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Why You Stopped Caring About Those Celebrity Nudes

The first 'celebgate' leaks were met with outrage. Why didn't we care about the others?
Image: Shutterstock

For those titillated by images of nude women, the internet has provided plenty of new fodder recently in the form of nude celebrity photos. Unfortunately, they were posted illegally without the subjects' consent as a result of targeted hacking.

The internet reacted with outrage to the first round of leaked photos, then with something almost like boredom as more were released in subsequent waves. Why did we experience such different reactions to exactly the same occurrence?


The simple answer may well be the obvious: The more we hear about something, the more we get used to it, no matter how much we disapprove.

"This [change in attitude is] something I've observed anytime something shocking happens," Rosanna Guadagno, a social psychologist and professor of Emerging Media and Communication at University of Texas at Dallas, told me.

The first time something shocking happens, people are, well, shocked. "But then all of a sudden it becomes a part of our repertoire," she said. "With each successive wave, unfortunately these bad actions become on the menu of possible ways to engage in behavior."

Guadagno is quick to point out that these actions don't become acceptable, per se, but they enter our consciousness as something that could—and does—happen.

Those still tethered to their screens on Labor Day weekend were the first to catch on to the photo hack: A user on 4chan, the notorious "image-based bulletin board" once dubbed the "ninth circle of Hell," posted a number of celebrities' nude photos. As the pictures disseminated across the online universe in an event dubbed variously "celebgate" and "the Fappening," the public started to weigh in.

They took to social media, vocalizing opinions ranging from "awesome" to "they shouldn't have taken those photos." Some even blamed Apple for its leaky iCloud security system. The media added their own voices to the debate. Everyone had an opinion, but the overwhelming sentiment was one of justified outrage:


The way in which you share your body must be a CHOICE. Support these women and do not look at these pictures.

— Lena Dunham (@lenadunham) September 1, 2014

Stealing someone's naked photos is the same as tearing someone's clothes off in public. It's sexual assault.

— Lucas Neff (@RealLucasNeff) September 1, 2014

Two weeks later, another round of nude photos was leaked. The same sort of celebrities were targeted; the photos were released in a similar fashion. And yet, aside from the people jumping for joy, the internet reacted mostly with silence and a slight eye roll.

So what made the difference? Why do some events inspire us to pick up the gauntlet and make the cause our own, while others gain only our inattention?


Part of the reason the news has stopped may be that the public just can't take anymore.

"There's definitely a saturation point, and it becomes more likely as the shock value goes down in any given event," Guadagno said.

Interstingly, shortly after the second round of leaked nudes, more outrage was stoked by the threat to leak photos of Emma Watson in response to her speech about gender equality at the United Nations. Perhaps this renewed reaction was because Watson's speech was so universally lauded that it seemed beyond reproach. Some writers called these threats "an attack on all women." (Only later did it become clear that these threats were merely a publicity stunt to raise awareness for the issue.)


Where exactly the saturation point lies isn't quite clear, Guadagno said, and it may be something she explores in future research. One thing is certain, though. "The more people hear about something negative, the more they start tuning it out," she said. "And that has negative implications for how we report on news in general."

The media, no matter how well-intentioned it may be in raising awareness for an issue, may in fact make the public tire of a subject faster.

But is it our responsibility to keep caring? We hear about horrible things in the news every day, each event seemingly worse than the last. As passive Internet users, we rarely think that anything is in our control. All too often, Guadagno said, we defer responsibility of admonishment or punishment for morally reprehensible actions to others when others are around—something psychologists call the bystander effect. And on the internet, there's always someone else around.

"I think that, by its nature, the internet produces a situation in which people experience a diffusion of responsibility," she suggested. And even though we'd like to think that larger forces govern this realm, there are very few rules. Vigilantism, Guadagno said, is the name of the game; users are charged with the task of flagging or moderating content they find impermissible.

The hackers are still at large, and the repercussions for their actions remain unknown. They may leak more nude photos. You may feel saturated by news of the leaks, but you're guaranteed to care if it happens to you. And it very well could.

"The initial wave was so widespread that it [made us think] it could happen to any other woman, or man," Guadagno said."These things are happening in our regular lives but at a different scale. This is a really aggressive action against women."