By Kelsey Fox
At the beach several years ago, I asked my boyfriend to take my picture. At the time, I didn't know that this simple act would begin a chain of events eventually allowing everyone I know (and thousands of people I don't) to see that picture—and it's all my fault.
This is the photo that started it all.
My original photo, a day at the beach, that started the viral trail.
I posted the image to Imgur, proud of overcoming some severe discomfort with my looks, and woke up to my photo on the front page. I was born with a congenital heart defect and had four open heart surgeries—the first when I was a 5-week-old baby and the last when I was 14-years-old. Some scars remain. The reaction to the photo, though, wasn't what I expected. But after a day of mild internet fame, that was the end of it.
Or so I thought.
Two years later, the picture resurfaced, not on Imgur this time, but seemingly everywhere else.
The Hello Giggles shared it on their Facebook page, and scores of my friends from home got in touch to let me know I had gone "viral." I was shocked, confused, and a little embarrassed, but I didn't even know just how viral my image would go, at least yet. I originally assumed someone at Hello Giggles swiped my picture from Imgur, but they mentioned in their post that they actually got it from another site, Her.ie, which I had never even heard of before. Dumbstruck, I logged back into Imgur to a message from someone from The Daily Mail asking to use the picture and for an interview, mentioning that they heard about me from Seventeen.com. Turns out my picture was posted there too, all without my knowledge.
It felt like my picture was everywhere, and there was nothing I could do to stop it from spreading.
Here I am on a site, Her.ie that I'd never heard of before.
The list could on, but I think you get the idea. And I should be outraged, right? All these sites are using my image without my permission or even my knowledge, and that's not ok! Except it is ok: I agreed to it without even knowing—and you almost certainly have too.
It all lies in the Terms of Service. Imgur's is pretty standard, and it says, basically, that while you may own the content you post, Imgur has every right to use it anywhere in the world, derive other works from it, and allow anyone to download and distribute it, all for free. People who download your post are not allowed to make money from it, but can otherwise use it for non-commercial purposes unless they're journalists, in which case they can use your image for their writing.
Same picture of me on Hello Giggles that I found two years later.
Steps to safeguard your image
So what is the takeaway from all of this? Well, you take some precautions. First, you can make your accounts private, only allowing your friends to see your posts. Be aware that this still doesn't change the rights you've signed away, but it does make it less likely for outside sources to find your content in the first place, which makes it much harder for them to dig it up to share for other purposes.
Another good idea is simply never sharing something you wouldn't want everyone you have ever known seeing. I shared my picture anonymously on Imgur, but by the end, I had everyone I went to school with, distant aunts and uncles, and even teachers from my childhood contacting me to let me know they saw me in my bikini. It's something I didn't consider when I posted and couldn't take back once everything was set in motion. If you don't want to be in the same position, only put things online that you wouldn't be embarrassed about your grandmother seeing.
Finally, keep in mind that there is no way to use these sites without agreeing to their rules. You are giving your consent to the terms on any of the three aforementioned sites, and so many others around the web, just by using them at all.
If you have a Facebook profile, Instagram account, or have ever posted on Imgur (not even a photo— just a comment will do), then you have officially agreed to all of the above. If this is unacceptable to you, it might be time to stop using these services or, at the very least, stop posting personal images to them. If you can't do that or aren't bothered by the rules and terms, I say go ahead and share away, but do so with the possible consequences in mind.
-Kelsey Fox is a born-and-raised Arkansan who moved to the Northeast for a taste of that big-city life. After receiving her Master's from NYU, she began teaching reading and writing to non-native speakers of English at the university level. She is also a busy freelance writer and an avid gamer.