The FTC recently approved a company that conducts social media background checks for employers – and that stores the information they find in their databases for up to seven years. It’s the difference between Human Resources Binging you just in case (I’m pretending people use Bing), and a professional private-eye being hired to go through your eLife … and keeping a file on what they find.
This is, of course, a warning to be even more cautious about putting naked pictures on your Facebook page and Tweeting about incest – but to leave it at that is to leave with the assumption that we can actually control our digital profiles.
If only. I don’t even have a Facebook account, but I’m tagged in photos there. If somebody takes your picture at Burning Man without you knowing it, and facial recognition software kicks in, it doesn’t matter how careful you’re been or how work-friendly your digital fingerprints are.
This isn’t a problem unique to Burning Man, but it’s a particular problem for an event like Burning Man that is explicitly not work friendly … and that people love to take pictures of.
Burning Man has policies in place to protect participants, and it takes them seriously – but it’s easier to keep some people from profiting off images of Burning Man than it is to keep others from being ruined by them. The internet is a Pandora’s box filled with pictures of your genitals, and pictures download faster than the legal system runs.
The easiest way to protect yourself is to not do anything at Burning Man that might make a potential employer look at you sideways. But where’s the fun it that? Why go to Burning Man at all if you’re just doing what you’d do at home? More importantly, who wants to go to an event where everyone is playing it safe?
There’s a paradox to the idea that a culture like Burning Man, so fixated on images and iconography, is facing a threat from the development of more images and iconography. But it is. The more people take part in outrageous and counter-cultural acts, the better Burning Man is; the more people take pictures of those acts, the more danger the people involved are in; the more danger they’re in, the less incentive they have to participate at all.
But then it’s also ironic that burners would be so fixated on creating permanent images of their time on the playa. Everything about Burning Man, after all, is temporary: the city is disappears, the Man burns down, the theme camps are shipped out almost as soon as they’re shipped in. “Leave no trace” is, as much as anything, an ethos of impermanence – let it be as though we were never here. Burning Man doesn’t sell souvenirs. And yet we come to this temple of transience determined to take back something we can hold on to forever and share with our friends.
Ironic, but completely understandable: very human. And harmless … except when it isn’t. Like artifacts in a museum, the flash of cameras at Burning Man can damage their subject. (Unlike those artifacts, video is even worse.)
So what do we do? Personally, I think the “Leave No Trace” ethos should be extended to digital media. A photo on Facebook is a trace. But then again, I hate the 21st century. As far as I’m concerned, everything after oil painting was a step in the wrong direction. Fucking water colors. Besides, I doubt anybody wants to do that. So screw me. Still: the best way to protect each other from showing up on unwanted Google searches is to leave no digital trace. If you can bear it, put the camera down.
If you can’t, at the very least let’s gift each other privacy. Take pictures only of people who have given you express permission to photograph them. If you’re taking pictures of crowd scenes, avoid faces as much as possible. Remember that they might have to live with the consequences of your video more than you do. The best way to not inadvertently take advantage of the privacy of others is to not take them for granted.
Amazing people are not a renewable resource: it’s unreasonable to expect them to be quite so amazing if we’re pointing weapons at them. Someties, that’s what cameras are. Being conscious of that is a gift you can give back.
Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com