Skip to main content

Rehtaeh Parsons is shown in a handout photo from the Facebook tribute page "Angel Rehtaeh."HO/The Canadian Press

There are times that the Internet feels like humanity's crowning achievement, and moments it seems like a cesspool filled with our very worst. It was the latter of those sentiments that came to mind recently, when pictures of Rehtaeh Parsons – the Nova Scotia girl who committed suicide after images of her alleged rape were circulated – were used in a Facebook ad for a dating site.

It was easy to believe that the same cruelty that many suppose contributed to Parsons' suicide was again at work. The explanation of what happened, however, isn't quite so malicious – yet remains troubling nonetheless. Anh Dung, the owner of the dating site in question, simply searched online for images of Canadian girls and, not being aware of their significance, used pictures of Parsons' smiling face to peddle his business.

The situation highlights an ambivalent side of the web in which the images and words that have come to represent us on screens are often separated from their context. That capacity to disassociate one thing from another often results in re-purposing or misuse, inevitably sometimes leading to offence and anger. Given how incredibly inappropriate the Parsons example was, however, perhaps it is now time to think about changes in both culture and technology to make awful occurrences – like this last insult to Parsons' family – less common.

Though it may sound callous, one can almost understand how to the dating site's owner, Parsons' snaps were simply a few more in an ocean of similar pictures. One of the things digital media have become very efficient at is "atomization," breaking what we used to think of as wholes into parts. For example, when you Google an image, you are presented with only the picture itself, not the accompanying story.

As a result, the original context of pieces of culture are more easily lost online than they once were. Parsons is just another female face online. A picture meant to support feminists is Photoshopped and turned into a misogynist meme. A common clip of a man laughing people use to convey derision is in fact of brutal Ugandan leader Idi Amin. Fragments float around, and we often don't even know we are passing along something damaging or sinister. There is no way for us to know that what is merely one more image to us may be something significantly more meaningful – or hurtful – to the person next to us or on the other side of the world.

What makes this phenomenon especially problematic is the way it leaves people unable to defend themselves against real consequence. The Internet, as the Parsons example so tragically showed, is not a separate world, but one more medium through and on which modern life occurs. As a result, our profiles on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and other services aren't simply online representations, but actual parts of ourselves, linked to our personal life, employment and more. That they can be put to different ends that we intended is no small matter, especially for the vulnerable.

If people are harmed by removing the context of images or words or videos, it stands to reason that we should at least think about how to prevent it. Part of our reaction has to be cultural. Among people who put things online – which, these days, is no small minority – a return to blogging's original spirit of attribution and linking would be a significant step, making the providing of context a default expectation.

Maybe we also need stop thinking of things online as "unreal" or disconnected from reality, perhaps then more thought would go into how and to what ends we use pieces of other people's lives.

But given the prevalence of self-interest – and, it must be noted in the case of Parsons, prejudiced, hateful behaviour – perhaps a technological solution is also in order. For example, one could have contextual information and links appear when hovering over an image or quote. It would be a marked improvement, rethinking certain units that get circulated around the web as not simply free-floating "images" or "paragraphs," but like little boxes of meaning with context built-in.

As with most digital things, any idea like that would likely be able to be circumvented. But even the presence of a roadblock may itself help foreground the reason for its existence, reminding individuals like Dung that even innocuous acts have consequences.

It's important to keep in mind that, though the kind of rootless chaos that the web can foster can be scary, it is also one of its greatest strengths. Not everything online should be traceable or put into a pre-existing context; we also need to leave lots of room for anonymity and experimentation.

But as the various representations of ourselves scatter further from home and, simultaneously, become more central to our lives, we need to think about how to safeguard our capacity to control our own destinies – and defend those for whom doing that is more difficult than it is for others. After all, those pictures and clips of ourselves are now part of "who we really are." Just as bodies and property have both social and legal protections, the same should be true for the digital parts of ourselves as well.

Navneet Alang is a technology and culture writer based in Toronto. He can be found on Twitter at @navalang