What If You Became an Unflattering Internet Meme?

How do you erase something that has gone viral, like a meme? The idea pits our right to privacy against a community that's hungry to share. So, how do we even begin to police it?

Memes have become a part of the internet's culture. “Bad Luck Brian,” “Overly Attached Girlfriend,” "Scumbag Steve” — the list goes on. Each meme has its own personality, but each photo is also of a real person that didn't intend to become famous. NPR's Jasmine Garsd writes that these people — their pictures — just happened to go viral. So, how do they exercise their right to be forgotten (should they want it)?

Unintended celebrity on the internet can happen to anyone, like it did to Kyra Pringle's daughter. She recently found that images of her 2-year-old were being shared by thousands of internet residents, but the comments surrounding her photographs weren't particularly uplifting. One person wrote in a tweet:

“This baby soooo ancient. Mf came out the womb 50 & paying a mortgage.”

You can understand why the mother would be upset. Pringle spoke to reporters in an interview, asking for people to look at her daughter as a person — to empathize:

"The smile that you guys think is funny or the smile that you guys are comparing to a leprechaun, the things you guys are saying about my child; she's not a monster; she's real."

The issues surrounding the photograph continue an important discussion about cyberbullying, but also about personal accountability and how we should go about sharing on the internet. Of course, not everyone intends to upload a picture of their child and have it become a sensation, but should we be so naïve?

There's a toxicity growing within our culture where the lines of what we intend to remain personal becomes public and, in some cases, goes viral. Pringle uploaded her child's photo to Facebook, putting it out there for friends to see with the possible expectation of receiving positive comments and finding solidarity — nothing more. From there, it migrates out of the social network and became something much bigger — it went beyond her control. It isn't Pringle's fault that the mean comments about her daughter ensued, but it brings questions about expectations. What do we expect when we upload something and what's the reality?

This part is where it becomes toxic. When we share something on the internet, it could move out of our sphere of control. It no longer belongs to just us. The internet is always looking for the next sneezing panda or laughing baby, so we should be careful about what we feed the beast, right? But this leads self-censorship. So, should we not share on the internet ever again for fear of becoming victims or celebrities? And what about the unintended victims of our sharing culture?

Say, a woman has a lapse in judgment at a concert and decides to give a tree a lap dance? Unbeknownst to her, someone takes a video of it. Sam Biddle from Gizmodo wrote about the video, speaking to the anxieties smartphone cameras and internet sharing has caused:

“It's impossible for her, or anyone else with some pills and a dream, to live free. To live free, and young, and without care. At the slightest provocation, you're guaranteed a league of smartphone surveillance and immediate sharing. You'll be uploaded in a flash. Your private moment of arboreal bliss transforms into so many views that the video is taken down and then re-uploaded multiple times.”

Woodrow Hartzog is an associate professor at Samford University's Cumberland School of Law; he spoke to NPR, saying:

"It's important for us to fail when we are young. That's how we learn. That's how we develop our sense of right and wrong. That's how we develop our sense of empathy. And the ability to move past that, and not have those same things haunt you."

People should have the right to live the way they want to, with some feeling of control — without having to re-live indiscretions from your life — but the reality of the internet and our shared culture has caused us to become a community of watchers. The right to be forgotten should exist, but how to do it brings more questions than answers about the technology that helps connect us and internet culture that defines how we interact with one another.

Read more at NPR.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Related Articles

Sex robot brothel in Texas sparks controversy and ethical questions

Some say the proliferation of sex robots could lead to less demand for prostitution, but not all agree.

Will the proliferation of sex robots be a net good or bad for society? (Photo: Shutterstock)
Sex & Relationships
  • A Toronto-based sex robot brothel plans to open another location in Houston.
  • Some critics argue that the proliferation of sex robots would lead to increases in prostitution and sex trafficking.
  • Others say that such technology could help some people find a degree of much-needed companionship.

There are currently no laws against opening a sex robot brothel in Houston, though recently announced plans to open one inspired some residents to say there should be.

The owner of Kinky S Dolls, a Toronto-based company where $120 gets customers 80 minutes alone with a robotic sex doll that moves and talks, plans to open another location in the Houston area. It would be the first sex robot brothel in the U.S.

On advice from counsel, owner Yuval Gavriel doesn't call his business a 'sex robot brothel' but rather a kind of try-it-before-you-buy-it shop for realistic sex dolls, which he sells for $2,000 to $5,000.

"I consulted with a lawyer and the lawyer said, 'Listen, there are no rules to it, but if you are smart you don't go out and say you are operating a brothel,'" Gavriel told the Washington Examiner. "He went through all the laws and all of the regulations and currently there are no regulations for this kind of service. The States is a bigger market, and a healthier market, and God bless Trump."

A sex doll sold by Kinky S Dolls for about $3,500.

Sex dolls and toys may be legal in the U.S., but some believe that establishing what's essentially a robot sex brothel would cross a line. In response to Gavriel's plans, Elijah Rising, a Christian organization in Houston that combats sex trafficking, published a petition titled 'Keep Robot Brothels Out Of Houston'.

"As a nonprofit whose mission is to end sex trafficking we have seen the progression as sex buyers go from pornography to strip clubs to purchasing sex—robot brothels will ultimately harm men, their understanding of healthy sexuality, and increase the demand for the prostitution and sexual exploitation of women and children," reads the petition, which currently has nearly 6,000 signatures.

Elijah Rising's argument is based on a paper written by Kathleen Richardson, a professor of ethics and culture of robots at De Montfort University.

"I propose that extending relations of prostitution into machines is neither ethical, nor is it safe," Richardson argues in the paper. "If anything the development of sex robots will further reinforce relations of power that do not recognise both parties as human subjects. Only the buyer of sex is recognised as a subject, the seller of sex (and by virtue the sex-robot) is merely a thing to have sex with."

How would sex robots affect rates of prostitution?

One argument, to which Gavriel subscribes, says that increased availability of sex robots would lower the demand for human prostitutes. It's an idea tangentially related to the longstanding body of research that shows countries tend to see decreases in sexual assaults and rape after they legalize porn.

In his bestselling book Love and Sex with Robots, A.I. researcher David Levy explores the future of human relationships with robots and suggests that sex robots could lower prostitution or even someday render it obsolete.

But that's "highly speculative philosophy," according to Richardson.

"The reality is that it will just become a new niche market within the pornography industry and within the prostitution trade," she said in an interview with Feminist Current. "If people buy into the idea that you can have these dolls as part of your sexual fetish, it will become another burden that actual living human beings will have to undergo in the commercial sex trade."

A sex doll sold by Kinky S Dolls.

Richardson elaborated on this idea in her paper.

"...studies have found that the introduction of new technology supports and contributes to the expansion of the sex industry," she wrote. "Prostitution and pornography production also rises with the growth of the internet. In 1990, 5.6 percent of men reported paying for sex in their lifetime, by 2000, this had increased to 8.8 percent."

However, those rates aren't necessarily causally linked.

Richardson also wrote that if sex toys, such as RealDolls and blow-up dolls, actually led to lower prostitution demand then we would have already seen decreases, but "no such correlation is found."

Still, that last point might soon become invalid as a sort of apples-to-oranges comparison if technology can produce artificially intelligent and lifelike sex robots unlike anything the industry has seen before.

An illusion of companionship

Image: Film4, from the 2015 film 'Ex Machina'

Image: Film4, from the 2015 film 'Ex Machina'

Critics argue that the proliferation of sex robots would serve to reinforce the objectification of women in men's minds, and also reduce the ability for some men to empathize, a necessary component of healthy social interaction.

Houstonian Andrea Paul voiced a simpler objection to the brothel:

"There's kids around here and it's a family-oriented neighborhood and I live right here and to have that here is just gross."

Gross, sure. But to Matt McMullen, creator of the RealDoll, the future of sex robots looks a bit more uplifting.

"My goal, in a very simple way, is to make people happy," McMullen told CNET. "There are a lot of people out there, for one reason or another, who have difficulty forming traditional relationships with other people. It's really all about giving those people some level of companionship—or the illusion of companionship."

A controversial theory claims past, present, and future exist at the same time

Our experience of time may be blinding us to its true nature, say scientists.

Back to the Future.
Surprising Science
  • Time may not be passing at all, says the Block Universe Theory.
  • Time travel may be possible.
  • Your perception of time is likely relative to you and limited.
Keep reading Show less