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Modern Cliches: The Facebook Eye

Simon Pitt | News | Wednesday 24th February 2010

If you're a journalist writing about websites and "social networking" and all that sort of thing, you face a problem these days. A lot of the articles you write will be about relatively abstract ideas, and how do you illustrate them? After all, who's going to read your article, if it doesn't have a massive colour picture at the top?

The simplest thing is to use a screenshot of the site. This, though, can cause problems if, for example, you're taking about a members-only site that's now been closed down. Consequently, you often have to rely on one image from Wikipedia and just use that over and over again; that, at least, was the BBC's approach when dealing with the case around Allan Ellis and the Oink music filesharing site:

Click on the pictures above to view the originals. From left to right: two BBC articles about the Oink story with the same screenshot illustration. The original image on Wikipedia from where the BBC sourced their illustration.

Unfortunately, not all sites are as eye-catching as the lurid pink Oink. Facebook, for example, with its white background doesn't do much to brighten up a bland, wordy document, and consequently journalists have to find something a bit more exciting to jazz it up.

However, a quick trip to Getty Images, and it won't be long before our image-hungry journalist finds The Facebook Eye. "How trendy," he thinks, "I'll stick that on the top of the article, and the modern, abstract nature of the image will perfectly reflect the style of the article I'm writing".

The Facebook Eye, for those of you who haven't seen it, is a close up of an eye with the Facebook logo reflected in it. There are four different variants of it:

Four variants of the Facebook Eye. In chronological order from left to right: Standard, Flirty, Sinister, Staring Bloke (Note the Facebook logo reflected in the pupil)

The man behind the first three of these is Chris Jackson, Getty images' Royal Photographer.

The Facebook Eye first appeared in the inital two forms in July 2007. The second, the slightly more flirtatious of the two, has become, for many papers, the defacto heading for any generic story on Facebook.

The first newspaper to realise the potential of the Facebook Eye was The Telegraph. On the 11th July 2007 they published this article, featuring the "Flirty Eye":

In 2008, Jackson created a third Facebook Eye, this time looking to the left. Despite the only difference being the direction the eye was looking, this Facebook Eye has been used for completely different articles. Perhaps looking to the left unlocked something in our primitive selves that found the left "sinister" (the word sinister itself comes from the Latin meaning "on the left").

Whatever the reason, the left facing eye is almost exclusively used on negative articles about Facebook. Articles that suggest that paedophiles stalk Facebook looking for children whose status says their mum is at the shop always use the left facing eye.

Oh look, a story about paedos. Better use the scary left facing eye

In actual fact, the BBC were so keen on this image that at one point in November 2009 their website featured it, in different articles, on three consecutive days:

The Facebook Eye used on the BBC site on 16th, 17th and 18th November 2009, and then again on the 20th November.

After the success of Chris Jackson's three Facebook Eyes, Dan Kitwood added his slightly more scary picture to the mix. His "staring bloke" facebook eye, featured a much more intense, and slightly bloodshot male eye, which, added to the negative pictures that could be used to illustrate Facebook.

These four images crop up, largely unchanged, and unapologetically in almost any story about Facebook, with the BBC, The Telegraph and The Guardian being the worst offenders. Surprisingly, one of the sites that uses this modern cliche the least is The Daily Mail. However, this is less because of original thought and more because they prefer to illustrate articles about Facebook with images of some scantily clad females they've found on the site.

A Video

And, just because this is the Internet, and you people don't like to ingest any data unless it's animated and has music playing in the background, here's a video of articles that use the Facebook Eye. It's only 12 seconds long so that you don't get bored and feel the need to do anything else. Like go on Facebook or something.

The song, for people that want to know, and copyright holders that want to sue, is On the Facebook, The Facebook Song from years ago before Facebook was cool and people knew about it and stuff.



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