Be careful what photo you put up on Facebook. If you die tomorrow, it might be how you’re remembered by the world.
Matt La Porte was one of the victims of Monday’s Virginia Tech shooting. I learned about his death on CNN.com. As names of thevictims were found out on Tuesday, CNN started compiling a list of those to be mourned.
Scrolling down the list, I saw a series of what looked like faculty portraits and the like, but then I came to a photo of Matt. Judging from the crappy quality (it looked like it was taken with a camera phone) and casual pose, I thought: “You’re kidding me. They used his Facebook photo.” A quick search on my favorite social-networking site later and it was confirmed; CNN actually felt a right-click on after a Facebook search is an adequate way to portray the dead in a make-shift obituary (the text of which, nonetheless, was all attributed to his MySpace page).*
This is not ok.
I don’t know anything about Matt. I don’t know if his family authorized this image, but I’m willing to bet that it’s not the photo they would have chose to represent the 20-year-old if given a choice. It’s not that this image of Matt is completely horrible or anything to be ashamed of, but I imagine that if Matt knew he was going to be gunned down the next day, and if he knew that in a race to beat thebloggers, CNN would forego any journalistic integrity that seeking out a family-sanctioned photo would have brought to their story, he would have posted a different image to his profile Sunday night.
This brings me to wonder: Should we all be creating “In Case of Death” photo albums on our Facebook sites … just in case?
Right now, my Facebook photo is a snapshot of me and friend drunkenly rolling around in bags of garbage on the Upper East Side. Gross I know, but funny as hell nonetheless to me and my friends–the intended viewers of that image. I am disgusted and disturbed by the thought that if I die in a way that draws any level of media attention, people will remember me as that stank-ass who rolls in bags of New York City trash (yeah, it was in bags, I do have some class). I guess at least I have an ear-to-ear grin on my face. Right?
But for real. I’m a tech journalist, the daughter of an MIS manager and an Internet junkie (like everyone else my age) with an avid interest in First Amendment law. I understand better than your average Facebook user that everything I put on the Internet has entered the public domain and may be used in a number of ways, not all of which would I necessarily give my blessing to. However, I do feel that CNN’s act of using a person’s social-networking profile image to portray Matt after his death was beyond tacky. It’s akin to releasing the names of the deceased in a televised press conference before telling the family in private. Or maybe a tabloid taking a quote out of context or misappropriating a paparazzi photo.
It must be understood that Matt had taken some measures to protect his privacy. His Facebook profile was not open to the public—at least to not those out of his network. Maybe it’s open to other VTech students, but I doubt CNN was able to just search his name and view his entire page. Obviously, Matt had his profile restricted for a reason. I think CNN should have been more
sensitive in this situation and searched out a different photo. Or—gasp—actually dial a phone and talk to him family. Hell, maybe even a Google image search would have yielded a more standard photo. The kid was only 20 years old, his senior portrait isn’t that old.
I suppose one could argue that Facebook does allow users to make their profiles unsearchable and they do offer the option of hiding your photo from the results page of a search, but most of us don’t want to go that far. If Erin Scottberg were a common name, I’d want people to be able to view my picture in a search so they could be sure they’re seeking out the right Erin Scottberg.
It would be simply really. I’d create a Facebook album, throw some of my best mugs in there, maybe a candid or two, and make it public to all users. Then I’d write-up a quick spec sheet with my name (it’s Scottberg, not Scottsberg), birth date, a quick C.V. (as if I’m old enough to have a C.V.)—I’d even include e-mail addresses and phone numbers (maybe even screennames) of a few close friends and family I’ve arranged to comment on my death immediately following. I’d just
save it as a JPEG and use Facebook
’s “Upload Thinger” to zap that into the album too. Hell, I could get really morbid and keep an up-to-date will and parting words. I could have complete control of my post-mortem persona.
Again, I understand that what you post on the Internet is floating around in Cyberspace and Cyberspace is a wild and unruly place–and I like it that way. But I think there’s a certain code of conduct revolving around moral decency journalists need to respect, particular in sensitive situations like Monday’s tragedy. Social networking sites are all about projecting a certain image, and the image you create is going to depend on the audience it’s for. My Facebook profile would look a lot different if it was going to be how I bid adeau to the world–it’s even changed a bit since I’ve entered the work force and my colleagues have started “friending” me on Facebook. I can understand a blogger grabbing a Facebook photo to illustrate a post on their personal blog–but that’s someone sitting in their apartment, not one of the world’s most well-known news organizations.
On Wednesday, I Googled “Matt La Porte” and found a piece from Matt’s hometown paper, the New Jersey Star-Ledger, that did the young man justice. It talked about his goals, his life and really gave readers a picture of the man he was. They even interviewed real people and found a
“normal” photo. See, CNN? The information was out there, you just had to get away from the computer to collect it.
*note, since I first wrote this, CNN replaced Matt’s Facebook photo with the image from the New Jersey Star-Ledger.