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learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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May292007

When Students Become Accidental Celebrities, What Next?

Every teacher and parent should read the article in today’s Washington Post about the California high school student who’s become an online celebrity, from MySpace to YouTube. Who she is and how she got in this predicament, however, probably isn’t what you’d expect - and it raises difficult questions regarding what schools should do when students accidentally gain online notoriety.

Allison Stokke, in many ways, is an ideal high school student. A champion pole vaulter who broke national records while maintaining a stellar gradepoint average, she could easily be a poster girl for the ultimate student athelete. She was courted by Harvard and other colleges, ultimately accepting a scholarship from the University of California. As fate would have it, though, she’s now famous as an online pinup girl, leaving her, her family and her school in a difficult quandary.

About a year ago, a professional photographer snapped a picture of her at a track meet. As far as online photos go, there was nothing lewd or inappropriate about it - just a superb student athelete in the peak of her career, holding her vaulting pole while adjusting her ponytail. The photo later appeared on a high school track and field website, not unlike countless other photos of student atheletes. Normally, that would have been the end of it.

Earlier this year, though, someone shared the photo on a sports discussion board. This was brought to the attention of sports blogger Matt Ufford by one of his readers. He saw the photo of the attractive Stokke as ideal for his audience - young, male sports enthusiasts - so he posted it on his blog. “Meet pole vaulter Allison Stokke,” Ufford wrote as part of the photo’s caption. “Hubba hubba and other grunting sounds.”

Soon enough, bloggers were reposting her photo everywhere. Someone bought a domain name based on her name and created a fan site. Men on discussion forums would share their own locker-room fantasies about her. A video of her at a track and field competition became a big hit on YouTube. Someone created a fake - and suggestive - Facebook profile for her, which the company took down after she and her family complained. Apart from that, though, the genie was out of the bottle. Suddenly, you could do a search for her name on Yahoo! and find over 300,000 results. Almost overnight, Stokke became an involuntary online celebrity and pinup girl, all because of a seemingly innocent photo of her “going viral.”

A Washington Post article details her predicament:

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.”

… For the first week, Stokke tried to ignore the Internet attention. She kept it from her parents. She focused on graduating with a grade-point average above 4.0, on overcoming a knee injury and winning her second state title. But at track meets, twice as many photographers showed up to take her picture. The main office at Newport Harbor High School received dozens of requests for Stokke photo shoots, including one from a risqué magazine in Brazil.

Stokke read on message boards that dozens of anonymous strangers had turned her picture into the background image on their computers. She felt violated. It was like becoming the victim of a crime, Stokke said. Her body had been stolen and turned into a public commodity, critiqued in fan forums devoted to everything from hip-hop to Hollywood.

“All of it is like locker room talk,” noted her mom, Cindy Stokke. “This kind of stuff has been going on for years. But now, locker room talk is just out there in the public. And all of us can read it, even her mother.”

“Even if none of it is illegal, it just all feels really demeaning,” Allison added. “I worked so hard for pole vaulting and all this other stuff, and it’s almost like that doesn’t matter. Nobody sees that. Nobody really sees me.”

Allison’s story is just one example of the sudden, capricious reality of online celebrity. In some cases, a teen seeks out such celebrity by creating an obnoxious YouTube video or something similar. In her case, though, Allison did no such thing. Quite the opposite - she was conducting herself in a way that any school or parent would probably be proud of, exceling in her area of expertise. Meanwhile, the person who photographed her didn’t do anything particularly unusual - student atheletes are covered in local newspapers and websites all the time, often a point of pride for everyone involved.

But there’s a new dynamic at play now, thanks to the success of online content sharing and social networks. These tools make it easier than ever for individuals to get their creative ideas across and interact with like-minded people. But the open nature of all of these services also means that a piece of content - an innocent photo from a sporting event - can be placed in other contexts and take on a life of its own. There is nothing - nothing - that can be done to stop it. And it will probably happen again and again, with increasing frequency.

If we can’t stop it, what are we to do about it? To be honest, I’m not sure what the answer is. It’s not necessarily a classroom issue or a matter of student behavior, because in this case the student did absolutely nothing wrong. Instead, it might be a matter of what a school can do to support a student when a situation like this arises. Should a school play a role in providing the student with legal or media relations expertise? Are there ways the district can have the student’s back and assist her and her family? Because the photo was taken at a school-sanctioned event, it seems there’s got to be some role the school should play, though this is such new territory, it’s hard to say exactly what that role should be. What do you think? -andy

Filed under : People, Policy, Safety, Social Networking

Responses

Thanks for bringing this interesting and sad story to educators’ attention, Andy. I feel especially bad for Allison’s father who “…comes home from his job as a lawyer and searches the Internet. He reads message boards and tries to pick out potential stalkers.”

Although it would not help in this particular situation, perhaps school systems can make it more clear to their student athletes that as a members of school teams, they will be photographed at meets and games and they will be able to be identified. Warning students might take away some of the shock that students like Allison must feel on finding his or her photos online.

Other than that, what can systems do? They can’t keep the public from watching school sporting events, they can’t ban photography at those events, and they can’t run a sport with anonymous players. Perhaps, since sports take place on school property, systems could be watching for “suspicious” photographers, but I’d hate to make school security have to decide whether or not a person is taking “good” photos of student athletes.

Doesn’t the Post article and this blog add to the celebrity? My instinct after reading this is to do a search. I will of course practice restraint and check my ebay auctions instead.

Ah yes, another newspaper article about the non-problems of privileged, successful young people.

I considered that before writing it. I justified it two ways. First, I decided against propogating the photo myself or linking to any questionable content - though I realize you could easily figure it out for yourself. Second, I felt that it’s important to consider her predicament as a cautionary tale.

This blog is generally read by educators, many of whom could potentially benefit from learning about her story as it relates to their work. If I’d ignored it, chances are that many of you would eventually learn about it through your local news or blogs you read, but without discussing it in an educational context. So I concluded it would be better to present it in the context of our own professional development, not in a form that either condones her celebrity or denigrates her, particularly since it’s bound to happen again and again.

Educators need to think about it, and unfortunately, a real-world example is a better cautionary tale than a hypothetical one. -andy

Tom writes:

Ah yes, another newspaper article about the non-problems of privileged, successful young people.

Tom, I don’t know if you have any kids, but if you do, I hope and pray it never happens to them. Would you honestly want your child to be subjected to millions of people gawking at her, creating fan clubs for discussing fantasies about her, with some of them stalking her with emails and phone calls because of it? And would you want other bloggers dismissing your family’s situation as a “non-problem” of “the privileged”?

It’s easy to be snarky when you’re a blogger and are used to getting a certain amount of online attention, both good and bad. But try putting yourself in her shoes. If it were my daughter, I’d be furious. And I’d hope some members of the blogosphere - particularly educators - would offer a modicum of sympathy and constructive support rather than dismissiveness or scorn.

Hi Andy,

Maybe teaching young people about the history of former accidental celebrities would help, by contrast?

I’m thinking of the naked little girl, badly burned, running away from My Lay during the Vietnam War. Of the young woman, more or less the age of Allisson Stoke, who became the symbol of May 68 in France. I remember both of them being interviewed in a radio broadcast,over 30 years afterwards. The publicity had been catastrophic for both of them. Social stigma for the Vietnamese girl, family stigma for the “Egérie de Mai 68”.

Allisson’s ordeal will hopefully be shorter: fewer people could access info back then, granted - but there were more than enough. And as there were fewer sources of info, people paid more attention and remembered it longer.

At least I hope.

Claude

Andy,
I do have a lovely young daughter, and if when she turns 18 she is a successful, beautiful scholar-athlete or artist, I will be very happy. Or if she’s just intact and happy I’ll be happy. And if she has millions of admirers on the web, I’m sure I’ll find some of them to be crude, at worst it will pass, and at best we’ll make it into an opportunity.

But I think you need to look deeper into the rhetoric here. This is an internet story, but it is also an example of a very popular kind of scare story focusing on the problems of ambitious, successful young women, like, say, this one: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/01/education/01girls.html?ex=1191470400&en=004644a8b8d11ae9&ei=5087&excamp=mkt_atlink2. Actually, here’s a relevant quote from that article:

And, for all their accomplishments and ambitions, the amazing girls, as their teachers and classmates call them, are not immune to the third message: While it is now cool to be smart, it is not enough to be smart. You still have to be pretty, thin and, as one of Esther’s classmates, Kat Jiang, a go-to stage manager for student theater who has a perfect 2400 score on her SATs, wrote in an e-mail message, “It’s out of style to admit it, but it is more important to be hot than smart.”

These are postmodern damsel-in-distress tales the anxious rich write about their peers. They’re fun to read and talk about, certainly more fun than, say, and article about an 18 year old girl with no health insurance, in but what’s the underlying message?

We wrap these girls up in such contradictory, perfectionist constructs. Be sexy but recoil from sexuality. We teach them to be powerful and assertive, but we treat them like wilting violets in a crisis. As a feminist, I think Allison is quite capable of handling this situation, even if her father isn’t, and from what I’ve read, she’s doing fine.

Let’s be clear though. If we really think incidents like this are a problem, there is one clear solution. Modesty. To my knowledge, in the history of Western civilization, no female athletes were allowed to dress like Allison and her contemporary peers and do the things they do, and this is literally something that has changed in the past decade or so, right? Women’s ple vault didn’t even become an Olympic sport until 2000.

Why didn’t people do these things before? In large part because people would talk. Now, admittedly, a lot more people can talk now than did before, but they also live a lot further away from you than they used to and have much less direct impact on your life (and remember, there have been no substantive threats or stalking in this case).

If it is a serious problem that crude horn-dog guys spread their locker-room talk about our athletes in public, if it is something 18 year old women need to be protected from, we need to cover up the girls.

That isn’t really the direction I want to go.

Again, another great topic. I am particularly interested in the comments related to Tom’s comment. Now, I have 4 daughters and they are very active in sports. My second daughter has all the makings of a very gifted volleyball/basketball/track athlete. My third daughter could be in the same situation. Do we hide them from public, scared that something will happen? Nope. We talk to them about dressing modestly, wearing appropriate clothing and being sensible. I will definitely show my daughters this article if only to demonstrate that we live in a totally different world where you must be careful. Are we going to stop this? Not a chance. Goodness gracious, have you seen the pictures of girls that are taken down at the beaches and put on the web? Makes this look really tame. As much as this may be hard on Allison and her family, it is no different than printing our graduates pictures in the paper or the thousand of other ways kids pictures are put into circulation. It is sad. As for the school, providing counseling for Allison and assistance for her family might be a good idea. Advising athletes about such things might help. But, Tom is right, we want them to be strong and successful but when something “unsavory” pops up, we seem to try to over-protect the girls. Let them see what is going on. Then, if they still feel like continuing, let’s support them in their efforts.

Glad I prodded further, Tom - really well put. -andy

Her ‘poor dad’ defends rapists (who video
taped his penetrating a drugged minor)
and a pedo, for big bucks. Now he’s upset at some sports pictures? Rapists have a right
to counsel, of course, and
everyone has a right to
free expression and photographing
anything in public. Karma, anyone?

As Monica Lewinsky once was quoted in the
LA Times, people don’t appreciate the speed of the internet.. and what it means when everyone can publish. And things published once, are there forever. Time to wake up.

Anonymity has its virtues, ask Publius.

So the sins of the father should be meted out against the daughter? I don’t care if her dad does something good for a living or not - that can’t ever justify what happens to his daughter.

As with all new social phenomena, ethics and etiquette need to be applied,taught and used. In the case of the internet, these ethics and etiquette need to be accepted locally, nationally and internationally. A set of common social values, taught to all students,and generally accepted by a national and global society would do much to subvert this kind of situation. Eventually we will need to head in this direction. What can you, as a teacher do to address this need?

As a teacher and a person who knows how that a “professional photographer” needs permission from any recognizable person, especially a child, when taking a photo, on school grounds, there seems to be something missing from this part of the story:

“About a year ago, a professional photographer snapped a picture of her at a track meet. As far as online photos go, there was nothing lewd or inappropriate about it - just a superb student athelete in the peak of her career, holding her vaulting pole while adjusting her ponytail. The photo later appeared on a high school track and field website, not unlike countless other photos of student atheletes. Normally, that would have been the end of it.”

Where’s the signed release from the student’s parents needed by this professional photographer to “snap” the photo and then post it online - with her name?

I am guessing, though I don’t know for sure, that someone did give permission - and now regrets it. Is that why no legal action has been taken by the student’s lawyer father? I would think a student’s parent who is a lawyer would have already filed a lawsuit questioning the professional photographer’s “right” to violate the privacy of this student without adult consent (or the school’s consent).

Because of the above, this story, as currently reported, just doesn’t pass the smell test. Something is fishy here. Maybe the father and school did give permission, but now regret. If they didn’t then how did this happen? And when did professional photographers get the right to post the image and name of a student online without such consent?

I blogged about this long ago:

http://tinyurl.com/2rparn

I’m not sure Summer’s interpretation is correct and I don’t think any signed release was needed or present. You don’t have any reasonable expectation of privacy when you’re in public. That said, it’s a concern. The question is how ‘public’ is a school stadium? playground? hallway? classroom?

I have to disagree with Scott’s assertions here, because schools where I have taught have REQUIRED a SIGNED permission “media” release from students PRIOR to anyone taking a student’s photo or placing the student in a video which may be publicly shown. If a parent does not sign the release, or if a parent objects (I can’t recall exactly the procedure), then, the student is not allowed to be in the photo or video. So, in short, some school districts have already dealt with this issue - and, with those written forms, obviously, such a public school is recognizing its obligation to protect student privacy. What makes Scott think anyone is allowed on school grounds to snap a photo and then publicly display it online with a student’s name is a mystery to me. There is no such right known to me in the school districts requiring the type of form I just described, and again, I know those forms exist in some school districts. Apparently, though, and unfortunately, not in the subject school district. Finally, a school stadium is a lot different than a school classroom — these are VERY different arenas! One, the stadium, may be public, and open to anyone walking into it, but surely the public school classroom is not open to just any visitor at any moment. Visitors inside a school must sign in, present identification, obtain permission to go into a classroom, etc. Consequently, I think Scott is in error here. (No offense to you, Scott, but — you’re obviously not a teacher if you don’t know that visitors to a public school need to sign in and show identification, and obtain permission, prior to attempting to go inside a classroom.)

Speaking of the difference between a stadium and a classroom, another question in this matter might be this one, if it hasn’t already been answered: Was this “professional photographer” with a local media outlet, covering a public event? And was this photo placed in local media online? Or was this “professional photographer” just out looking on his/or her own for interesting subjects to shoot? If this is the case, then I don’t understand why the student’s last name had to be mentioned online, or why this photographer felt compelled to take a photo of the student’s face AND disclose her name online. This is the part that makes no sense to me. Why would someone go to the trouble of publishing online a young girl’s name and recognizable photo of her? It seems a violation of privacy to me, though perhaps it is possible the photographer was not thinking of the consequences at that time. Yet, that’s hard to believe, if a person is a seasoned professional photographer who is posting online. IMO, he or she should not be in schools shooting children as subjects - and publicizing the child’s name and face online. I would be very surprised if this school district did not now formulate some policy to prevent this from happening again, and if the student’s lawyer father never files a lawsuit. It just seems so obviously wrong what happened to this girl, speaking as a teacher. Every teacher knows (or should know) to respect a student’s privacy online. (No last names of students publishd online without permission, etc.) I think what happened to this student is just terrible.

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