If you type “dark wallpaper” in Google Images, the third photo of the train tracks in the fog was taken by me. I took the photo on a photoshoot for a friend’s band when I was 19. I posted the image on Facebook the next day and promptly forgot about it. In 2015, I received a phone call from that same friend telling me to search “dark wallpaper”. I was shocked and horrified to find my image available for download on millions of websites, all without any credit to me. I found my image used on blogs, book covers, album art, Youtube and it was even available for $5 on eBay. Though I tried for years to remove my image from all of these sites, I’ve found it futile and have since given up. Now, I just treat it as a viral trophy. This is the story of just one image gone viral, but what would have happened if that image was an embarrassing one?
I have shared this story with my students to begin my lesson about digital footprints and ownership because it makes the kids laugh when they see all the different ways people have appropriated the image. At the same time, it is a powerful demonstration about what really can happen if you are not mindful of your own digital footprint.
Understanding, controlling and owning your own story is an underrated skill in our students’ social-media-saturated world.
Social media platforms today all have a “story” function, which allows users to share a short picture or video from their life for anyone to see for 24 hours. The most prolific stars on Snapchat and Instagram are famous for their daily story posts garnering millions of preteen and teenage followers and views. These apps encourage us to share ourselves in exchange for gratification and validation and attach our self-worth to the numbers of likes, hearts, shares and views we get. Children from an early age, without the resilience or tools to control and validate their own stories and self-worth, are likely to fall prey to the designs of these technology companies. How can we let our students use these platforms without gambling with their self-worth?
At the heart of why we need to understand media and technology is because it enables us to tell better stories. If students could look at their own stories and find value in themselves, then that is how they can be resilient to the power of social media. I think my greatest ability as a teacher is to show vulnerability and by sharing stories of my own trials, connect them with the ideas at hand. Since starting the Media Tech curriculum at The Harbour School three years ago, I have striven to use personal storytelling to engage my students and also to model the skill, so they can take charge of their own stories in the future.
For every Media Tech lesson, the idea of story and narrative is a common thread. For my High School class on Intro to Design, students learned to create graphic posters and web pages by designing and arranging elements like a visual story for one’s eyes to follow. Sixth grade students learned to take splices of film trailers and remix them with new soundtracks to generate alternative narratives. Third graders learned to explore the world with Google Earth and record their virtual vacations through screenshots to create a slideshow. In my High School Documentary Studies class, students are creating a final short film documentary about their own life and relating it to a larger social issue. In the Current Flow, the school’s campus news program, High School students learn to write, produce, block, direct, act, record and edit entire short films. Our next one will be about three High School students trying to sneak out of a Science class (not a documentary).
I hope that by creating opportunities for my students to engage with different facets of media and tech through the lens of storytelling, it will build the resilience they’ll need to be clear in defining who they are in tomorrow’s world of social media.