Thursday, October 08, 2009

Nerd Word of the Week: Streisand Effect

Guilty album coverImage via Wikipedia
Streisand effect (n.) - A circumstance wherein attempting to forcibly suppress or censor a piece of information results in that same topic receiving extraordinary additional publicity. Sometimes also known as getting Steisanded. The Streisand effect is almost always used to describe the unintended and counter-productive negative online publicity resulting from attempting to remove information from the Internet.

The term comes from a civil action waged by celebrity Barbra Streisand, who once sued to keep a picture of her California beachfront mansion off the Web. (She failed, by the way, because you can still view the picture here.) The mansion was photographed as part of a pictorial series on California coastal erosion, and Streisand's $50 million legal action turned the same picture she was trying to suppress into the subject of legal debate, online discourse, and widespread news coverage, thereby popularizing it far more than the original erosion pictorial ever could have done. Moreover, her legal claims were spurious and reeked of presumed celebrity privilege, both of which are common factors in subsequent instances of the Streisand effect. Basically, anytime someone powerful and/or famous tries to control what is said about them online and uses ill-considered legal bullying to try to get their way, the Streisand effect is likely to ensue.

I bring it up because: None other than Ralph Lauren got totally Streisanded this week, when his lawyers demanded that BoingBoing (one of the five or so most popular blogs on the planet) take down a post that criticized an overly photoshopped hyper-anorexic model depicted in a Ralph Lauren ad. Now, BoingBoing certainly has a massive blog readership, but it's important to remember that its a massive blog readership and that 95 percent of the world has never heard of the site. Plus, BoingBoing does a dozen or so posts per day, and this was just one, so even the devotees of BoingBoing would have forgotten the Ralph Lauren potshot in a week at most. But when Lauren's legal goons made a ruckus -- and used an idiotically misapplied Digital Millennium Copyright Act clause to demand the post's removal -- they shone a huge, self-destructive and self-perpetuating spotlight on both the post and the subject of its criticism. (For the record, criticism and commentary fall squarely in fair use copyright exceptions, which was the content of the BoingBoing post.) That's a classic Streisand effect blowback if ever there was one.