In 2003, the California Coastal Records Project was hard at work on an ambitious quest to develop a photographic archive of the entire California coastline. Their work was intended to serve as a resource for folks looking to catch a glimpse of the effects of erosion and wildfires and, in my case, a source for finding some pretty awesome wallpapers for my laptop.
Sounds cool, right?
Well, Barbara Streisand didn’t appreciate the work of the CCRP. She claimed that the photographs they took of her Malibu mansion, which is perched on the very same coastline that they had set out to archive, was an infringement on her privacy. In her mind, she could just sue the photographer and have the pictures removed from the Internet, so she launched a $50 million lawsuit against the photographer and the website that hosted the photographs.
As you can imagine with a celebrity launching a futile campaign to remove something from the mysterious, cavernous interwebs, the situation snowballed as more and more people became aware of the situation. Keep in mind that the vast majority of these people had no idea that Streisand even owned a home in Malibu, and now they knew exactly where it was located and what it looked like. The lawsuit was unsuccessful, of course, and over 420,000 people had visited the site that hosted the original photo.
This has become affectionately known as “The Streisand Effect.” Urban Dictionary describes it as “a situation where someone decides to ban or censor something, and that attempt to make something go away, makes it even bigger than ever before, or ever planned.” There are countless numbers of Streisand situations that come to mind: the attempt to remove Danger Mouse’s “The Grey Album” (a remix album using Jay-Z vocals and music from The Beatles’ “White Album”), the unflattering-but-hilarious shot of Beyoncé from one of her concerts, and that time when Bieber peed in a mop bucket).
It’s 2014. Why don’t people understand the ways that information is spread online? Why can’t they see that this is no longer an era where topics and identities are easily kept under wraps? As we become bound to our Internet personas, we develop a characteristic desire to share information that becomes incredibly powerful as more and more people adopt this mentality. This is great for getting the word out about current events and breaking news (reading Twitter hashtags during the Ukrainian protests was like reading dispatches from a warzone being written in real-time that were hand-delivered to my cellphone). But are we headed towards a future where there is no backspace? Where there is no eraser, or White-Out, or the classic Kid Pix “Uh Oh!” dude?
Here’s an example. A kid whose father (we’ll call him Bill, because that’s a dad name) works for Microsoft decides to go into his dad’s home office only to discover a device that’s completely foreign to him. It’s a new piece of hardware coming out of the Microsoft product pipeline, and Bill had to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement to promise that Bill would never, under any circumstances, show the device to the public or discuss it with others. Naturally, the kid whips out his iPhone and vertically films a shaky home movie-style video where he says, “HAY YOOTUBERS, I RECENTLY OBTAINED A SHINY NEW MICROSOFT THINGY THAT’S GONNA BLOW YOUR MIND. HERE’S THE FIRST LOOK. Oh, and click the like button and subscribe below to see more of my terrible videos.”
He puts it on YouTube. Within minutes, a Redditor scouring for breaking news for /r/technology stumbles across the video and posts it on the subreddit. It hits the front page within the hour. Then, TechCrunch, Engadget, Kotaku, Buzzfeed, and your grandmother start to hear about this marvelous new wonderproduct that Microsoft has somehow kept under wraps. On Twitter, you see that #MicrosoftMystery is trending. On Facebook, you begin to see posts with titles like, “Is this the gadget that Microsoft developers were hinting at back in 2012?” and “Here comes the MacBook killer: how Microsoft’s new product will revolutionize the way we stare at screens and poke at keys.”
Keep in mind, this is all based off of a two-minute vertical video with poor lighting that was filmed by a fifteen-year-old.
Bill gets home, discovers what has happened, and instantly has his son remove the video. It’s too late, though. Thousands of savvy Internet users knew that the video would get removed as soon as it exploded in popularity, so they re-hosted the video on LiveLeak, Daily Motion, and other streaming sites. Bill gets called back into the office, and Ellen calls their home to schedule a date for the son to come onto the show and talk about how he discovered Microsoft’s next big thing.
Dad gets fired (instantly), their family is ruined, and the device that Microsoft had been working on for over three years is now out in the open and being examined by competitors.
The Streisand Effect is one thing. Politely asking a poster or submitter to remove something off the Internet is like asking TMZ to “pretty, pretty please” keep the name of Taylor Swift’s new boyfriend a secret (spoiler alert, she’s currently single. I checked on E!). But the permanence of everything digital is a frightening thing when you think about it. Remember that Snapchat you took yesterday? Yeeeeeeeeah, it’s still out there somewhere. Those emails you frantically deleted this morning before your boss/wife/friend could see them? Boom: they’re still saved on a server in Alaska. The YouTube video your daughter filmed of you falling off the roof while hanging Christmas lights that you thought was forever out of your memory? Surprise! It’s been on Failblog.org since 2009, uploaded by a 40-year-old man from Thailand with “HotrodPancake4682” as his username.
No, he’s not related to you.
My advice is, and always has been, to never under any circumstances do something online that you wouldn’t mind coming back from the dead five years down the road. In 2014, that’s quickly becoming the Internet’s “Golden Rule” (aside from Rule #17: Treat others the way you would NEVER want to be treated in a face-to-face conversation). I’ll leave you with one of the finest examples of the Streisand Effect in action. Would YOU want these to be your Internet legacies? Because I guarantee that this picture of Beyoncé is going to baffle historians in the 25th century.