Teen Tests Internet's Lewd Track Record
Tuesday, May 29, 2007
NORWALK, Calif. -- Early this month, 18-year-old Allison Stokke walked into her high school track coach's office and asked if he knew any reliable media consultants. Stokke had tired of constant phone calls, of relentless Internet attention, of interview requests from Boston to Brazil.
In her high school track and field career, Stokke had won a 2004 California state pole vaulting title, broken five national records and earned a scholarship to the University of California, yet only track devotees had noticed. Then, in early May, she received e-mails from friends who warned that a year-old picture of Stokke idly adjusting her hair at a track meet in New York had been plastered across the Internet. She had more than 1,000 new messages on her MySpace page. A three-minute video of Stokke standing against a wall and analyzing her performance at another meet had been posted on YouTube and viewed 150,000 times.
"I just want to find some way to get this all under control," Stokke told her coach.
Three weeks later, Stokke has decided that control is essentially beyond her grasp. Instead, she said, she has learned a distressing lesson in the unruly momentum of the Internet. A fan on a Cal football message board posted a picture of the attractive, athletic pole vaulter. A popular sports blogger in New York found the picture and posted it on his site. Dozens of other bloggers picked up the same image and spread it. Within days, hundreds of thousands of Internet users had searched for Stokke's picture and leered.
The wave of attention has steamrolled Stokke and her family in Newport Beach, Calif. She is recognized -- and stared at -- in coffee shops. She locks her doors and tries not to leave the house alone. Her father, Allan Stokke, comes home from his job as a lawyer and searches the Internet. He reads message boards and tries to pick out potential stalkers.
"We're keeping a watchful eye," Allan Stokke said. "We have to be smart and deal with it the best we can. It's not something that you can just make go away."
On May 8, blogger Matt Ufford received Stokke's picture in an e-mail from one of his readers, and he reacted to Stokke's image on instinct. She was hot. She was 18. Readers of Ufford's WithLeather.com -- a sports blog heavy on comedy, opinion and sometimes sex -- would love her.
The picture was taken by a track and field journalist and posted as part of a report on a California prep track Web site. The photo was hardly sexually explicit, which made Ufford's decision to post it even easier. At 5 feet 7, Stokke has smooth, olive-colored skin and toned muscles. In the photo, her vaulting pole rests on her right shoulder. Her right hand appears to be adjusting the elastic band on her ponytail. Her spandex uniform -- black shorts and a white tank top that are standard for a track athlete -- reveals a bare midriff.
By targeting his comedic writing to 18- to 35-year-old males, Ufford has built a sports blog that attracts almost 1 million visitors each month. Ufford writes tongue-and-cheek items about the things his readers love: athletes and beautiful women. Stokke qualified as both. She was, therefore, a "no-brainer to write about," Ufford said. He posted her picture and typed a four-paragraph blurb to accompany it. Meet pole vaulter Allison Stokke. . . . Hubba hubba and other grunting sounds.
"I understand there are certain people who are put off immediately by the tone of my blog," Ufford said. "Every week, there's somebody who takes offense to something, but that's part of being a comedy writer. If nobody is complaining, it probably wasn't funny. You are hoping for some kind of feedback."
By that measure, Ufford's post about Stokke created a landmark for success. He received a handful of angry e-mails, including one from the photographer who threatened to file suit if his picture of Stokke remained on the blog. But Ufford also attracted a record number of visitors in May, thanks largely to Stokke's picture. More than 20 message boards and 30 blogs copied or linked to Ufford's item.
From her computer at home, Stokke tracked the spread of her image with dismay and disbelief. She had dealt with this once before, when a track fan posted a lewd comment and a picture of her on a message board two years earlier. Stokke had contacted the poster through e-mail and, a few days later, the image had disappeared. But what could she do now, when a search for her name in Yahoo! revealed almost 310,000 hits? "It's not like I could e-mail everybody on the Internet," Stokke said.