Rules of Engagement: 10 Guidelines for Posting Photography on Social Media

A girl walked into Auschwitz and took a selfie. It’s not a joke, and it went viral.

Awkward and inappropriate photographs now travel as fast as the average social media follower can click, post, or share, and deftly send the ill-chosen imagery into an unintended destiny. In the meantime, everyone -– family, friends, and followers –- weighs in with an opinion. Just ask Breanna Mitchell, who took the scandalous “Auschwitz Selfie,” or even President Obama, who was captured snapping a selfie with British Prime Minister David Cameron at the funeral of Nelson Mandela.

This speed of sight has put visual communication in a new quandary. Forget the ongoing argument about who’s a photographer and who’s not; today the visual challenge is to understand the appropriate rules of engagement for posting photographs on social media. There have been many articles published to guide written posts and tweets, including Forbes magazine and The Huffington Post. Even a recent issue of Wired Magazine has Jerry Seinfeld offering advice on how to master your domains in the age of social media.

However, nary a guideline exists specifically about what photographs are okay to snap and post. Given that over 500 million photographs a day get shared on Facebook, Flickr, Twitter and Instagram, the UW Communication Leadership program’s Visual Culture class decided to set some rules of engagement for social photography and brainstormed the following guidelines:

  1. BE AWARE OF CONTEXT. From weddings to a funeral, photos should match the tone and intent of the event you are attending or the place you are visiting. In other words, don’t post a picture of yourself, or your friends, acting like you are at an amusement park when you are at a somber memorial. Be sensitive about intruding on special events or interrupting sacred moments and ceremonies with photographed behavior better saved for a Saturday night.
  2. DON’T SHAME OTHERS. You are entering into a social contract when you take someone’s photo and post it for all the world to see. Be careful not to cross the line. Do your best to avoid posting an unflattering photo intended to make fun or shame someone. Ask yourself if what you are posting can hurt that person’s career or personal life in any way. Do not take a photograph without someone’s consent and then use it to embarrass that person online.
  3. THINK BEFORE YOU COPY, PASTE AND POST. It’s bad form to use (meaning steal without their knowledge) other people’s photos, even if you give them credit or attribution. While you may think it’s a compliment, you are actually in violation of their copyright.
  4. NO CREEPY PHOTOS. Stay away from posting photos that make you appear like a stalker or, even worse, a pedophile. Avoid taking pictures of other people’s children without permission, even at public events or social gatherings.
  6. AVOID THE GORE. Steer away from posting disturbing images to promote personal causes. Instead, channel your passion with words, logos and appropriate memes. In the same category, no photos of your injuries or your friend’s emergency room visits.
  7. BE ALERT TO YOUR SECURITY SETTINGS. When you post a photograph, be aware of your own social media permissions and understand who will be viewing your photographic postings. Are you broadcasting photographic posts for the world to see, or just a select group of friends? Is that okay with your subject?
  8. DON’T OVER-EXPOSE YOUR CHILDREN. Yes, they are cute and adorable, and every moment is precious — to you. Consider setting up a Facebook page or site for the family to chronicle within a limited group rather than constantly peppering the Twitter, Instagram and Facebook feeds of your friends and acquaintances with images of your little one.
  9. USE DISCRETION. Specifically in regard to death, dying and posthumous postings. Consider how you share photos to announce an individual’s death. After a reasonable mourning period, consider moving posthumous posts and photographs to a memorial site, and remove the ongoing dialogue and images from Facebook and Twitter feeds except to intermittently remember the person during a poignant time like Mother’s Day or a birthday.
  10. REMEMBER TIMING IS EVERYTHING. Be alert to the news and events happening and consciously think about what you are choosing to post and when. In the midst of a national, global or regional disaster (think 9-11, tsunamis, tornadoes, fires), avoid posting photos that could be misconstrued as lacking awareness of the serious circumstances and situations.

With the massive volume of photos posted to social media every hour of every day, no set of rules will cover every situation, but, hopefully, following these 10 guidelines will keep your own photo feeds thriving and appreciated.

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