Imitation Is The Creepiest Form of Flattery
When it comes to being copied online, I seriously thought I’d seen it all.
The person who posted my photo on a ‘show us your face’ forum thread, then claimed it had been a “social experiment” when she was called out on it. The male “author” who used my face as his avatar on a female-only writers’ site, to encourage the women there to contact him privately. The blogger who used a photo of me in her ‘About’ section. The person whose LinkedIn profile picture was actually me. Countless, countless times where my outfit shots have been used by eBay sellers, online boutiques and random Instagram users. Hell, I once even came across a photo of my DOG being used as someone’s Facebook cover photo: true story.
So, I know what it’s like to have my photos – and writing – appropriated by other people, is what I’m saying: and, like I say, I really thought I’d seen it all.
A few weeks ago, though, a reader got in touch to tell me they’d come across someone using my photos on Flickr.
Now, I’ll be honest: at first, I didn’t even want to look at the account – not because I didn’t care, but because I just didn’t have TIME to care. The thing is, having stolen photos – and sometimes even entire profiles or websites – removed from the internet isn’t a difficult process (Especially not when you’ve had to do it as often as I have), but it can be pretty time-consuming, especially when the Internet impostor has appropriated a large amount of photos. If I were to challenge every single person who used my photos without permission, I’d literally do nothing else – just having them removed from eBay, say, would be a full-time job.
I obviously don’t have that kind of time – I don’t think anyone does – so, for the most part, I just try not to look. (And, for the record, I have never gone searching for this kind of thing: every single time I’ve become aware of someone “impersonating” me online, for want of a better word, it’s been because someone else has seen it and told me about it…) Because I know that if I look, I’ll get annoyed. And if I get annoyed, I’ll feel like I have to do something about it, and, the next thing I know, I’ll have lost several hours to signing up to some network or other that I don’t want to be a member of, just so I can report yet another Impostor Amber. And rinse and repeat.
This time, though, curiosity got the better of me.
This time I looked.
Julie Ward, a 30 year old trans woman, from the Midwest. Except, that isn’t actually true, is it? No, with the exception of the second photo from the left, these are all photos of me, taken from this blog: and, if you scroll down the page, you’ll find many, many more of them.
Now, so far, this isn’t all that unusual when it comes to copyright theft and this blog. I’ve seen worse, let’s put it that way. (And when I say, “I’ve seen worse,” I mean, “I’ve literally seen people replicate the entire blog – words, pictures, logo, adverts, the lot. More than once.) What made this one different, however, was the image captions Julie had added:
So, Julie hasn’t just posted my photos on Flickr because she liked them”, and wanted to use them as “inspiration” or whatever: she’s actually trying to pretend they’re photos of her – and, even more strangely, she’s pretending to be a model, who’s being paid to wear the clothes shown in them. My clothes, that is. Not only that, but she’s constructed this entire imaginary life based around my photos: the shoes she’s wearing belong to her girlfriend, she says; one pair were really uncomfortable; she really enjoyed having her makeup done professionally for this “shoot”; people stopped to watch this other one taking place – and so on, and so forth. Each photo comes with a totally made-up scenario to accompany it – and then a bunch of comments from people who obviously believe that every word is true, and that they’re commenting on the life of Julie, the aspiring model from the Midwest, when it’s actually just me.
Some of the captions are unintentionally hilarious:
Like, sure, Julie, OF COURSE you were running late for work, and your girlfriend just happened to be standing in the middle of the road with a camera to snap this totally candid, not-at-all staged photo of “you”. SURE, HON.
Others, meanwhile, are just creepy:
I know this one probably seems pretty unremarkable compared to some of the others, but the fact that I actually DID wear this outfit to my parents’ place for Christmas tells me that she’s not just stealing my photos: it’s almost like she’s trying to steal my LIFE. And that’s just straight-up creepy, no?
And not just MY life, of course: if you look at the account, you’ll see that Julie has also been posting photos of other redheads, presumably thinking no one will notice that the photos aren’t all of the same person. Because redheads all look the same, right? The one girl who isn’t me in the first photo, for instance, she claims is a photo of her when she was younger, while other photos are allegedly her girlfriend, or her wearing a wig. Most disturbingly, there are a couple of photos of what appear to be quite young girls, who Julie claim are her before she transitioned, and who presumably aren’t aware that their image is being appropriated in this way.
Of course, I know some of you are going to find all of this fairly innocuous, really, and wonder why I’m even bothering to write this post. When I’ve talked about online copying in the past, after all, the most common response has been the old, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” chestnut, along with comments about how I should “just be flattered” by it, because “At least she obviously likes my outfits”. And, I mean, yeah, sure: “flattered” is certainly one reaction you could have to the news that someone is trying to pretend to be you on the internet, I guess. It certainly wasn’t my FIRST reaction, though, or even my second or third, come to think of it: and, because of that, I’m always quite surprised when I’m told that I should be OK with people repeatedly stealing from me, or even impersonating me, just because they say I am pretty. Because that makes it all FINE, doesn’t it? Like, OK, sure, 924 people now think I’m “Julie Ward,” but I’m just supposed to be all, “OMG, HUN, DO U RLY THINK I LOOK LIKE A MODEL?!?!”
The fact is, though, imitation might be the sincerest form of flattery, but, when it happens to you, it doesn’t feel remotely flattering. Actually, it feels pretty creepy and sad, really: and, as annoyed as I am by it, I also feel genuinely sorry for this person, who must have some real issues in life if she feels she needs to invent this entire imaginary life, using someone else’s face in the process.
Or rather, I FELT sorry for her. My sympathy did take a bit of a hit, it has to be said, when “Julie” deleted all of the comments I left asking her to please remove my images, blocked me from commenting again, and then followed the Flickr account I’d used to comment. I didn’t feel quite so sorry for her after that, really. I mean, I’d hoped that if she genuinely was just some poor, misguided soul who’d made a mistake, then she’d do the decent thing, and take down the photos, when she realised she’d been caught. Instead, she basically just flipped me the bird – or the online equivalent – and made it crystal clear that she is totally unrepentant about being caught imitating another person, and intended to keep on doing it.
That, of course, left me with no option but to report the stolen images to Flickr – who, needless to say, had removed them all within 24 hours, just as I’d known they would. So, good news for me, obviously, but not so much for all of the other women whose photos are still being used by Julie Ward. This photo, for instance, is Jess from Elegantly Dressed and Stylish , and I had a bit of a chuckle when I came across this one, which Julie’s imaginary girlfriend snapped of her “on the way to work”:
“Doppleganger Amy Pond Dr Who!” says someone in the comments. And, well, that’s because this IS Amy Pond from Dr Who, obviously. Or apparently NOT obviously, because it seems that none of Julie’s 900+ followers ever thought to question this photo – or, indeed, to wonder why Julie’s hair was shoulder length one day, and then waist-length the next, say. Or why her face kept changing.
(This seems like a good time for me to bring up my all-time favourite story of that one time I was mowing the lawn at the front of our old house, and one of our neighbours appeared with her small daughter. “Sorry to bother you,” she said, “But would you mind having a quick chat to my daughter? It’s just that she’s absolutely convinced that you’re Amy Pond, and we’ve told her you’re not, but she won’t stop talking about it, and now she’s told all her friends that Amy Pond lives in her street.” Now THAT was flattering. (And also helped explain why I kept spotting a small group of children outside my house…) Like, really, REALLY flattering: because, the fact is, I’m under absolutely no illusion that I look anything like Karen Gillian – or, for that matter, anything like Nicole Kidman, or Julianne Moore, or any of the other famous redheads I’m often compared to, and who every other redhead I know is ALSO constantly compared to. It’s just that people really do seem to think that all redheads look alike – I think all they see is the hair colour, and their brain fills the rest in for them, which I guess is why Julie Ward thought she’d be able to fool people with all these different photos…)
But I digress. The owner of this Flickr account – who probably ISN’T called Julie Ward, let’s be honest – is continuing to claim that these photos are all of her, and will no doubt continue to do so: in fact, now that she knows she won’t be able to keep mining my blog for photos, my guess is that she’ll find some other unsuspecting redhead, and start pretending to be her instead. As I said, it’s incredibly sad that someone feels the need to do this at all, but, to be completely honest, I’m more worried about the 900-odd people she’s continuing to reel in with this imaginary persona of hers. Many of those followers have been commenting frequently on her /my photos, over a period of many months: from the familiar way they address her in their comments, my guess is that they’ve built up some kind of online friendship with her, and, when I looked through her comments last night, I saw a few from people saying they’d sent “Julie” photos of themselves, and were waiting to hear if she’d received them. And that’s honestly kind of horrifying to me, really, because who knows who Julie is REALLY ? She could be anyone at all: all we know is that she’s certainly NOT the person she’s been pretending to be for the last five months, and who her followers seem to trust enough to want to share their private information with her.
So I find the whole thing quite disturbing – not just from my own point of view as one of the people being copied, but from the point of view of all of those people who’ve invested time and effort in something that wasn’t actually real, and whose community she has wormed her way into under totally false pretences. It might seem like a small thing, really, but wouldn’t you like to know if someone you’d built up a relationship of sorts with had been lying to you the whole time? I know I would: which is why I was surprised that Flickr chose to simply remove my photos, rather than suspending the entire account. I know both Twitter and Facebook have impersonation policies allowing them to permanently suspend users they find to be pretending to be someone they’re not – Flickr, however, seem to take it less seriously, which is unfortunate for the people who will continue to be taken in by this account.
Flickr might not be willing to let those people know they’ve been duped, though, but I can – not by contacting them directly, obviously* (Because, hey, let’s not make this any weirder than it already is, huh?), but by writing this post, so that anyone who happens to Google the name “Julie Ward” and “Flickr” will be able to find out the truth, and maybe be a little less trusting next time. There are a lot of good people on the internet, but there are also a lot of Julie Wards (And it seems to be my particular misfortune to encounter every single one of them, doesn’t it?), so, if nothing else, I hope this post will provide a bit of insight into the darker side of the internet, of blogging/social media, and, well, of people in general, really.
And, with that, I’m off to take part in a very important modelling shoot, after which I will no doubt buy the clothes provided, and wear them to work, while my girlfriend snaps candid photos of me to post on Flickr. No, OK, I’m joking, I’m not: I’m actually a 62-year-old Welsh bloke called Clive. I like darts, tropical fish-keeping, and stealing photos of random women on the internet.
Well, you never know, do you?
(*I did actually contact the blogger I recognised from Julie’s Flickr account, to let her know her photos were being appropriated, and would totally contact the other women too, if I knew who they were. So, if you do recognise any of them, feel free to let me know…)
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