When does an Internet joke go too far?
Years ago, a photo of a baby with down syndrome was taken from a support group website and turned into a controversial Internet meme. That child — now 16 years old — is Heidi Crowter, and Heidi just discovered what the entire Internet has been saying about her photo, according to The Sun.
Because memes spread so widely and rapidly, it can be difficult to track the source of an image. Especially in this case, since it seems to have originated in 2009.
It’s impossible to point the finger of blame at one person or site. It’s equally impossible to wipe a widespread image from the web. Image board sites like 4chan and 9gag allow users to post anonymously, which means that even if you can find the origin point, you’d never identify the first uploader. Then there’s the First Amendment question.
Heidi’s family and friends have attempted to fight the meme by creating a Facebook page to raise awareness, and asking people to take the image down. However, the page has been hacked, allegedly by users on 9gag, although some claim they’re being framed by 4chan users.
The issue has spiraled from a distasteful meme to the Internet’s distasteful reaction, to a family asking for sympathy. There are millions of people who don’t understand how web culture works, or how memes travel — there are also plenty of people who don’t care.
This story in particular highlights the divide between people who understand Internet culture and those who seek to fight it. Many Redditors have pointed out that Internet users have the right to disseminate content, however distasteful. It’s a free speech issue, and the mainstream media’s portrayal of “Internet trolls” oversimplifies a complex discussion.
See this BBC report, for example:
But try explaining that to Heidi Crowter.
Heidi’s case is “a sign of the times,” according to Ben Lashes, a meme manager who represents viral characters and their creators, such as Nyan Cat, Scumbag Steve and Keyboard Cat.
Lashes suggests that instead of trying to get the images taken down from the Internet, the family should fight fire with fire and use the publicity to rally around a cause.
“This girl has an opportunity to be someone who can speak out about how it feels to be bullied, and maybe use it to get the message out there so that other kids know there’s someone who knows what they’re going through,” says Lashes.
This is not the first meme we’ve seen try to fight the Internet. Remember Star Wars kid? The families who leaked that video were sued, but that didn’t take the viral video away. The kid in question went on to become a law student, and eventually president of a non-profit.
What do you make of this story? Is Crowter’s family taking the right approach in fighting anonymous Internet users? Give us your take in the comments.
Image courtesy of iStockphoto, bns124
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