Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Digital Age Discourages Sharing

Yes, that's right I said the digital age discourages sharing.  Ok, so it doesn't really, but it should. Ever since the internet and the spread of information digitally there has been a little too much over-sharing.  Look at the internet and the widespread misconception that copyright doesn't apply there.

This is not going to be another discussion on copyright.  It's all about sharing and how we now share.


Back in the day, say in the 1960s or 1970s, people would freely share photos and school pictures with their friends and family.  No one gave a thought as to what the recipient would do with the photos.  They hoped that they would display them prominently somewhere in their home or carry them around in their wallet.  Rarely did people think "I need to make copies of this photo."  If they did want copies, they would contact the person who gave them the photo.  Another thing preventing the reproduction of photos was cost.  If the owner of the photo or the recipient wanted copies they needed to pay for them. 

Fast forward to today and photo sharing is rampant.  Not that that is a bad thing in and of itself.  The entire process of taking photos is now free as there are no processing costs and rarely do people print photos to share them.  You can send photos by email or post them on the internet.  Within seconds thousands of people can view your photo.

My beef with the digital age has to do both with privacy and copyright.  Once a photo is made digital and shared electronically you no longer have control over it, even if you try to copyright it. I love sharing photos with my family and friends.  I trust them, really I do.  But it's not about trust.  It's about technological savvy.  Not everyone has it.

Imagine this scenario.  You post a photo of your kids on Facebook for your family to see.  You tag your family members in the photo.  It now becomes visible on their wall.  They enjoy looking at the photo and leaving you a little comment. But your sister who doesn't use computers much doesn't really know how to change her security settings.  So everyone with a Facebook account can view her wall.  The next thing you know your smiling family photo is in an advertisement on the side of a bus in the Czech Republic. That scenario is a bit contrived but it did really happen.

It's not about you trusting what your family and friends will share.  It's really about their understanding of internet technology and security. There is no possible way that you can keep track of all the security settings of everyone you know.  They can't even do it themselves.

For me that means the digital age discourages sharing.  I am not eager to share my personal digital photos with anyone except my closest family members because I'm just not sure where they will end up. That's sad but unfortunately that's the reality of the situation.

Another issue with digital photos is personal security. I'm not going to talk about that here but you can read Dick Eastman's discussion about it.


Just like photos, what you write is subject to oversharing.  This could apply simply to what you write in an email.  But let's expand it to your personal writing - poetry, essays, draft manuscripts.  With the digital age it is very easy to share proprietary written information.  People these days don't think twice about forwarding something that has been sent to them.  Again the idea of copyright amongst friends gets a bit fuzzy.  She's my friend so she won't mind if I share her poem with my other friends.   But who's going to tell your other friends not to share it forward?  Soon your personal writing is out of your control.

Recently, a friend of mine decided to share a story with me.  She has been writing it in installments and emailing it along to me. Even though this is in essay format I knew that it was a private piece of writing that she didn't want made public.

The story is enjoyable, well-written and fascinating.  How easy it would be for me to forward it to my friends and say "Wow, you're going to really love this story."  But I didn't.

In fact, I felt compelled to write to my friend and tell her explicitly that I would not be sharing her work with anyone.  That I felt it was not mine to share and that it would go no further than me.  She never asked me to say that but I strongly felt the need to reassure her.  And it won't go further than me.  I won't even show it to my husband (don't we feel like spouses are somehow exempt from the sharing rule?!!).  The reason is that it is her work and I need to respect that, whether there is a copyright notice or not.  That's how I would like to be treated.  When in doubt - ask.


This line of thought applies to genealogy too.  Sharing family information amongst distant cousins is good but when you receive a gedcom file do you really have permission to re-post it everywhere on the internet?  Unless, you specifically ask the sender, no you don't.

The same goes for old family photos.  If a distant relative sends you a hard copy of a photo in the mail, or even emails you a scanned copy, does that mean you should share it with the world?  I know the tendency is the more sharing the better.  Play it safe and ask the sender how they feel about you sharing their photos. Better yet, if they say yes, make sure you have their written permission in the form of an email.  This will save you from having problems later if they change their mind.

The Future

I read an article about social media this morning that said "Transparency was the mantra of social media's early adopters. The larger second wave of social networkers gleefully followed, but the more conservative third wave watched in dismay as minute details of their friend' lives were posted to Facebook with abandon.  Today, privacy is back in vogue."1

The author was talking about Facebook but he could have talking about any digital communication.  The digital age has provided tremendous benefits in our ability to share information quickly and easily.  I'm just suggesting that perhaps we need to consciously think more before we share, especially when it's somebody else's stuff.

1. Quotation source: Turner, Jeff. "Manage Facebook with Selective Transparency." Realtor Magazine. March 2011.


  1. Excellent article, Marian, and exactly why I don't share my genealogy anymore and stopped writing my blog.

  2. This is so true. What's frustrating is that many of the images on my blog are picked up by Google and searchable there. People think that photo on the Internet is free game, and it's just not true.

    PS, your private Facebook photos aren't private at all. I've found my own on the Internet as well.

    Thanks for starting this discussion. It is definitely needed.

  3. Marian - Great topic. I would hope that these issues be talked about at Genealogy conferences in Balance with those talking about Social Media and how we can use that for our Research. Your article is very timely, as I am working on a presentation on Sharing of our research.

    With your permission, I would like to share a link to this Blog post as a reference.

    Thank you,


  4. I agree with other commenters: this is a topic worthy of MUCH discussion. I am so torn about my blogging, for instance. I feel like documents I have should be shared with other people, family and stranger alike. Yet, I don't like the potential misuse of the images or data...not one little bit. And for now, I confine my writing to the very distant past to protect the very near present. Thanks for your post.

  5. Marian -

    The slope becomes slipperier all the time. I post old photos to Shades with the hope of making connections to a family.

    I do not post those photos to be used by others for sale, for art projects, scrapbooking, etc. If asked I am usually generous. If not asked, I demand removal.

    The major problem I'm running into is policing their use. I just don't have the time to be everywhere.

    I found one of my COG posters being used in artwork the other day; found merely by accident. My work is not clip art!

    Is there no guilt, shame, respect? Or are people just uneducated? I sincerely hope it is the latter.


  6. I think that things will catch up, as more and more people find their work misused. Right now, it's only beginning to dawn on us that once we release something to the Net, it's perceived as fair game to others. Eventually, people will wise up, but the only alternative in the meantime is to watch what you post.

  7. Excellent post! I've thought a lot on this subject and could feel every word you said to the bone.

    The only 'fix' I know is to regard every single thing you share online as 'gone'. Unfortunately, it cannot be controlled. There don't seem to be any shades of gray.