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