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A Safety Lesson Gone Viral

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Date posted: December 9, 2013

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In November, a Tennessee elementary school counselor decided to give her students a real-life demonstration of how fast things can spread on the Internet. She got more than she bargained for.

Julie Culp posted a photo on her Facebook, asking people to “like” it to show “how quickly a photo can be seen by lots of people.” It went viral soon after, being reposted by radio personalities and getting press coverage around the world. And it garnered more than 4 million “likes.”

Culp certainly succeeded in illustrating how quickly images can spread. This story also illuminated, perhaps inadvertently, another aspect of social networks and life online: once you post something, you lose control of it.

Culp’s original photo was edited, reworked, and remixed. It appeared with zombies and dinosaurs, with Beyonce and with a pirate. The message Culp held in her photograph was changed, too.

For good or ill, Culp’s original photo and all of the variations have now been used in news stories on TV, in newspapers, and in countless websites (like this one), and these images are stored on servers all over the Internet, all over the world, forever.

It’s quite a memorable lesson for Julie Culp, for her students, and for all of us, even if it turned out to be a little more than she bargained for.