Photos of 18-year-old Allison Stokke are all over the internet, and she doesn’t like it. Did she pose naked for a boyfriend who made the images public? No, Stokke’s conduct was entirely innocent.
The Washington Post is sympathetic to Stokke’s point of view:
In her high school track and field career, Stokke had won a 2004 California state pole vaulting title, broken five national records and earned a scholarship to the University of California, yet only track devotees had noticed. Then, in early May, she received e-mails from friends who warned that a year-old picture of Stokke idly adjusting her hair at a track meet in New York had been plastered across the Internet. …
The wave of attention has steamrolled Stokke and her family in Newport Beach, Calif. She is recognized — and stared at — in coffee shops. She locks her doors and tries not to leave the house alone. Her father, Allan Stokke, comes home from his job as a lawyer and searches the Internet. He reads message boards and tries to pick out potential stalkers.
Here is a montage of images that I found on the internet:
The photo that created the initial stir is second from the left. It was taken by a journalist and posted on a track and field Web site. Some time later, it was picked up by a sports blog which receives about a million hits per month. The Post writes, “Within days, hundreds of thousands of Internet users had searched for Stokke’s picture and leered.”
But surely that characterization of the public response is excessively negative. Admittedly, some people leered: the sports blog commented, “Meet pole vaulter Allison Stokke. … Hubba hubba and other grunting sounds.” But some of us — even the males among us — can appreciate the photograph without leering.
Have Stokke and her father overreacted? I’m curious what other people think.
I can see why Allison worries that some disturbed “fan” will track her down and approach her. It’s also important to emphasize that Allison didn’t voluntarily give up her privacy. She isn’t a movie star or a professional athlete making millions of dollars per year from her celebrity. She’s just a high school athlete who participated in public track and field events, without soliciting this kind of attention.
On the other hand, Stokke’s reaction says something about her own temperament:
Stokke read on message boards that dozens of anonymous strangers had turned her picture into the background image on their computers. She felt violated. It was like becoming the victim of a crime, Stokke said. Her body had been stolen and turned into a public commodity.
This is such a negative interpretation. Stokke is receiving the sort of attention that other people actively court, eschewing the risks:
More young people are putting more personal information out in public than any older person ever would — and yet they seem mysteriously healthy and normal, save for an entirely different definition of privacy. From their perspective, it’s the extreme caution of the earlier generation that’s the narcissistic thing. Or, as Kitty put it to me, “Why not? What’s the worst that’s going to happen? Twenty years down the road, someone’s gonna find your picture? Just make sure it’s a great picture.”
And after all, there is another way to look at this shift. Younger people, one could point out, are the only ones for whom it seems to have sunk in that the idea of a truly private life is already an illusion. Every street in New York has a surveillance camera. Each time you swipe your debit card at Duane Reade or use your MetroCard, that transaction is tracked. Your employer owns your e-mails. The NSA owns your phone calls. Your life is being lived in public whether you choose to acknowledge it or not.
So it may be time to consider the possibility that young people who behave as if privacy doesn’t exist are actually the sane people, not the insane ones. For someone like me, who grew up sealing my diary with a literal lock, this may be tough to accept. But under current circumstances, a defiant belief in holding things close to your chest might not be high-minded. It might be an artifact—quaint and naïve, like a determined faith that virginity keeps ladies pure.
(ht, Shifted Librarian, for the link to the New York Magazine article)
Bottom line, I am sympathetic to Stokke. She didn’t ask for the attention (unlike the youth profiled in NYmag) and no one likes to feel that events are spinning out of their control.
But the attention is positive, except in the minority of cases where it is crudely sexual. Stokke isn’t in the same position as (for example) the chubby teenager doing a Star Wars light saber routine, who became the object of worldwide ridicule.
In Allison’s position, the healthiest response would be to make your peace with all this attention (since you can’t stop it anyway) and look for the upside. Opportunity is knocking at Allison’s door — or so it seems to me. But I’m open to other opinions.