As It Happens

Man angry his photo was used to prove all hipsters look alike — then learns it wasn't him

He threatened to sue the MIT Technology Review for using this image — only to find out it's of someone else entirely.

Reader threatened to sue technology magazine for using what he thought was his image

This image was included in an MIT Technology Review article about 'the hipster effect.' (Getty Images)

This story was published on March 7, 2019. 

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A man threatened to sue a technology magazine for using his image in a story about why all hipsters look the same, only to find out the picture was of a completely different guy.

The story in the MIT Technology Review detailed a study about the so-called hipster effect — "the counterintuitive phenomenon in which people who oppose mainstream culture all end up looking the same."

The inclusion of a version of a Getty Images photo of a bearded, flannel-wearing man, tinted with a blue and orange hue, prompted one reader to write to the magazine: "Your lack of basic journalistic ethics in both the manner in which you 'reported' this uncredited nonsense, and the slanderous, unnecessary use of my picture without permission demands a response, and I am, of course, pursuing legal action."

But it wasn't actually him.

The site's editor-in-chief Gideon Lichfield spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about the bizarre exchange. Here is part of their conversation. 

What was this study and the article about hipsters? What was the gist of it?

It was a mathematical model of why people who tried to differ from the crowd end up conforming to one another.

And you had an illustration of a man, a photo of him, in this article. ... Why did you get an email from someone, an angry reader, who threatened to sue you because of that photo?

He saw the article. He saw the photo. He thought the photo was of him.

And he, I guess, maybe has something against hipsters or against being called a hipster. But he didn't like it. He wrote some things that were very uncomplimentary about the article itself. 

What questions did that raise for you when you got that letter?

The first moment I see something like that, my question is, well, did we do anything we shouldn't have?

So I looked at what his accusation was, and I said, he seems to be accusing us of implying that he's a hipster. I'm pretty sure that can't be prosecuted for slander.

My second thought was, you know, I'm sure that we used this photo in accordance with the license and we got it from a reputable agency, so there shouldn't be a problem with using it even if the person in the picture doesn't like the implication.

So I forwarded the email to our art department ... and their response was: "Yes, we have the right license. But, you know, we can take the picture down anyway if he's annoyed."

But our creative director said no, this was an image that we used with permission and perfectly in accordance with our rights. We shouldn't take it down just because somebody doesn't like it.

Attendees dance during the second annual Hipster Olympics on July 21, 2012, in Berlin, Germany. (Adam Berry/Getty Images)

How did it get resolved?

So in the end our creative director ... wrote to Getty Images and said,"Look, we have an angry reader who doesn't like the way we used this photo. Could you check that you know that he signed a model release and the license is all in order?"

They have a team that deals with legal complaints and they went into their archive and checked the details and they came back to us and they said, "Actually the model in this photo does not have the same name as the person who wrote to you."

They wrote to him and ... said, "We don't think this is you." And he replied, "Oh, I guess you're right, it's not."

No apology, though.

No apology, but, you know, I'm happy that it's resolved.

How could you look at this and think it's you and it's not you. I mean, does that puzzle you?

I mean, you know, the picture is in profile. He's wearing a hat so it covers his hair.

And, you know, as a no-longer-in-his-30s white man with a beard, I know that a lot of white men in their 30s with beards look kind of similar.

So I guess it doesn't surprise me that much.

But if this was your sort of iconic image of a hipster, and somebody who is angry at the idea of being accused of being a hipster says it's not him, what does this say about hipsters?

I think it says what the study says, which is that hipsters all look alike.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Ashley Mak. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.