Motherboard

When Your Art Goes Viral, the Internet Will Kill Its Image Quality

Here's how people edit, filter, crop, and otherwise screw with original art.

by Jason Koebler
Oct 21 2014, 10:30am

Image: Mark Samsonovich

What happens when your photo goes viral? Well, for one, its resolution and image quality goes to hell damn near immediately.

That's what New York City street artist Mark Samsonovich learned very quickly last month when a piece of his called Water the Flowers made the rounds on Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, and 9gag. The image was filtered, cropped, saved at lower resolutions, and shared with quotes he didn't write, proving that, once again, the internet doesn't care about the best laid plans of content creators.

Image: Mark Samsonovich

"I can't let it bother me because then I'd be sitting in a room pulling my hair out," Samsonovich told me. "Obviously, I'd prefer to have my image in the original way I put it out there, but I can't expect that."

He said that he ran a reverse image source to track down all the places his photo had virtually traveled.

We've seen a couple times now what happens to artists and photographers when images go viral—often, it means a whole lot of nothing. As in, credit for the image is stripped, it's uploaded to something like Imgur or Instagram, everyone agrees it's a lovely image, and the artist doesn't really see any sort of notoriety or sales bump because of it.

In this case, the photo was tweeted by two fairly well known Twitter accounts, RelaxVibes and TripInATweet, blew up on the Through Kaleidoscope Eyes Tumblr, and eventually made its way to 9gag and model Cara Delevingne's Instagram. It looked different in each place.

"I think Instagram is the largest factor in this—there's a lot of filters and cropping, and then you can see it went through Instagram third party apps," he said. "You can also see the crop gets higher and higher."

Samsonovich's experience is a good little reminder that every time someone screenshots something, uploads it to Imgur or Twitter or Instagram or somewhere else, a little something is lost. Whether or not it's a big deal is another story and, I suppose, depends on each particular work of art.

Obviously, this particular photo is still powerful and still resonated with people even once it began to look almost nothing like the original. And, because this is street art, it doesn't use the textures of, say, a Van Gogh, and it's not necessarily important to have an ultra high resolution version. In other words, you can see how this might be annoying if you're a photographer who wanted to make sure viewers could see tiny details.

The uncropped, unfiltered, original image. Image: Mark Samsonovich

"The bigger deal for me was, this was originally meant to be seen in an alley in Austin where it's life-sized. It was hard for me to originally make that mental step from scaling the experience down from real life where it's eight feet tall to the internet, where it'll be viewed on a two-inch screen," he said. "I think, from that scale, the jump is huge. From my website, where it's high res, to Imgur, well, I don't think the jump is that significant in relationship to my artwork."