Two months ago a video of a sea lion playing with my son, who has an Autism Spectrum Disorder, unexpectedly got a lot of attention. An earlier post talks more about the story behind the video, as well as why I decided to make a personal moment public. Basically I thought it was cute and my friends and family might like to see it, other special needs parents might be able to relate, and it was an opportunity to spread Autism Awareness. What I didn’t expect was that within a week’s time it would have over 90,000 views and be spread all over the world (no, not one of those “mega-viral” 1 million views kind of videos, but still a surprising reach). Before I posted it to the internet I was convinced I had thought things through, but the results still caught me off guard. I found the whole unexpected process incredibly exciting and incredibly exhausting. I recently agreed to do a television interview about the experience, and you can watch it here on the website for ABC affiliate WRIC Channel 8. They called it, “Going Viral: What You Need to Know Before Posting Online”. I did the interview and wrote this post in the hopes that by sharing some of our crazy journey it might help other people in a similar situation. I don’t have any advice for you if you have a video that you hope to turn mega viral and use to make lots of money. But if you have a story you want to tell or content to share, and want some tips on how to protect your rights and your family in the process, then keep reading. Yes, when this all started I thought it was possible we might make a bit of money, but that was not my main goal. I just wanted to share a cute video of my cute kid and thought it might also help people.
First, and very important, ask yourself if the benefits from what you post will outweigh the risks. What do you hope to get out of the experience, and is it worth what you will give up? If you just want your 15 minutes of fame you need to be prepared for the loss of privacy and the scrutiny that comes with it. All that attention from strangers feels good for about a whole day, but then in a flash you are yesterday’s news. If you are doing it to make money, let me just say you probably won’t make very much. If you are allowing yourself or your story to enter the public eye because you have something important to share, or you want to help people, then I applaud you. I have a new-found respect for anyone willing to make a public stand for what they believe in, because it is a scary thing to make yourself vulnerable to the prying eyes, and possible criticism, of strangers. That part was what scared me the most. Before I posted the video of my son I thought it through as carefully as I could. It’s not a video that makes fun of him or something he will be embarrassed by when he gets older. I asked his permission before sharing it, as well as before I shared that he has an Autism Spectrum Disorder, because it was important to me that I have his consent. I made sure that throughout the whole process my son was treated with respect. Even though I thought that it could be an opportunity help spread awareness and acceptance, I tried to make sure it didn’t sensationalize Autism or exploit my son. I also asked myself if I was compromising the safety of my family by allowing our video to been seen publicly. Is the loss of your privacy worth it? I felt safer about releasing our video because my son’s face was obscured in shadow. At the time we had not decided if we wanted to publicly release his image. I should have been more emotionally prepared for the fact that even if I didn’t release his image, it would get out there (more on that in a bit).
Say exactly what you want to say, in its entirety, from the very start. When the video was first posted I hastily threw up a cliff’s notes version of the story behind it. I thought there would be time to fill in the gaps later. There was no time. When public interest starts everything moves lightning fast, and media sources are in a hurry. I assumed, incorrectly, that each new website or news station that shared it would go back to ME to get more information. That was naive. Each new media outlet that shared our story simply used the original, truncated source material, and each new version was more diluted than the last. As a result our Autism Awareness message ended up getting skewed, if it was even present at all. It didn’t even occur to me at first to direct people to my blog, partly because I wasn’t trying to promote myself or my writing. But about a week into it I realized that the blog could be a way to help make sure the STORY got told, and ensure that it wasn’t just a cute video. I wanted a cute video that also did some good.
Time is of the essence. Momentum builds rapidly and you have to act FAST if you want to make the most of the opportunity. A lot of decisions will need to be made quickly and all at once. I got a quick self-taught education about things like YouTube and Twitter, Google alerts, privacy, intellectual property rights, licensing procedures, monetization, PR, and troll management. About 48 hours into all the activity I realized that it had stopped being fun and started being overwhelming. I was an exhausted, weepy mess, and scrambling to keep up with the details. It was unbelievable how much work it all was, but it was work I felt I had to do, and I had to do it right then. I pushed through because I felt that we had something really special that I thought could make a difference, and I wanted to make the most of the opportunity we had been given.
Make sure people know how to find you. Like I said earlier, things happened so quickly that it didn’t occur to me at first to link to my blog on the video, or even to ask news broadcasts to mention SeriouslyNotBoring.com. I write about life as a family affected by autism to help promote awareness and acceptance, but somehow in all the excitement I was just glad that our cute video mentioned Autism Awareness in the description. Several days into the process I was frustrated that the message behind the video wasn’t really coming across. I realized that the video paired with the blog content would help tell the back-story. It would also help offset any misconceptions created by those truncated media descriptions. A cute video of a little boy playing with a sea lion is a good diversion. If you pair that video with information about the reality of life with an Autism Spectrum disorder you have a powerful vehicle to spread awareness and understanding. It added also human interest to the video, and is no longer just a cute thing but a way to help make the world a better place. THAT was what I wanted, and why I mentioned Autism in the first place. Adding the blog helped tell our story even more.
I starting contacting sites that had already shared the video and many agreed to link to the blog, and from that point on I made sure that any new sources linked to both the video AND the blog. Another thing I did to help increase my web presence was set up a Twitter account and a Facebook page for Seriously Not Boring, and made sure that all of my social media pages linked to each other (although I keep certain parts of my private life separate from the public sites). I did this with the ultimate goal of driving traffic to seriouslynotboring.com, because I hope that with every new person that reads it the world will become a little more informed, and a little more kind, to people who may be different. And different isn’t bad, it’s just different. Different makes life not boring!
Even if something is posted on the internet and enters the public domain it is still subject to intellectual property rights, even without an official copyright. It belongs to the person that created it. Lots people don’t know this, and a common misconception is that if something is on the internet it is fair game. The reality is that even if someone posts something online they still own it, and others should not use their content without permission. It can be hard to enforce, but most media sources and websites are great about immediately pulling content if there is even a hint that it infringes upon a copyright. Once you secure a copyright those rights can be more easily enforced.
There are many benefits to signing a licensing agreement. I am not allowed to discuss specific terms of my contract, but I will say that I am glad that I signed one. A licensing company can help you secure a copyright for your material. They can also help you make a possible profit, and are able to place premium ads on a YouTube video more quickly than if you waited for an offer from Google ads (who contacts you only after a certain number of views). They help protect the content from people who would wish to profit off of it for solely their own benefit, and will contact people who have shared your content without permission. When I signed a contract there was already at least one unauthorized copycat on YouTube, and my licensing company ensured that all unauthorized uses were terminated. A licensing company can also help promote a video and will approach media sources about your content, and help bring it to the attention of websites and television shows that may not have heard of it otherwise. Keep in mind they may only have relationships with a select type of media sources. If you are approached by multiple licensing companies you may want to choose the representation that has the most experience with your type of story, with a target audience similar to yours. And before you sign anything read the fine print very carefully. If you don’t understand something, ask for clarification.
On the flip side, stories spread faster if they’re free. If you choose to monetize your video you may make a little bit of profit, but it may also slow down the spread of your story. Sometimes those two things can be in conflict, something I didn’t realize at first. Copyrighting and licensing gives you protection from other people making money off of your content without your permission, but it also possibly reduces the number of media sources that will share your story. Television news shows may no longer be interested in your story if they have to pay, so you may have to choose between money and more widespread media exposure. Stories spread a lot further and faster if they can be spread for free. Also keep in mind that if you aren’t careful you could make people question your true motives. I acted a little crazy stage mom-ish right when the video was peaking and I promoted it really aggressively because I wanted to make sure we made the most of the amazing opportunity we had been given. I also got wrapped up in protecting our rights to the video and made tweets about licensing. That could have turned off producers who might have been interested in the video, and possibly slowed the momentum of our story. I didn’t embark on this journey to make money, but I figured if other people were going to profit from it then my family should share in that. It is easy to forget WHY you are doing something when you get caught up in all the excitement and media hype. It made it look like I was more interested in the money than the opportunity for Autism Awareness.
Many people don’t know that if you contact a media source about your story/content/video they often take that as an inference of “consent” to use whatever you send them in any manner they wish. They may do so without any compensation and without consulting you any further. Such language is often hidden in the fine print of online “contact us” forms, for example: “By submitting Materials, you agree producer may, but is not obligated to, use the Materials in connection with the show, in any way, in any medium, worldwide, in perpetuity.” During my “crazy stage mom” phase, when I was actively trying to promote the video, I learned about the hidden danger of hitting “send”. I had naïvely emailed a few television and talk shows to bring the video to their attention and open possible dialogue, but was shocked when I found out my video had aired on a national news broadcast without my knowledge or consent. This surprised me because the local news affiliates I had dealt with had been very polite and asked permission before they aired it, so I assumed national shows would conduct themselves in the same manner. Some sources will be polite and ask permission before sharing, but many will not. Soon thereafter I signed a licensing agreement to help protect our content. What bothered me even more than the fact that they didn’t ask permission was that they did not contact me to learn more of the back-story before airing the video. Again, it was naïve of me to expect that they would do otherwise.
Double-check your privacy settings on Facebook. Also, don’t ever post anything on the Internet, or even email anything, that you don’t want the whole world to see. I was SHOCKED when I stumbled across my son’s image on a website in the UK. At that point we had not yet agreed to additional media coverage and the only images available of my son were the safe, shadowy ones on the video. The website had searched for me on the internet and found my Facebook page, which I thought I had locked up securely. Apparently old profile pictures now stay set to “public” and no longer default to private when you stop using them, and I didn’t realize that. It was very unsettling to see private family photos on an international website, and opened my eyes to the implications of what I had done by allowing a private video to be seen publicly. I contacted the website and they took the pictures down almost immediately. I know I am the one who put my family in the public eye, but I still want to have the right to decide what images, if any, are displayed of my family, especially my minor children. My son has since been interviewed on camera and I have also released a few pictures, but it was publicity and images of MY choosing.
It is YOUR story, so don’t be afraid to help shape it. Just because a story about you has left your hands and entered the public eye you still have EVERY RIGHT to try and control the details. It might not work, but you can TRY. After my successful request to have unauthorized pictures removed I felt empowered to take more ownership of how our story was being told. When I saw news sources describe my son in an inaccurate or less than flattering manner I politely asked them to change it. I only needed to do it a handful of times, and I was pleasantly surprised by the kind responses I received. Occasionally he was also described as an “autistic boy”, and that bothered me because first he is a boy, and he happens to have autism (Update 2/4/2015~ this would no longer bother me, see note below). **I prefer to use person first language because Autism is just a part of who he is, not the main defining characteristic. When I saw him described as such I contacted the news sources with suggestions for different wording. Every single one I contacted made the appropriate changes. On the downside, it made have made me look difficult and made other media sources less likely to want to cover our story.
** Update 2/4/2015: I have had some recent revelations about my use of “person-first” language. I always did so in the past because it was my understanding that it was the respectful way to describe someone. It was never my intention to imply that I was ashamed of my son’s Autism or that I did not accept him for who he was. I am proud of his unique, Autistic brain. I also know that there is also a lot that makes up who he is besides just Autism, and that was my point.
Additional note 3/14/2017: This post was written before my family learned about the neurodiversity paradigm and started using identity-first language.
DO NOT FEED THE TROLLS.Even if the you have the best of intentions for releasing something there can still be negative consequences. People can be surprisingly ugly and find ways to criticize even the most overwhelmingly positive things. When our video was first spreading I was warned by friends, “Never read the comments,” but I wanted to see what the reaction was. BIG MISTAKE, I know. I will say it makes a difference where you read the comments. I was moved to tears by the kind words shared on special needs and Autism Awareness websites, but that wasn’t the problem. I cried an entirely different kind of tears when I visited some other media websites, and was shocked at how rude and hurtful people can be. Thankfully, they usually weren’t rude to my son, except for the occasional lame “Hurrr, durr, ASS-burger” jokes. Seriously, that’s the best you got? Not even original. Most of the real rudeness was directed towards ME. It made me furiously angry when people completely misread the situation, judged me without taking the time to read the whole story, or missed facts that were right in front of them and made incorrect assumptions. It took a lot of restraint to not defend myself and not set the record straight, but I realized my words would probably make little difference. People like that don’t care about the truth, and usually just say things to get a reaction. I am aware that I made the choice to put myself in the public eye, but I didn’t expect that comments from strangers would hurt as much as they did. One pleasant surprise was that quite often there were kind strangers who came to my defense. I also received some very good advice from a friend who works in the media, “Emotionally, I get to a point where I ‘hand them back to the Universe’. Their issues or misgivings are such that I’ll never be able to sway them. I do my best not to judge people, but it’s tough.”
I didn’t write this post or agree to do the interview in order to complain. I am the one that made the choice to put my family in the public eye (with their permission) and I take responsibility for that and accept the consequences, good and bad. Yes, I thought some people said hurtful things, but I don’t dwell on that. And yes, I was surprised by some things that happened, but I have learned from it. For the most part this has been a rewarding, worthwhile experience, and that is where I place my focus. I hope that by sharing some of what I learned through this process it can help others make informed decisions and protect themselves if in a similar situation. All of the good things that have happened along the way outweigh the difficult moments, and that means more to me than the little bit of money we made. People have thanked me, and thanked my son, for teaching them about special needs. Parents have reached out saying that the video made them cry because they understand how important those moments of pure joy and acceptance are for kids who so often feel isolated. And because of the video people from all over the world have visited SeriouslyNotBoring.com, where I write about our life as family affected by special needs. I don’t have any ads on that site, I make no money from it, I simply write because I think it is important. I hope to help make the world a kinder, more accepting place for people with special needs. When I look at the “views by country” and see the flags of more than 75 countries it gives me hope. If I had the chance to do it again I might make a few different decisions along the way, but I would still embark on this journey. It was worth it.
UPDATE May 9, 2014: Sophie the sea lion was unexpectedly found dead this morning. She was only two years old. This is a terrible loss, and my thoughts are with the entire Smithsonian and National Zoo family. She was a beautiful, playful animal who brought great joy to those who visited her. My family is absolutely devastated. I am so glad we got to see and play with her one last time just two weeks ago. Thank you for being our friend, Sophie. We will miss you so much!