Going Viral: Losing Control and Your Job

Journalist Esther Honig discusses what she learned from the experience of going viral.

It’s midnight in downtown Kansas City and I’m watching the crew from The Today Show set up their recording equipment. Under normal circumstances, I might have bought a new blouse or consulted my sister on hair and makeup, but I was only given a four-hour notice. The interview will air tomorrow and I’ve been wearing the same t-shirt and jeans for the last three days. Today a pair of my boyfriend’s underwear.

The past 72 hours are a nauseating blur. From the moment my project Before & After went viral I haven’t shown up to work. Instead I’ve been glued to my laptop fielding the unrelenting stream of interviews and press requests. Each morning my inbox swells with another 1,000 unread message from fans, haters, and media. At night I wake up with panic attacks; harsh criticisms are seeping into my social media stream. I’m also certain I’ll be fired from my job.

The cameras and lights switch on, and the voice of co-host Ann Curry streams into my earpiece. I should mention that I’ve never watched a single episode of The Today Show, but Ann Curry seems friendly and she’s in a huge rush.

“Esther, tell me what this project is about?” she asks.

I wait for my nerves to settle and launch into the same speech I’ve given at the dozen or so interviews before this.

“I had the idea to send a photo of myself to Photoshop editors all around the world and all I asked is that they ‘make me beautiful.’”

Then in my best effort to sum up my abstract and largely inconclusive project I say, “Photoshop has become a symbol of our unobtainable standards for beauty. Before & After illustrates how these standards vary across cultures and individuals. I have a collection of 50 images from 28 different countries, and I think each one reflects a perspective on beauty that pertains to their creator.”

On the other end of the line, Curry is silent. She spends the next 20 minutes coercing me to say the line “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” because that’s the only line that’s going to satisfy her narrative. The next morning, that is the only clip of me that is aired, followed by host Katie Couric introducing me as a “photojournalist,” which I am not.

Images from Esther Honig’s Before & After project.

Loss of control and virality go hand in hand. Every day there are thousands of media companies scouring the Internet in search of the latest trending content. Like fishermen trawling the ocean floor, they’re hardly concerned about what it is they’ve caught. What matters is the desperate race to catch the next viral wave.

At one point I receive so many thousands of media requests that every stream in my digital web is clogged: Twitter, Facebook, email, even Instagram. By the time I respond to a publication, either granting or denying them permission, I find my project is already live on their site. The abuse of usage rights is infuriating, but without an agent or a lawyer, I’m outnumbered. In the eyes of the Internet, my work (and my face) is now under public domain.

Hundreds of readers see this as an invitation to take my original unaltered image and Photoshop it. They send me their results, saying things like, “I saw you didn’t have an image from my country, so I thought I’d take a shot at it.”

At first I appreciate their enthusiasm, but after the 500th Photoshopped image, my face has become a global paint-by-numbers project. I even find an online advertisement using my face to sell Brazilian wrinkle cream and an Etsy store that’s pasted my head onto all of their mannequins.

The attention is both overwhelming and exciting. I’m recognized by strangers in public. I do interviews for my favorite publications, but I avoid the online comment sections like I do my student loans—I simply can’t handle a live interview on CNN if some Internet troll has shot down my self-confidence. Eventually I do get around to reading some of the thousands of messages, and for the most part they’re all a variation of the same three remarks:

“The best is the original, unaltered.” (TheFritz)

“Rather a question of skill than of heritage ... most of them photo-shoppers did a rather weak job.” (Stefanie Steinert)

“This set of photos just proves that even photoshopping can't make a beauty out of a very plain face.” (Cherub_96)

In the end, my project was viewed by a lot of people, close to three million views on Buzzfeed, and there was plenty of speculation on what I had tried to accomplish. Bloggers assumed I was taking a stance against the use of Photoshop; or that I had overlooked how being a young white female influenced the way my project was received. Academics pointed out that this wasn’t a viable experiment because there were no controls, the sample was too small, and obviously paying someone $20 to mess with your photo doesn’t make you a scientist. For me, this all became an exercise in receiving criticism.

When there are thousands of people making critical comments about your work, the knee-jerk reaction might be a sharp tweet saying how you’ve been completely misinterpreted. In the world of social media, that sort of defensive response is futile; it only feeds the trolls. Instead I learned to listen to what’s being said, evaluate whether I found it relevant, and continue on with my work. In the end, it made me a better professional.

Going viral makes a big splash that slowly ripples across the globe. My story broke in June of 2014. By the time Facebook users in the United States started leaving comments like, “I’m so f*$@ing sick of seeing the project everywhere” (Tony Walters), that’s when countries in Eastern Europe and Asia picked it up. And it all began again. I was invited to partake in a Korean documentary on beauty, and Nivea contacted me to collaborate on their “true beauty” campaign. Both opportunities eventually fell through, which was unfortunate because I did end up getting fired from my job.

Editor's Note

Check out Esther Honig’s Make Me Over, a digital project shared exclusively with Pelican Bomb.