What happens when your personal photos go viral and you get attacked online?

Guest post by Barbara Reggio

Over on Offbeat Bride, we’ve talked about what happens when your wedding goes viral and people hate it. But what happens when your personal photos go viral and people seemingly hate YOU.

imageMy awesome Star Wars-themed maternity photo was featured on a bash site of awkward photos, and I read such comments as that my husband was orbiting the Death Star (he was kissing my big, fat, pregnant belly covered in Star Wars and music-themed henna designs) to others that compared me to Jabba the Hut.

At the time, I was devastated.

18 months later, I look back and I laugh my ass off. My photo must have been extremely awesomely geeky to have been featured on that website, and several of my new friends who I have told about this story have asked why I would have had them take the photo down, because the photo is so awesome, and they are jealous that they have never had anything worthy of going viral.

But the first few days, I contemplated hurting myself… I had just given birth, was suffering from postpartum depression, and this was the moment that someone messaged me on a baby forum asking if that picture was me, because it looked similar to another I had shared on the forums.

I guess my best advice, having been through this, is:

  1. Take a deep breath.
  2. Seek support of the ones who love you and your photo/video/blog post.
  3. Then find something to laugh about.

Realize how totally awesome you are that people are so jealous of you that they have to say mean things. They must be really insecure with their lives and themselves if they have to take time out of their days to belittle others.

And proudly display your photo within your home, not hidden away out of sight. Put it where everyone can see how totally awesome it is!

Have your personal photos ever gone viral? How did you deal?

Comments on What happens when your personal photos go viral and you get attacked online?

  1. It wasn’t a photo, but a piece of writing (just as personal, in many ways) that I had published online in college went viral in some of the online circles I was part of at the beginning of my teaching career. It was a fairly moody, overly dramatic poem, and admittedly not all that great, but I felt like my very identity was being violated by bloggers and commenters who touted it as a terrible poem, a product of a feeble mind, and other similarly hurtful comments. My solution was to just take a break from the internet. It wasn’t going to help me in any way to see other people being cruel and judgy without knowing me, and it died down a lot quicker than I initially feared. A few friends kept track of where the poem went, and how actively it was being circulated, and they kindly gave me the “all clear” when everyone picked some new thing to pay attention to.

  2. I had a shitty online experience a few years ago. I had gone to the mall to pick up a few things, and was stopped by a photographer at one point, who asked if I’d be part of a ‘street style’ post. He liked my bag and my skirt, he said. I was tired and not paying much attention, but figured what the hell, and gave him the go ahead. He asked my profession and I jokingly said “professional feminist” – I work at a women’s rights organization, and a few of my colleagues and I jokingly would put that as our title sometimes when filling out forms or whatever.

    Fast forward a few weeks, it gets posted and I got a lot of pretty hurtful comments about how I’m soooooo ugly and stupid and so on. It hurt. I didn’t so much care what randoms on the internet thought, but a few friends stumbled across it and I hate that they saw the comments. I felt exposed and, well, ugly. My self-esteem varies from “I’m fucking AWESOME” to “I’m the worst person ever and should go crawl in a hole” so it was a hard couple of months for me to pull myself back up. It didn’t even go viral or anything, there were less than 100 comments and only some were about me, but it still stung and just sucked. I do hate how the internet lets people feel like the person they’re mocking isn’t real. I’ve certainly been guilty of it too, but yeah. It sucks, that’s all I wanted to say I guess. I’m glad you are able to laugh about it now. That’s some strength right there.

  3. My fiance had a photo featured on a page for Movember because he has a pretty intense handle bar mustache. The post was about men’s cancer awareness and he was paired with another handle bar mustache guy. There was no contest or comparison, just a post about fabulously dapper mustaches. The comments started innocent enough but then commenters decided to defame my fiancΓ©’s character based on the photo, saying he “looked like a self righteous douche” it might not be the recommended action, but I got in there. I defended him since I actually know wen him personally and said it was kind of messsed up to bash someone’s character on a post that’s suppose to be wen about cancer awareness!! In the end the mean comments were taken down and my reply emblazened with a thumbs up. So depending on the site it might be good to step and remind people that these are real humans. I know it worked for a bearded girl that stood up for her culture, she got a public apology from the poster. I think that was even on reddit too.

  4. I’ve had one go viral myself – but as I didn’t show my face, none of my friends knew it was me. At least 20 of my Facebook friends shared it.
    I participated in Project Unbreakable last year, and in September, I showed up in this Buzzfeed article: http://www.buzzfeed.com/regajha/27-survivors-of-sexual-assault-quoting-the-people-who-attack … I’m number 12.
    Mostly, I struggled with the initial shock. At the time I had the picture taken, I was constantly exposed to people and places and things and the word “angel”, which is my trigger word. Through this project, I was trying to let go of that word and its hold on me. I didn’t quite succeed, but it helped a little. In the year since, I had moved away from that area and away from living in a religious community. I had gone from constant fear to only the rare panic from time to time. So seeing it sent me into an initial downward spiral.
    However, good has come out of it. I finally told my fiance that that’s me. He’s finally able to understand why exactly he can’t touch my knees, even though he can do anything else to me. I’m still not really able to talk about it, but having that there has helped me to take more baby steps toward talking about it.

    • Stay strong and brave, dear sister. All women (and men) owe you a great debt for speaking up and out. As a mother, I thank you for helping to dismantle the hateful cultural acceptance of sexual assault for this and future generations. You are to be honored for your courage. Thank-you, Lis.

    • I saw this buzzfeed article circulating alittle while back. It really broke my heart. I truly admire your strength to participate in this project and I hope you continue to heal. Thank you for working to break down the acceptance of assualt.

        • It is the best side effect, as the mother of a 19 year old girl, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for doing this, for helping dismantle our rape culture bit by bit…and always remember that there are many many people in the world who hold you in our hearts as someone who is not just surviving…but shining <3

    • Wow, I feel like I’m meeting a celebrity. I remember that Buzzfeed article and was entirely entranced by it. I experienced sexual assault long ago that I mostly place in the past, but looking at those testimonies really brought it to the forefront of my mind, and I think it’s so striking what you and the other participants did. If you are going to “go viral,” it might as well be for something that might influence people positively, even if it was a shock to you to see it in your facebook news feed.

      • Thank you. It going viral I think is a great thing. I just really wish they hadn’t chosen my picture. I knew that it was a Project Unbreakable article before clicking on it, and was very excited to see the project going viral, but I wasn’t expecting to be one of the few chosen out of hundreds on the site.

  5. This is really good advice for how to deal with something going viral.

    I would also add “don’t read the comments.” A lot of the sites out there “feed the trolls” so to speak. Those are sites where I will no longer ever, EVER read comments. I very strongly agree that “if your website’s full of assholes, it’s your fault (Ariel shared that with us Tribe mods years ago and it stuck). I wrote a piece for Guardian: Comment is Free about the”hobo wedding” (and I wrote about it for Offbeat Bride). The comments on that piece were just gross. Not too many trashed what I wrote, but the entire vibe was icky. I couldn’t read it because it was so against what I value on the internet. Not my ability to post any thought that enters my head, but my ability to share and discuss things in a useful way with others I would otherwise never encounter. So seriously, just don’t read the comments. If you have to know, ask someone else to read them. There might be awesome ones. But there might be some crap in there that just isn’t worth it.

    • I follow a blog about Korea culture and kpop. Needless to say, as there are super American patriots, there super kpop fans, and Korean nationalists. The owners had to be extra thoughtful on how they word things because they would get angry comments. Mostly they were people saying “How dare you not like so-and-so-food! Get out of Korea if you don’t like it!” or “OMG! Why didn’t you like this song by this artist! They are best! Why do you hate them?!” Of coarse people elaborate. Their blog is so big that they have moderators who filter through some of the nasty stuff first. So if you go viral- ask friends to scope things out first if you are DYING to read the comments.

  6. I also think it’s worth recognising there’s often a gender angle to this. The meanness is often aimed at the way women online look, rather than what they’re saying. Someone brilliant once said that before a woman can be heard, the room/forum/commentors must first hold a referendum on her fuckability.

    And that if the meanness crosses over into threats, potential violence, harassment or stalking, the fact that they occur online is irrelevant. They’re still illegal and can/should be reported to the police

      • A picture of my cousins/uncle watching a youtube video on how to tie an elderidge tie hit the reddit homepage a couple days ago. That article about sums up the reddit comments. Reddit starts out bitching about just about everything. The weird part to me is how the actual upvotes play against that. Yes, there’s a lot of hate and everyone is trying to say how dumb they look. And yet… There’s way more people upvoting the picture than anything else.

        Most of my family and any wedding guest that saw it just laughed about it. Some of the posts were mean, but for the most part it was all so far from what was happening in the picture that we just turned around and teased my uncle about “looking like Bill Gates.”

  7. I haven’t had anything go viral, but if I did I would try to focus on how quickly things become “old” on the internet. I certainly feel for Star Wars kid, since he was one of the first internet meme targets and thus remembered. And the people who are made to feel horrible or unsafe in real life. For smaller things like the OP’s picture, though, these days so many viral things pop up every week, explode for some small segment of the internet, and are quickly replaced by the next thing. It’ll be over soon.

    Oh, and while you tend to remember the really negative comments, sometimes it’s just a few people who start it and then people jump on board because they want a share of the imaginary internet points too. I posted a picture of my Halloween costume one year in a small subreddit, and all of the responses I got there and in real life were friendly and positive. Except for the one comment I actually remember, where a guy tried to joke about how I was super ugly. Doesn’t seem to make much sense to listen to someone named “cock_bag_69,” though. (That wasn’t his username, but it was along those lines.)

  8. A picture of my family was posted on Awkward Family Photos; it was submitted by a member of the family, I was the only person in the pic who did not get asked for permission to submit it (that is a WHOLE other story!). A few of my friends saw it, but this was back when fb was still kinda new and it really didn’t get shared too much, thank goodness. It would have been okay if I had not read the comments; some were very, very mean.

    Rule #1; never, never, never read the comment section. It will most likely just make you angry. There were a few nicer ones, comments like “I wonder why the little boy looks so upset?” that made me feel a sliver better about people….but I still advise to stay away! It was not worth the hurt and anger.

    I did learn something, though; I learned to be nicer on the internet. I learned to be kind in the things I say to faceless people who I will never meet in real life. Because I know why we were wearing what we were; I know why the little boy was upset; I know why the mom looked totally washed out and exhausted. I do not want to cause pain to someone else in my clueless comment, because I know it can hurt.

  9. Just this morning, I read a great article by a girl who was bashed by assholes after her photo of herself in her (in my opinion, pretty awesome) Lara Croft costume went viral. I don’t want to get up on my “the internet is doing bad things to humanity” soap-box again, but I’m teetering on the edge of it. People think saying shitty things about a stranger is OK because they feel like it’s anonymous. Even if you find and read the comments, they don’t get to see the effect it has on you, so they get their dirty little fix without consequences.

    I had a really shitty experience waaaaay back in the days of MySpace where I’d posted some contentious blogs and got stalker emails and death threats from some crazy Nazi who’d actually been able to figure out my real name and where I lived based off some kind of data stamp taken from photos I’d posted of my backyard tomato plants. Since then, I’ve been fairly psycho about what I do and don’t post online. I don’t know what I’d think if pictures of me were being made fun of online; I was pretty ragged about my appearance as a child, so I’d be torn between “meh” and “flashback to junior high” I think. Still, I don’t post public pictures of myself to things like facebook, and I’m that giant asshole who makes her friends take photos of me off their pages too unless they’re linked to some kind of public event that I’ve participated in. Not so much because I fear ridicule, as that what I’m doing/wearing/eating is not public information and has no business being seen by anyone I don’t know.

    Ultimately, I think you do have to feel sorry for anyone whose life is so empty that they have to make fun of someone else online to feel good about themselves. I won’t call the blog out specifically, but there used to be a famous popular site detailing what were ostensibly craft fails from a certain popular online selling platform, and all my friends were sooooo in love with it and so mad at me for hating it, but I was always put off by the sad junior high mean girl spirit of mockery that I felt like was behind it. Especially when the focus was on how someone looked in a photo. We’re grownups. Can’t we find something to laugh at that does not involve mocking someone else, no matter the reason?

    And I just have to say…that photo of you is badass. Anyone who says differently is just jealous that they don’t have any photos of themselves that are even 1/4 as cool as that.

  10. This is why I hate sites like people of Walmart. It makes you feel like no matter where you are or what you’re doing, you could be subject to being photographed and ridiculed. It’s like anyone with a camera phone becomes paparazzi. It’s like we’re all celebrities but without the perks. We can torn apart just for existing. I had one FB friend I finally blocked because she would constantly post photos of people she deemed dressed inappropriately and make fun of them. The last straw for me was when she posted a tween girl at an airport in a very worn T-shirt that was almost as long as her shorts. I’m sorry, but a) it’s air travel, may as well be comfy, and b) that shirt was obviously older than her and I’d be wiling to bet it had some meaning to her. Maybe belonging to a reactive she was visiting. In any case, far from asking for online scrutiny.

  11. Last summer, I took my dog Sadie for a walk around the Capitol here in DC. DC summers are pretty brutal, super hot and humid, and she’s an old beagle, a rescue who had had a rough start in life but was now enjoying a lovely retirement. I spoil her rotten and she’s an amazing ambassador for rescue beagles. Everyone just loves her! Every now and again on our walks, she needs to stop and rest, so we hang out on the steps or around fountains, sometimes on the National Mall. On this day, we ran into a friend during our walk. I stopped to talk and Sadie decided that was the perfect opportunity to take a rest. After my friend walked on, I turned around and saw Sadie lying on the pavement having a snooze. She looked so funny that I snapped a photo with my phone. A year later, a friend who has never met Sadie, but loves reading stories I write about her, forwarded me this http://www.jokideo.com/tag/this-walk-is-over/ saying, “This reminds me of Sadie!” To my utter shock, it WAS Sadie. Someone—I never did discover who— had taken my photo and turned it into a meme. At the time, if you searched on the phrase “This walk is over!”, hundreds of blog, Tumbler, and Pinterest posts showed up with Sadie’s meme.

    At first, people were kind, leaving cute and sweet comments, but then, within days, the photo hit Facebook. Suddenly, the comments turned horribly mean. People began to say that I “should be shot” for being a terrible pet owner because they assumed Sadie was being mistreated, or they criticised me for “making” Sadie “fat” (apparently, fat shaming is pet-directed, too), just countless of hurtful criticisms and judgments mounting up tons of “Like” clicks on each and every nasty assumption. It just went on and on and on. At first, I responded to the comments explaining the story behind the photo, but it just got to be too much after a while. Eventually, thankfully, the attention slowed to a trickle, although Sadie’s picture does still come up first in a google image search, but fewer and fewer links appear, so the vitriol has slowed.

    The thing is: I’m not comparing the trolling of my dog with the horrible things people do to or say about people, but during the time that all of this exploded on the internet, Sadie was very, very sick. The vet had given her mere weeks to live and I was beside myself with worry. To have complete strangers lash out at me during that horror show was just an awful experience, one I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

    With much heart-wrenching and good medical care, I am happy to report, Sadie eventually beat the odds. She is happy and comfortable, even though her ordeal rendered her completely blind. She’s a brave little thing and still spreads so much joy to everyone she meets.

    What I remember most about the trolling is that people were being so evil about someone I love so dearly at a time when I didn’t know day-to-day if I was even going to have her with me much longer. I like to think that maybe they would have kept their thoughts to themselves if they had even thought for a minute that the people connected to the photograph would read their words. You just never know how far or how quickly poison can spread.

    • your Sadie is adorable πŸ™‚

      (and yes, my dog would be relaxing and thinking the exact caption!)

      congratulations on making a very happy home and life for her πŸ™‚

  12. I like this post and the comment thread because it gives me a chance to be a random person on the internet who gets to say that you guys are all awesome. Seriously. I’ve been stressing out lately about the general state of humanity because that is what I do sometimes and it’s incredibly comforting to see the awesomeness in this story/comment thread.

  13. This reminds me of a site that used to exist (perhaps still does, I haven’t looked) that showcased photographs of children in strollers who appeared to be bigger or older than one would usually expect a kid in a stroller to be.

    My first thought was ‘wow, this is. . . a thing people give a crap about? Really?’ until someone pointed out that a lot of families who can’t afford mobility aids use strollers instead. Because of my own privilege, that hadn’t occurred to me and it put a whole new and even nastier complexion on the mocking, which had been pretty nasty to begin with.

    • Oh i hated that site. Especially now that i have a kid who is giant for his age. We also have a heavily pedestrian lifestyle. Chances are he will be “too old” for a stroller long before he is old enough to make the 5 mile walk to the store and back. Sure, i could put him in a wagon, but how is that any different other than being a lot more strain on my shoulder? Oh so much frustrated parent fury!

    • My daughter has juvenile arthritis and, while she’s fortunate that her symptoms aren’t bad enough to have a big effect on her mobility, lots of kids her age aren’t so lucky. The real kicker is that for those kids it’s not like they’re paralyzed. They can often get up and walk, or even run, for short periods. So people who see 5-10 year old kids in a stroller and then see them get up and play for a bit will make the assumption that they’re just being lazy. That kind of judgment just compounds the emotional effects that come along with not being able to keep up with friends, feeling like a burden, feeling isolated or separate from others, etc.

      Anyway, thanks again to the author and all the folks in the comments who have been confident and brave enough to share your strategies for dealing with the online callousness that seems so accepted.

      • My younger sister has cerebral palsy and has difficult walking. For several years when she was younger, she would use a stroller for long distances (she used a walker around the house), as it was less conspicuous than a wheelchair and also easier to transport. It’s definitely pretty common!

  14. I’m so sorry you had to deal with insults from total strangers when you were already feeling down and kind of vulnerable πŸ™ People can be awesome but they can be so rotten, too. I try to avoid posting any pictures of myself online or letting friends do this to me as I am TERRIFIED of becoming a meme or some other damn thing. I’m glad you were able to rise above it and are doing well now!

  15. I just wanted to say, this photo rocks! I, unfortunately, didn’t do maternity photos during either of my pregnancies, but if I had, it would have been something like this! I LOVE this book too, it taught my son to read his ABCs by the time he was 18 months old! πŸ˜›

  16. “people are so jealous of you that they have to say mean things. They must be really insecure with their lives and themselves if they have to take time out of their days to belittle others.”

    Obviously there’s something, maybe a lack of empathy for a subculture for they don’t “get”, or a desire to fit in and go along with saying mean things because that’s what the crowd is saying, and it’s awesome if you can reflect in what makes your [photo, poem, whatever] awesome even if everyone doesn’t appreciate it, but can we please not resort to the “they’re just jealous haters!” argument?

  17. I worked with a couple other people really really hard on a real live Mario Bros. world. We converted a hallway and elevator into a full sized side-scroller world with boxes that made sounds when you hit them, the elevators were the Drain pipes and there was a castle and games for people to play.It was a interactive experiment to get people to engage with their surroundings instead of rushing from class to class to work to lunch etc. and I was so damn proud of it. It got picked up by Reddit, aol wierd news, StumbleUpon etc. and while some people loved the idea lots of people spent alot of time bashing the idea, commenting on how it wasn’t really that cool and they could do it better with their eyes closed and pointing out every detail that wasn’t right so we must be some young privileged assholes who weren’t even born when SMB was out. What kind of people we must be to take classes that give an assignment like that for homework, and allll kinds of stuff about “art students”. And the worst were the comments about how fat/ugly/homely we were.
    I felt like I had to scour the internet and comment on everything to defend our project and ourselves. Then I got a call from the people at Nintendo to tell us “unofficially” how cool they thought it was and that made everything else a mute point. Though I’m really bummed I wasted so much energy on what other people thought of me. That reaction really surprised me.

  18. see, i’ve always loved that site b/c their policy is to only feature photos of people who have submitted them. so, i thought it was a really fun way to have a giggle at ourselves. i’m sad that someone would say such nasty things or that the moderator let it through, but i do recall seeing this photo & i thought (& i bet most people thought) that it was totally adorable. i think you should resubmit it on your own terms & tell your story. they feature those, ya know. i’d even include your battle with it. good advice. own your awesomeness!

    • Unfortunately, there isn’t really a way to check if the people submitting the photos are actually the ones in them on that website. The photo was submitted when someone saved it from my profile on a baby forum and then emailed it to Awkward Family Photos.

    • Me too! It always made me think of an old photo of me and my brothers where we kind of look like child vampires because of our complexions, dark hair and 80’s turtlenecks. I wouldn’t submit because my family loves that photo, but it always makes me giggle when I see it. Now, I’m disappointed by how I used to check out that site and giggle at the photos, thinking I was laughing with the people not at them.

  19. I remember seeing that photo on facebook in “Awkward Pregnancy Photos” post. I giggled because it was just so geeky, I could see my husband doing that to our kid. Your weight never even crossed our mind, and for god’s sake you’re pregnant, your weight shouldn’t even be on the table at a time like that. I showed him the photo just now, and he was like “That’s awesome!”. Anyway, I think a lot of people (myself included sometimes) forget that the people in these photos are actually people with feelings.

    I saw your picture of your baby reading the book, freaking adorable. πŸ™‚

  20. Back about 10 years ago there was a video on eebaumworld that went horribly viral that showed a very big woman (400+ pounds) from the side behind sitting on a guy and bouncing in a teal blue soft bra that barely holds her in, it was looped to “the chicken dance” song. It was a 10 second clip looped to over a minute.
    That was me.
    I had made some super sized BBW fetish (non nude) videos and one was “squashing” and oddly enough that isn’t even something I am in to but I was devastated despite the fact I had edited the clip into a montage to sell the video on BBW admirer sites.
    To this day despite being 200+ pounds smaller (weightloss surgery) happily married and nearly 12 years away from it the thought of it, the sound of the chicken dance makes me sick to my stomach.
    I didn’t read the comments, not that I remember but I know they were hateful as was the entire thing.
    The thing I remind myself is that for 5 hours of filming the two 50 minute videos and 6 hours of editing I got a 2 week vacation in Virginia (I live in the west) and over $15k over the next 4 years at a time when I was desperately, eating just ramen the last week of the month, poor.
    But despite that, despite being 45 now and 195 pounds and healthy, happy, well liked and established in my community and job I have a terror that someone will post it for my friends to see.
    A decade later and it still devistates me to think of it.

  21. I don’t know if if consider it viral, but after years of infertility, I terminated my desperately wanted pregnancy after I found out my daughter had a serious open neural tube defect. I testified in 2013 at the Texas Senate Health committee, and the AP picked up a quote from my speech. Cosmo also ran an article about me, and the anti – choicers tried to shame me.

    My husband tried to respond to a few trolls. One woman who made some particularly vitriolic and hateful comments, deleted her comments once she realized that my husband was a real person and was calling her out.

    I’m just tired of my personal story being exploited. Why should I be the one who has to teach other people? I tell my story because I know other women go through this alone and ashamed. I’m glad that I testified, I’m proud that I shared my story, but I don’t know if I’d do it again.

    Honestly, it’s turned me into a bit of a misanthrope.

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