Once upon a time the phrase 'going viral' meant you may have picked up a stomach bug. But these days 'going viral' is to basically win at the internet. The Feed's Jeannette Francis looks at what happens when your picture becomes an internet meme.
Thursday, May 22, 2014 - 19:30

Since the dawn of time, when the internet began, humans have tried to understand it and we’ll we’ve mostly failed.

Digital platforms are evolving and increasing so fast that it’s near impossible to keep on top of them all.

The good news is you don’t have to.

What you probably do need to keep on top of though is your digital image.

I'm not talking about hiding boozy pics from your boss, who you very mistakenly added on Facebook in 2009 when people actually used Facebook.

No, I'm talking about your actual image, your photo, and the hundreds, possibly thousands of individual pictures and videos of you currently floating around in cyberspace.

Every day more than 500 million photos are shared online.

That’s half a billion images of someone’s boring holiday, lunch, pet, baby, workout posted on Facebook, Flickr, Photobucket, Instagram, Imgur, and the like.

Technology has allowed us to share our most intimate moments with, well, everyone. And in some cases rather unfortunately so.

Yes, there are ways to control who sees what, but it’s a lot harder to control who shares what.

Especially because there are websites dedicated entirely to sharing videos and photos of you.

But can you blame sites like Buzzfeed for pictures and videos going viral online?

According to Simon Crerar the editor of Buzzfeed Australia we probably can't.

"I think pictures were going viral on the internet before Buzzfeed were in existence," says Simon. "We try and discover the most emotive, viral images we can and people love sharing them."

And what about a formula for which images go viral?

According to Simon there are a lot of some similar traits between images that do reach the masses.

"I think the main formula is it’s got to have emotion, it’s got to move people in one way or another," says Simon. "It’s got to hit them in the tummy and make them think I’ve really got to share this with someone."

Basically, if you post anything with children biting other children,

Cats playing instruments.

Cat’s not playing instruments.

or Americans being interviewed on local news...

It’ll get shared. Then someone will remix it

Then you become a viral internet sensation and millions of people will spend millions or hours procrastinating at work as a result.

Meanwhile, you get to capitalise on just how much the internet loves you by flogging everything from dentists to dinner.

All because you now own a very valuable piece of copyright.

So, it’s not surprising then that people actually try to go viral. You get a profile that flows into a paycheque. It’s great!  

But there a down side? Well yes. It’s the internet.

"One morning I was up before work... and I noticed that I had a whole heap of hits on my blog," says Carly Findlay. "And I thought, hang on a minute, I haven’t blogged today, what’s bringing them to my blog?"

Carly had uploaded a picture onto her blog and it ended up on Reddit.

"They were using that to ridicule my photo," says Carly. "And a whole heap of commentary was underneath... like I look like Sealy putty, or I forgot to put my sunscreen on, or I look like a lobster."

Carly has a skin condition called Ichthyosis and that’s what she blogs about.

"At seven o’clock in the morning I’d say they were around 3000 hits," says Carly. "Once media outlets got hold of my story, I think it was about 40,000 on one day and maybe 37,000 on the next day."

"At one stage I felt really unsafe. When they were saying ‘oh yeah, she lives in Melbourne’, these were people - I don’t even know where they live. They don’t have their faces to their names, they don’t have their names on their accounts."

So what happens if you do end up in a situation where you put up a photo online and it ends up in the WTF column on Reddit?

Simon says once something hits Reddit it's quite difficult to stop.

"I think you’re in trouble really, unfortunately," says Simon. "That is one of the most visited parts of Reddit and people love to see something that makes them [get] like a sense of shock and awe."

So what do you do in a situation like that?

Well, you can take legal action under copyright, privacy or defamation law. But the process is long, costly and often ineffective.

You could issue ‘take down’ notices to every blogger, user and website that’s wrongly used your image but again we’re taking hundreds of thousands of people.

Or you could fight the internet with the internet.

"The best way to deal with this is to educate them not to keep going on, to keep making these diagnoses, to make these comments," says Carly.

"My photo had been used on Reddit and it’s only through blogging that I gained the confidence not feel devastated about this."

"I realised, you know, these are only words and I feel... really happy with my life, with the success that my writing has taken me, and that I have someone, a family, and a man that loves me and it wasn’t so bad then."

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