Everyday Ethics: A Meditation on Personal Counter-Archives
By Brittany Shoot
In the pre-YouTube days of Internet video (circa 2004-05), many believed that in order to preserve the medium from potential impermanence, downloading was imperative. At a time when many online media enthusiasts were using QuickTime, the solution was simple: if a video catches your eye, double-click, download, and create your own personal archive. As one of these enthusiasts, I bought into this mentality without regard for ethics. After all, conventional wisdom–at least among technophiles–is that once you put something online, you can’t take it back. Of course, there is a variation on this truth: upload and lose control.
While working on my later-abandoned Master’s thesis about women’s agency in online video, one particular video blog–published by a then-underage girl–had been taken offline. Rumored to be between fifteen and seventeen, her work was unassuming at a time when many people were eager to capitalize on the business of emerging media. Despite having no formal training, her videos were subtly captivating: shot mostly in black and white, they revealed fleeting pieces of her life, focusing on existential concepts like time and the meaning of her favorite literature. Though I had never met or communicated with this videomaker, I learned that she felt uncomfortable with the overexposure and, after careful contemplation, deleted all of her postings.
While I knew someone who had already downloaded copies of her videos, I suddenly felt compelled to find them myself. Why? I could have written from memory, and the fact that they were “lost” or “missing” would have provided an interesting angle. It nevertheless took me less than five minutes to locate her entire video output within the depths of webpage caches. To the best of my knowledge, the young woman had never created videos previous to her existence as an online producer, and in order to continue work on my paper, I downloaded her full oeuvre in less than half an hour.
There’s no question about the importance of counter-archiving video of substantial or lasting value. It’s reassuring to know that for every viral video of police brutality removed from YouTube, three more people will upload the same footage that they’ve downloaded for preservation, aware that censorship is always imminent.
Would it be any different if I had captured my own footage firsthand, refusing to delete it if asked or refusing to keep it off the Internet? People take photos and videos of strangers in public every day. (I’m both of those people–the photographer and the stranger being photographed.) Does anonymity–of either party–make the practice any less fraught with ethical complications? The “expectation of privacy” simply is not what it once was.
Though I later abandoned my original thesis to explore a different topic, I thought about contacting the videomaker. She was at least eighteen or nineteen by the time I considered searching for her, but I never acted on it. Though I had her images and her confessions in my digital possession, it felt too invasive to request an explanation. After all, don’t we all do things that we regret when we’re young? Why did I have to perpetuate an invasion of privacy, however self-inflicted?
There are many who believe that you open yourself and your life to investigation by putting yourself online. However, I am not convinced that most people know or understand the potential risk. Losing a job because of an angry blog post or inappropriate Tweet is one thing. Considering that we have little control over our online content, how fair is it when creators are archived, remixed, and/or mocked? I don’t believe there is much separation between the physical and the virtual anymore. Therefore, it’s frightening to believe that we should passively accept or tolerate any specific or random ramifications brought about by exposing our private lives on the Web; in the same way that it is not acceptable to stand and point at someone who falls in public. This issue is particularly salient for historically oppressed or exploited persons in our society–in this case, a teenaged female.
Why don’t we have the right–if not the ability–to take back the media we post online? While copyright laws and Creative Commons guidelines are theoretically sound, why don’t we have similar tools to protect ourselves as we do for remixing and content sharing? The ease with which we can transmit data today is unprecedented. Yet only media conglomerates have the resources to combat unethical or illegal sharing. Individuals unhappy with the unauthorized use of their media have very little agency to counter such actions. In my case, there is a videomaker out there who has no idea that I have copies of her videos, and no way of retrieving them.
Is it unethical of me to store this woman’s videos on a private hard drive? I never asked for her permission to download and keep them, but I also don’t advertise that I have them. If other researchers were interested in them, they would never know to ask me. Even if they did, I would not cooperate.
So why do I still keep a copy of this video blog? In one sense, it feels like an achievement: I found a loophole in cyberspace. More than being technologically skillful, though, I wish I’d been half as cool when I was sixteen, making videos about my habits, my favorite books, my strange family tree. I don’t re-watch these videos, but like some sort of projected nostalgia, I like knowing that they exist and that I have them. Maybe more than anything, they represent an innocence: a time before YouTube dance mash-ups and toxic comment threads. No one had yet been encouraged to “Broadcast [Themselves],” but many nevertheless found a (presumably) safe space online to do so. In the wake of YouTube deceptions like lonelygirl15 and Danish Karen, I’ve become wistful for a time when camera confessions felt less contrived. I once believed it was possible to transmit an authentic self through fragments of first person video. Sadly, that conviction has been undercut by the advertising, hoaxes, and self-promotion that have flooded today’s online video spaces. It’s ironic that a set of painfully honest expressions that I labored to find—and that I’m embarrassed to keep—is what has really been lost for me.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Brittany Shoot is a writer, activist, and new media skeptic originally from a small town in Indiana. After earning concurrent Bachelor’s degrees in Communication, Women's Studies, and Psychology, she went on to earn a Master’s degree in Visual and Media Arts from Emerson College. In 2007, with her partner Andreas, she co-wrote the Lumiere Manifesto in response to the increasing commercialization of online video. Currently, she recovers from academia in Copenhagen, Denmark, where she works as a journalist and animal caretaker. In her life and work, she is dedicated to universal liberation.