The Ugly Persistence of Internet Celebrity

Many desperately try to garner online celebrity.  They host You Tube channels devoted to themselves. They share their thoughts in blog postings and on social network sites.  They post revealing pictures of themselves on Flickr.  To their dismay though, no one pays much attention.  But for others, the Internet spotlight finds them and mercilessly refuses to yield ground.  For instance, in 2007, a sports blogger obtained a picture of a high-school pole vaulter, Allison Stokke, at a track meet and posted it online.  Within days, her picture spread across the Internet, from message boards and sport sites to porn sites and social network profiles.  Impostors created fake profiles of Ms. Stokke on social network sites, and Ms. Stokke was inundated with emails from interested suitors and journalists.  At the time, Ms. Stokke told the Washington Post that the attention felt “demeaning” because the pictures dominated how others saw her rather than her pole-vaulting accomplishments.

Time’s passage has not helped Stokke shake her online notoriety.  Sites continuously updated their photo galleries with pictures of Stokkes taken at track meets.  Blogs boasted of finding pictures of Stokke at college with headings like “Your 2010 Allison Stokke Update,” “Allison Stokke’s Halloween Cowgirl Outfit Accentuates the Total Package,” and “Only Known Allison Stokke Cal Picture Found.”  Postings include obscene language.  For instance, a Google search of her name on a safety setting yields 129,000 results while one with no safety setting has 220,000 hits.  Encyclopedia Dramatica has a wiki devoted to her (though Wikipedia has faithfully taken down entries about Ms. Stokke).

Ms. Stokke’s struggles exemplify the limitations of privacy tort law in the digital age.  The public disclosure tort only applies to private matters, not to pictures taken in public at track meets or sorority parties.  And it provides no relief on matters deemed newsworthy, which may be applicable given the persistent interest in Ms. Stokke over the past four years.  The intrusion on seclusion claim, too, offers no help as it provides relief only when parties invade spaces deemed private.  Without law’s help, Ms. Stokke and her family tried to take matters into their own hands but were outmatched by a leering online crowd.  As soon as they asked sites to take the pictures down (and many did), others appeared.  Perhaps Eric Schmidt had it right when he suggested that young people change their names to move beyond their digital pasts.  Ms. Stokke’s persistent and unwanted online celebrity shows the continued importance of Daniel Solove’s book The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet.

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5 Responses

  1. Regarding “Ms. Stokke’s struggles exemplify the limitations of privacy tort law in the digital age.”

    I’m not seeing it in this case. It seems to me that she has a classic “paparazzi” problem. Granted, there’s more people who have this problem nowadays. But if she should have been so unlucky to become one of the tabloid favorites in the pre-digital age, what could privacy tort law have done?

  2. Orin Kerr says:


    This is the first I have heard of Stokke, but off the top of my head, I’m not sure I follow why this raises issues that relate to Dan’s book.

  3. Logan says:

    To me this just demonstrates the downside to one of the greatest aspects of the internet, its openness.

  4. Thanks for your comments and questions, Seth and Orin. Let me try to flesh out my thinking a bit. When Warren and Brandeis wrote The Right to Privacy in 1890, they responded to their day’s paparazzi–photographers armed with snap cameras selling pictures to the penny press. Their right to privacy sought to protect a person’s inviolate personality and the emotional suffering accompanying the unwanted, overexposure of individuals. With the Privacy article and the Second Restatement of Torts, Prosser locked down tort privacy to four torts targeted at specific activities and particular harms. In his view, the four torts had nothing in common. This resulted in narrowing the four torts and in disconnecting them from the values of autonomy and dignity that underlie Warren and Brandeis’s inviolate personality. (My Mainstreaming Privacy Torts piece, coming out in California Law Review next month, covers how tort privacy has been locked down and narrowed.)

    While digital technologies exacerbate the sorts of harms that Warren and Brandeis contemplated, tort privacy, in its current form and interpretation, cannot respond to them. Let’s consider Ms. Stokke’s harm. Sites like Busted Campus urge anyone who sees Ms. Stokke to take and send the site the pictures of her. Those sites remain online, searchable, persistent, and available to far more people than the penny press or bathroom wall could reach. Stokke’s ability to experience anonymity in public is diminished. Can she walk around her dorm in a robe, attend a party, or speak in class without fear of a cell phone camera? This exacerbates concerns about persistent surveillance and the privacy harms it brings. It also guarantees that images of Ms. Stokke will be taken out of context. As Dan writes about in Future of Reputation, this sort of privacy problem involves the distortion of people’s view of individuals. Taken out of context, the pictures of Ms. Stokke and the commentary present a distorted view of Ms. Stokke just as the video did for the Star Wars Kid and the Numa Numa guy. Moreover, countless individuals continue to contact her on her phone, email, the street. Taken alone, the calls would not amount to intrusion on seclusion yet together they amount to the kind of disturbances recognized as implicating tort privacy when committed by a single individual. Ms. Stokke is no Lindsey Lohan–she was a high school athlete readying herself for college when her picture began to light up the Internet. Now, four years later, sites across the net encourage her surveillance. These sorts of concerns animated my thinking in writing the post, and they are the sorts of concerns that Solove writes about in FOR.

  5. Orin Kerr says:

    Thanks, Danielle. It seems to me that there are two issues: (1) How the Internet can make someone famous, which can be annoying to the famous person for a range of reasons if they would rather not be famous, and (2) How the Internet can misrepresent people, which presents a distorted sense of them that sticks with them. This seems like a case of (1) rather than (2).