A Collaborative Project Becomes A Lesson in The Perils of Social Media

“It’s just an Instagram account.” The response stung. This Instagram account was the lifeblood of a collaborative photo project called Echosight that I co-created. But somehow, when I wrote to our community members about a problem I was facing, it was easily dismissed.

Daniella Zalcman and I built Echosight starting in 2013 to bring creative strangers, like ourselves, together. Our goal was to promote dialogue among photographers from different corners of the world by having them digitally partner up and make photomontages. All of our accomplishments, and the events that left me excluded, would not have been possible without the technology we access on our smartphones every day.

When TIME ran their second story about our project last year, they mentioned that our collaborative process “allowed them to achieve something they could not have done on their own.”  Contributors from around the world blended together their photos using a simple app, and then shared their beautiful montages through our Instagram feed. For embracing change in the photography industry we were honored awards, commissioned by prominent publications, and invited to speak at a university. I was on cloud nine. After years of marketing my personal work at great expense with the hope of getting noticed by industry professionals, it was this project that finally helped me succeed in getting the word out. (Today the account has more than 30,000 followers). Meanwhile, my partner and I developed a camaraderie, even a friendship. Most of our interactions were limited to digital communication, but since our work was about collaborating through smartphones it made perfect sense. 

President Obama made a statement last year after signing an executive order about cybersecurity: “The cyberworld is the Wild Wild West.” It only hit home for me after my partner made a choice that blindsided me last August. After a series of disagreements over editorial decisions (over which I received repeated verbal abuse), I received a burst of notifications that our shared account passwords had been changed.

With that incredibly simple maneuver I was suddenly denied access to my own work and my former collaborator took total control of Echosight. My brainchild, something I conceived of and poured my heart and soul into, was severed from me. It didn’t matter that the project was fundamentally about working together, that we’d given interviews together, that we’d even agreed to make a book about the project together. I was cut off. 

Needless to say, this left me reeling and full of unanswered questions. It just didn't make sense. For months I did a lot of soul-searching. I asked myself a hundred times, “how could a seemingly decent and professional person that others look up to do something so awful?" More than anything, though, the unbelievable simplicity of these actions is what has given me pause. I've had a lot of time to think and read about the ways in which social media is changing our world.

In a way, if this had been a more elaborate or dramatic series of events it would be easier to digest. But this wasn’t some elaborate hack by a foreign country of a complex security system. Neither was this a run-of-the-mill business dispute. This isn't a new story. Business partners have been betraying each other since the dawn of time. The reason I write this is to point out a larger issue: this was a nearly effortless maneuver by a single individual that could only happen so seamlessly in our current media landscape. Thanks to this experience, I now realize that the cultural environment that allowed our project to exist is the same environment that allowed it to be swept away.

Since the incident I have gained some perspective about our social-media dominated world. I began to think about how the word “connection” can be misleading. It turns out scores of experts have been studying that very issue. The irony, they say, is that the more we rely on technology to satisfy our human desire for interaction, the further away we get from true connection. In her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, MIT psychology professor Sherry Turkle writes:

“Technology is seductive when what it offers meets our human vulnerabilities. And as it turns out, we are very vulnerable indeed. We are lonely but fearful of intimacy. Digital connections and the sociable robot may offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. Our networked life allows us to hide from each other, even as we are tethered to each other.”

Some may point to widespread compassion seen in social awareness campaigns like #BlackLivesMatter or #JeSuisCharlie. Those movements do have positive effects, but there is a major distinction between compassionate clicks at a distance and genuine human empathy. Research shows we are programmed to place ourselves in another's mindset and truly feel what they feel when they are physically present, not on the other side of a screen. It's no coincidence that those who have lent me their support did so because we know each other in person, or because of their own relatable experiences with soured partnerships, not because we are Facebook friends.

The laissez faire culture of Instagram made it easy to recruit new contributors for Echosight because there are essentially no barriers to entry. On the flipside, that lack of regulation also rendered me helpless once I was denied access to my project by my partner. The process of social media seems democratic, but in a democracy there are regulations that hold up the society. Unfortunately social media companies offer opportunities without taking responsibility for consequences. For example, when Tumblr shut down a blog with 30 million followers without warning due to a minor violation of terms, as The New Republic reported. At this stage, massive corporations like Facebook and Google have the power to erase you from internet existence, which for many is their main source of income, in an instant. Just as there is a legal process for evicting a shoe store from a shopping mall, there should be one for removing a business on social media. These companies have a responsibility to their users, and should implement solutions  (Ebay’s resolution center that handles disputes between its customers is one example).  Or how about a clear “No lifeguard on duty: Swim at your own risk” type of message at the login page?

When it was time to assess my financial losses, I noticed how murky the Internet is on this matter as well. Let’s say, for example, that my former partner and I had managed a traditional photography gallery. There would be rent to pay, pictures to frame, and profits to split from sales. A partnership would be well-defined, making it relatively easy to defend should one person stage a coup. But social media platforms like Instagram are designed for a more casual approach. We just signed in and out at our leisure without incurring costs, posting montages or sending messages whenever we had a moment.

Although my project was published, awarded, and exhibited, we earned little money from it directly. However, there was tremendous marketing value in what we created, which my ex-partner continues to exploit to this day. My association with the project improved my professional relationships, which eventually led to food on the table. The well ran dry once I was removed. But how could I quantify the value of the project that worked abstractly for marketing purposes? I read up on social media ROI (return on investment) advice and estimated the project's worth. But even so, there’s no generally accepted metric.

Finally, most artists (me included) don’t have enough money to fund a lawsuit. Paying the bills as an artist is hard enough, let alone gambling with tens of thousands of dollars to plead in court. Before even setting foot before a judge, an attorney could accumulate $30,000 in billable hours. I spoke with several lawyers. Some of them consider taking cases on contingency if they have the “devilish details,” like those attorney Leslie Burns describes on her blog. They also consider whether the defendants have enough money in their bank accounts to pay up after a decision or settlement. In our society, the odds are stacked strongly in favor of those already ahead of the financial curve. I was extremely lucky to find an attorney who wanted to rectify an injustice even while knowing I'm not exactly Annie Leibovitz. (Click here to read the legal complaint that has been filed). 

This experience for me wasn't just about having my project stolen. I was also made keenly aware of my role in a changing society that makes it difficult for artists to maintain ownership of their work. If we truly valued our country’s two million artists who work tirelessly to bring richness to our culture, we wouldn’t have to risk our livelihoods fighting for ownership of our material. The fact that our cultural appetite demands fast, instant media remains incontrovertible. This is simply how technology has evolved us. But in a more conscientious society that is more respectful of the artists that fuel its culture, there would be more protections in place.   

As our lives inevitably become more digitized, the things we own will also become harder to define. Our devices are objects we own but their contents can be shut down almost arbitrarily. Our businesses belong to us, but when they exist in the cloud their existence is subject to the whims of a larger entity. Our creations can be copyrighted but can also get dispersed around the web like dust in the wind.

As Turkle writes: “Technology makes us forget what we know about life. And we have to start remembering what we know about life.” This begins with each one of us simply putting away our phones every so often and having a conversation with the person in front of us.