“We have the means of production and dissemination at our fingertips.”
He makes the average smartphone user sound like an engine of industry, but Dr Richard Clay of Newcastle University is absolutely right. In his BBC4 documentary ‘How to go Viral’, the Professor of Digital Culture shows how a bit of accidental fun became a beloved part of everyday life. Today, however, creating relatable content that people want to share is an essential public relations tool and the source of some consternation for photographers and other visual artists. After all, isn’t it their job to produce exciting and genre-defining images?
Of course, the internet is still today’s Wild West and as such there is no single body defining what constitutes ‘viral’ content. It’s simply accepted that to be viral, then it’s shared socially by a large number of people. Outside of this, there are no hard and fast rules. “It’s broadly thought that it needs to be something like five million shares to hit viral,” says Richard. “But there’s no authority making a decision. It’s arbitrary.” The numbers go up year-on-year, simply because of the increase in internet use, and, crucially, these have no bearing on the intrinsic value of the content being shared.
When you talk to imagemakers about the world of viral content, you won’t find a shred of ambivalence. Their strength of feeling on the matter is almost palpable — no “meh” here. Responses range from disgust and annoyance to excitement and their own tales of a million likes. It’s entirely understandable when you consider that for every stunning professional image that goes viral (think Jonathan Bachman’s ‘Taking a stand at Baton Rouge’ or Pete Souza’s ‘Situation Room’) there’s an ‘#AlexfromTarget’ or ‘Ellen DeGeneres Oscar Selfie’ taking the internet by storm.
You can rarely predict what will capture the public imagination, but you also can’t know what the sudden flash of fame will mean to the creator or subject. In the case of Jonathan Bachman, he knew it was “a good frame” when he sent his shot of Leisha Evans back to the Reuters picture desk. The following morning, he woke up to over 100 messages telling him that it had gone global. It has since been adopted as a key image of the Black Lives Matter movement, won a World Press Photo award and gained him valuable status and credibility as a photojournalist. Through an almost accidental sequence of events, ‘Taking a stand at Baton Rouge’ has become an iconic image — and the very definition of a win-win situation.
But for every joyful outcome, there are many, many more who have lost control of their creations. Richard takes a clear-cut view of this; “You can control the dissemination of the object — you just don’t put it online. But if you do, you have to accept that people are going to use it.” You can put strict controls in place — watermarks, low resolution images, thumbnails only – but even then, the risk of your image being appropriated is very real indeed. “It’s extremely challenging for artists to keep control over their artistic vision once something is out and online.” By this, Richard refers to meme generation, where an image is taken (often without permission) and captioned for sharing. Even Jonathan’s image of Leisha Evans was ‘memefied’, but the original was too famous by that point for it to have any detrimental effect.
Some of the most famous memes on the internet are based on "Disloyal Man Walking with His Girlfriend and Looking Amazed at Another Seductive Girl" (more commonly known as ‘the distracted boyfriend meme’). It’s easily available to purchase (as we have for this story), and has been edited and shared many, many millions of times. But few of the meme-creators or sharers would have paid for it or even know that it was taken by professional microstock seller Antonio Guillem. In an interview with Wired, Guillem reveals that the online fame of this image has certainly not transferred into real-life gains, but he has no plans to take a legal path with meme-makers unless their adaptations “reflect poorly on himself or the models.”
Being a photographer is one of the most competitive jobs out there, but when everyone can be a content creator, should we just assume that everything is up for grabs and live with it? Is this the new normal? “I fear it probably is,” says Richard. “I am very wary of suggesting that artists shouldn’t be able to protect their own intellectual property, I think it’s important and obviously crucial to their income, and that enables them to enrich the world with astonishing imagery. On the other hand, I do fully understand that there are major challenges with them doing that and just in practical terms of getting to see the money, there’s a world of competition out there. Anyone can take a photograph, but that doesn’t mean everyone can take a great photograph.”
It’s extremely challenging for artists to keep control over their artistic vision once something is out and online
So being a viral hit is clearly a double-edged sword: it’s unregulated, creators can completely lose control of their work and there are no guarantees of rewards, financial or otherwise. But if you’re still determined to have one on your hands, be warned — it’s not easy. “Can you make something with the intention of getting it to go viral?” asks Richard. “You can try. I’ve tried, and I wrote about it in Huffington Post. It’s a bit tongue in cheek because I always knew I wouldn’t be able to go viral if I set out to go viral. It’s hit and hope.” He cites an example from LadBible, where clip of a dog rolling in mud was expected to garner a cool two to three million views, “how does a photographer compete with a dog rolling in mud?” he laughs.
It certainly raises the question of whether the internet is even mature enough to cope with its own phenomena. “We’re like the 17th Century Brits who invent the steam engine and 150 years later think ‘oh, why don’t we put wheels on it?’” jokes Richard. “We certainly haven’t established the social, legal, cultural conventions and institutions that we need to operate within this crazy space we’ve created.” But no-one can argue that the current unrestrained space of the internet is a place of risk and opportunity. New and exciting images and forms of art appear by accident, and Richard foresees “fluky genius emerging” simply by the sheer number of daily uploads. “Whether somebody can repeat it?” he wonders, “well, I guess that’s the difference between an amateur and a professional.”
Professor Clay’s documentary on 21st Century Mythologies will be airing on BBC4 later this year.