Do you know Allison Stokke? Hundreds of thousands of internet users do. Up until recently, if you did know Stokke, it was probably because of her athletic accomplishments; she’s a high school senior with an outstanding track and field record and an athletic scholarship to a state university. But now those accomplishments have arguably been overshadowed by a picture of her from a year ago that was posted to the internet. It’s not even a particularly notable photo; it’s just Stokke fixing her hair at a track meet. But because Stokke is a fit and attractive girl, the photo got the attention of bloggers and forum posters, and within days Stokke’s picture was everywhere. Now she’s hounded by attention from photographers and media outlets all because of the photo:
“Even if none of it is illegal, it just all feels really demeaning,” Allison Stokke said. “I worked so hard for pole vaulting and all this other stuff, and it’s almost like that doesn’t matter. Nobody sees that. Nobody really sees me.”
We’ve gone over this territory before. It’s easier than ever for an embarrassing photo or a private video to be plastered across the web in a matter of days, and sometimes the side effects of that aren’t pretty. The issue is widespread enough that the Ad Council, an advertiser-supported non-profit advocacy group in the United States, created a public service ad campaign warning teens of the potential downsides to posting photos, videos and other personal information online. But the particular case of Allison Stokke seems slightly different.
For one, Stokke’s photo was originally posted as part of a story on an online publication, and so was always intended for public consumption—as opposed to most cases of unintentional internet stardom, where the offending photo or video was intended to remain within a circle of friends (even if that “circle of friends” means “the 8000 people you’re connected to on MySpace”). Another interesting facet is that the photo isn’t supposed to be sexual in nature; it’s not a striptease video or photos of a scantily-clad high school student.
And for all that, the effect that one photo has had on Stokke’s life is arguably greater than the usual fallout that results when someone posts a naked photo of themselves on the internet by mistake. Perhaps it’s because Stokke is identified by name, whereas embarrassing or compromising photos are usually found through the grapevine with no identifying info. Whatever the reason, it’s interesting that Stokke has pretty much followed the advice of the Ad Council commercials—she probably doesn’t have a MySpace account filled with lewd photos of herself, for example—and yet still managed to find herself in the middle of an internet maelstrom.
The Washington Post article briefly outlines Stokke’s attempts to avoid the harsh internet spotlight thrust upon her, without much success. This, too, is nothing new, as this New York Magazine article shows. It’s becoming increasingly clear that anything that gets posted to the internet, no matter how “private” or “friends only” it may appear to be, will eventually get out. But how should we feel about people like Stokke? Should they simply grow a thicker skin and accept the inevitability of internet users posting her picture to forums and writing badly about how hot she is? And if not, what reasonable alternatives are there to protect teens from unwanted attention? It’s a tough question that’ll only get tougher in the years to come.