The Navajo Know: Posting Photos Online Shouldn't Mean Selling Your Soul to Advertisers

By Gerald Lynch on at

From the Navajo Native Americans to Aboriginal tribespeople, many cultures around the globe have feared the soul-stealing properties of the photograph. Whether it be captured on film or, in the age of digital photography, a .jpeg or RAW file, there have always been those wary of the spirit-sapping power of the camera, for spiritual reasons or the simple defense of vanity.

But now our eternally-frozen likenesses are under threat of misuse from a very modern foe: the pixel-high print of the never-read Terms and Conditions sheet.

As of today, the profile picture that you have posted to the Google+ social network can be used by the search giant in advertisements showing your endorsement of products and services based on the ratings and comments you’ve left on Google-affiliated websites. It’s not even as though you’re consulted on the usage -- unless you manually opt out of the system, a faceless Google robot that can read a star-rating algorithm and filter out any sly swear words you may have slipped into a review will automatically start plopping your details and facial features alongside promotional materials online.

Despite having many fingers in many techy pies, Google makes most of its money through advertising, and there’s still no greater stamp of approval for a product than the personal recommendation of a friend. Google knows that by adding a human face alongside an advert it adds a degree of credibility to the hyperbolic plugger-speak that surrounds it. Your ratings and recommendations are no longer just public, they’re a promotional commodity with your smiling mug the ultimate affirmation of your praise. And they’re not alone in thinking that this retroactive appropriation of your tastes and photos is acceptable.

Just as Google is now riding a wave of negative feeling from its newly-minted Shared Endorsements scheme, Facebook faced similar dissent when it introduced its similar Sponsored Stories ad placements. That rankled users enough to lead to a $20 million class-action lawsuit, which the disgruntled Facebook-ers won.

Cast the net a little wider, and the web-bound photo can cause other unexpected headaches. Take the case of the stock photo model who will now forever be known as the queen of depraved orgies with obese, elderly men -- a position that will no doubt do wonders for her reputation among the squeaky-clean brand ad departments that she otherwise makes a living from.

Just recently I spotted a pal’s beaming face staring back at me from The Guardian website, advertising the newspaper’s Guardian Soulmates singles service, to which he had signed up to without disclosing the fact to me. “He’s on The Guardian homepage more often than Snowden,” came a mutual friend’s jaded response when I pointed out, wide-eyed, our bachelor pal’s unwitting promotional placement.

In the case of the Guardian Soulmates ad, the use of a user’s profile picture seems, to an extent, reasonable; its users are, after all, advertising themselves (although the eternally cynical heart of the British public will question whether those attractive mugshots used in the promotional banners are even real people at all). But should an app or restaurant review, submitted long ago under the belief that a degree of faceless-anonymity would remain, be similarly given the benefit of the doubt when its purpose is purely commercial?

With our lives and loves increasingly recorded in the cloud (I have certainly 100 times the amount of photos stored on Facebook, Google Drive or Dropbox as I do in paper-bound physical albums), and the most widely-used of these services offered up for free on the condition that a certain level of access be given to the companies footing the hosting bill, it seems inevitable that similar personal endorsement programs will become increasingly common as the social web matures. Now may be the time to decide whether or not the convenience of these services is worth our souls eternally being aligned with a corporate ad campaign. Maybe the Navajo were right all along.