair use finding in his favor, there is arguably little aesthetic difference between the original and Prince’s art. Heidi at Eff Yeah Copyright goes more into the copyright details here. I would also argue that legality aside, many people have ethical heuristics that hinge on commerciality, and in particular, the idea of not profiting from the “little guy.” My dissertation research would support this, and I think it’s why Prince is getting so much grief. Even if the legal analysis would not have changed, if he had, say, donated the profits from the sale to some charity (or given it back to the Instagram users), people would feel very differently.

Here, ownership is a copyright issue. It is a common misconception that “public” on the Internet means “public domain,” and this just isn’t true. I own that picture of my dog. Someone can’t just take that picture and use it without my permission. Now, if they transform it to the extent that the new work falls under fair use, that is one thing – but it also doesn’t change my ownership in the original. I own my dog pictures just as much as a record company owns a song or an author owns a book, and I have just as much right to protect them. But are these Instagram users really going to go to the hassle and expense of hiring a lawyer to defend their copyright? Will they care? It is actually just as likely that to them, the issue is one of privacy rather than ownership.

2. My dog is on Buzzfeed? 

As I write this, the #1 story on Buzzfeed is 27 Pictures That Are Absolutely True For No Reason. There’s even a dog picture included. The images have credits underneath them, and they come from all over the web, including social media sites – Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest – presumably without permission. There has been at least one sizable lawsuit over use of a photo on Buzzfeed. Copyright issues aside, I think I would be more than a little weirded out to find this recent picture of my dog that I tweeted on a Buzzfeed round-up (“27 of the World’s Sleepiest Animals?”). This isn’t necessarily a problem of ownership, it’s one of privacy and control. And while I’m picking on Buzzfeed, there are many examples of things going viral on Reddit, for example, that may not have been intended for an audience of everyone on the Internet.

Though an even more striking example of the shock of unintended audience is what I’ve always referred to as “tweet shaming.” There’s the relatively innocuous 15 People Who Didn’t Know the Titanic Actually Sank but also things like lists of racist tweets about Miss America or Hunger Games. Regardless of whether you think they deserve it, the worst of them get badly harassed, often resulting in deleting their Twitter accounts. I recently read Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which covers the story of Justine Sacco – how one tweet ruined her life. She tweeted to 170 Twitter followers, got on a plane for 11 hours, and then touched down to find (thanks to a Gawker article), the wrath of the entire Internet aimed at her.

Despite knowing, intellectually, that Twitter is public, this mental model of audience is strong. But the truth is, we never really know what will go viral. Even when ownership isn’t the issue – for example, suddenly your blog has far, far more viewers than you thought possible – that unintended audience can be jarring. If you thought you were writing for 100 people (especially if it’s about something personal, like your child), then suddenly having an audience of 100,000 could certainly make you feel a loss of control.  If I’d known that 100,000 people were going to read my Barbie remix I’d probably have proofread it better.

3. My dog is data?

I recently organized a workshop at CSCW about big data research ethics, and one of the extended conversations we had was about the role of public data in research. The largely accepted current standard (though some disagree with this) is that public data is public and therefore fair game for research. This in itself and what it means is something that I have a lot of thoughts on, but that is the subject of another post! For now let’s just accept that if you have put something out there publicly (not, for example, under a friends-only setting or in a password-protected forum), then it is entirely possible that it could end up in someone’s data set. Twitter is a particularly common source for large amount of behavioral data (so much so that it has in some ways become a model organism), but sites like Instagram and Pinterest are becoming popular sources as well.

We know from the public reaction to the Facebook emotional contagion study that people don’t tend to think about research as a potential use of their data or content. And most of the time, you would never have any idea. Unlike the possibility of a friend calling you up and saying “I just saw your dog on Buzzfeed!” or worse, “I just saw your dog’s picture for sale for $90,000!”, the audience for this kind of research is usually pretty small. And even when it does get media attention, usually it’s summed up in a pithy headline (“Instagram Photos With Faces Get 38% More Likes!“) with few click-throughs to the university press release and even fewer to the actual paper. Moreover, for much of this kind of research, your tweet or photo is considered in aggregate as part of a huge data set. It might never even have human eyes on it, depending on the methods the researcher is using.

At the ethics workshop, it was suggested that in addition to thinking about how we can ethically use public data as researchers, it is also important to think about how to help Internet users realize how their content can be used. From a copyright standpoint, I can tell you from my research that there are some serious misconceptions about content ownership online.

So perhaps the moral of this story is that people should think more carefully about what they post publicly on the Internet. A good lesson indeed, but not one that I think is likely to take hold anytime soon. After all, I spend a lot of time thinking about these kinds of issues, and even I don’t think every time I post to Instagram of what might happen if I ended up on Buzzfeed or in an art gallery. But as more and more people are thinking about privacy online, content ownership is becoming a more important part of this conversation as well. And it isn’t just researchers that need to think about ethics, but also artists and journalists. The Washington Post may not be legally correct in a reminder that your Instagram photos “aren’t really yours,” but there’s also no use pretending that copyright = control when it comes to the Internet.

By the way, here’s a picture of my dog that I posted to Flickr. Creative Commons licensed, CC-BY, so you’re welcome to copy it or even sell it. Though if it turns out he’s worth $90,000 I might have to rethink my attitude toward sharing.

a chihuahua on a blanket

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