In my previous post, I wrote about how I became obsessed with taking photos at the age of 16. I wasn’t interested in photography as an art- I just wanted to take casual snaps of me and my friends so that I had some record of our teenage memories before everything changed. I didn’t research techniques or attempt to understand better how cameras worked. All the pictures I took were of people. My friends and I posing together, playing football, doing something silly, dressed up for prom, getting drunk together on weekends. It’s why I couldn’t show the very pictures I was writing about in that post- they all had faces in them, and that would have violated people’s privacy. I was hoping I had one or two of local scenery, but I didn’t take those kinds of pictures. The only ones I could find that weren’t portraits were some photos I took of the snow that one week in February 2009, which tells you just how much of a novelty snow is down here.
When I started taking photos, I didn’t do so with the intention to upload them on social media. At the time I was quite jaded from my experiences with Bebo- a social networking site that was extremely popular among British teenagers in the mid-to-late 2000s. Bebo peaked in 2007, where it overtook MySpace as the most popular social networking website in the United Kingdom. There was no instant-messaging back then, but you could write comments on people’s walls. It was quite strange, because people would have conversations this way, back and forth on each other’s walls, that were all publicly-visible.
hey, how r u? w.b x
not bad thx. u? w.b xx
gdgd. im gd thx. wubu2? xxx
not much. u? xo
yh same xoxo
At first, I liked it because the way you could personalize your profile allowed me to be myself in a way that I was too shy to be in person. I listed my interests, beliefs, favorite things, and dreams. You could create quizzes that people would fill out to see how well they knew you. You could do drawings in this crude version of MS Paint on each other’s profiles. You could upload pictures, videos, and music. There would be long lists of personal questions that would trend, and you could copy and paste the questions to your profile and fill them out so that people could get to know you better. All of this together made each profile a kind of showcase of each user’s personality. I liked expressing myself this way on Bebo, and I enjoyed reading through the profiles of those I added on the platform. At school everyone was on guard. No one wanted to be bullied or ostracized. Online, they behaved differently, and you got to see a different side of them. You would find out things about your peers that you never would at school. You might notice on the copy-pasted questionnaires that the guy you always thought was cold and standoffish was actually a massive Star Wars fan, or that the girl you had a crush on loved Linkin Park.
I couldn’t quite believe how open people seemed to be on the platform. People from school that weren’t necessarily my closest friends or who moved in different circles would take the time to fill out my quizzes. They would read my answers to the copy-pasted questions and comment on the ones they found the most surprising.
“I had no idea your favorite book was Animal Farm!”
Bebo was my introduction to social media. It felt like a digital extension of school. At that age nothing was more important or interesting than the people you went to school with and the image they had of you. I can see how teenagers might get addicted. I probably sunk quite a few hours into the website. It was a new, exciting, and confusing concept- one that none of us were prepared for. It’s not like our parents had used social media. We were the first generation. And so we discovered the ups and downs of the social media experience as they came, with no forewarning. I first got a sense of its dangers when, in 2007, our headmaster gave a school assembly in which it was obvious he was both worried and confused by the phenomenon.
“It’s come to our attention that many of you have been using a website called Bebo…” he began. The hall was filled with mischievous snickering throughout the speech. It was clear that the older generation didn’t understand what social media was, but what wasn’t clear was that we didn’t understand it as well as we thought we did. In retrospect it was an interesting time, because you had this social media revolution unfolding in conjunction with our adolescence, and neither we nor our teachers and parents knew quite how to handle it. But there was a sense, even early on, that there was a potential for bad things to happen.
Cyberbullying, catfishing, doxing, you name it. A lot of these terms either hadn’t been invented yet or hadn’t entered the public consciousness. I took my first break from social media in the early months of 2008, after logging into my Bebo account one evening and finding to my horror that my profile had been filled with pornographic images and videos. I shat myself. There were also creepy posts made in my name. Everything on Bebo was publicly-visible. My profile felt inextricably tied to my public persona at school. For about 5 seconds I simply froze, before making a snap decision to permanently delete the account.
Before this incident I couldn’t imagine going back to life without social media. And yet, almost as soon as I left, I didn’t miss it in the slightest. I was surprised at how easily I’d gotten rid of it. It suggested I didn’t need Bebo the way I’d thought I did. When I went into school the next day, none of the bad things I imagined happening ended up doing so. Those who had seen the hacked profile before it got deleted probably assumed it was indeed hacked, laughed, and moved on with their lives. The hacking saga was a big anticlimax. I’d logged into Bebo at my friend’s house and the password got saved to his computer. A bunch of the guys were hanging out one afternoon and the temptation for the prank proved too much to resist.
When my friend told me about it the next day, he asked why I chose to permanently delete my account instead of removing all the changes they’d made. I’m not sure, I told him. It was instinctive. In that moment I just wanted to flush the whole thing down the shitter. It wasn’t even an emotional decision; just a realization that I didn’t care enough about the account to fix it. So I took a long break from social media. Sometime in late 2008, Bebo declined in popularity. Less and less of my friends were using it. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Facebook had finally supplanted MySpace as the most popular social networking platform. Its inexorable rise was soon to reach our shores too. While I’d forgotten about social media and merely felt apathetic toward it, I wasn’t yet jaded. The jadedness would come a few months after I left Bebo.
It was during this period of not having an online presence that a friend of mine who still used Bebo alerted me to the fact that he’d seen a photo of me on someone’s account. A guy I didn’t know personally, but who went to our school and was a few years older than me, had created a gallery of photos on his profile titled “World’s Ugliest People”. As soon as I got home, I hastily made a new Bebo account and searched the name of this person. I found the gallery, and sure enough, a picture of me was in it. I was the only person in the gallery from school. The others had obviously been copied from Google Images or 4Chan, and all of them depicted people with physical deformities or extreme malnourishment. The caption beneath my picture read “Some ugly cunt” which immediately confirmed every doubt I’d had about myself since I’d started Secondary School in 2004. It felt like the final proof that there was something wrong with me, that I was objectively repulsive in a way that was obvious to everyone, and therefore I wouldn’t be able to live a normal life. It exacerbated an existing complex I had that I was a freak. This led to me never trying anything, because I believed any attempt to improve myself was fruitless. Even worse than the photo caption were the comments underneath. I scrolled down and my heart sank. Several people I knew from school were laughing at the picture and openly writing comments like “OMG that kid is such a freak, he’s in my class”. This cut deep, as I now assumed that people were actively thinking these kinds of things whenever they were around me.
After staring at the screen for a long time, my sadness quickly turned to rage. I can remember my hands shaking. I reported the account and logged out, hoping that some kind of punishment would be meted out to the user. My apathy toward social media turned to hatred. I’d learned a cruel lesson about the way the internet worked: if you uploaded an image, you had no idea where that image might end up, and you couldn’t just take it back. I realized that the internet was a public sphere, and every time you posted something, even if you only intended it to be seen by friends, what you were really doing was publishing it to the world at large. Anything you upload isn’t yours anymore; it belongs to the public sphere. Even if my report against this guy was successful and my picture was removed from his profile, there was no way of knowing how many times it could have been copied and posted around the internet. The picture in question wasn’t even my own- it was a photo a friend had taken of me in class a couple years earlier. I pulled a funny face for the camera and didn’t think anything of it, not in my wildest imagination expecting to see it years later on public display. The experience made me think twice about anything I posted on the internet.
By the spring of 2009, everyone was using Facebook. All of my friends at school kept telling me “Get Facebook,” and one by one everyone made an account. I was initially hesitant because of my experiences with Bebo, but soon gave in. It was only a few months earlier that my photography craze had begun, so I was now in possession of a lot of pictures of me and my friends for the first time. I had to think extra hard about uploading these pictures, not just to avoid a repeat of my experience, but to avoid compromising my friends as well. Fortunately, I would never have an experience such as I did on Bebo again, but I still had lessons to learn about the internet and how it worked vis-à-vis privacy, ethics, and etiquette.