Social media can be an effective way to share information.
In fact, it can be frighteningly effective.
A group of teachers at Sheffield Area Middle High School were talking about ways to demonstrate to middle school students just how far and how fast information spreads on social media.
"The kids don't understand the power of social media," Principal Amy Beers said.
English Teacher Anna Peterson had seen other teachers' efforts, maybe 10 or 15 times and volunteered to have a picture taken of herself holding a sign. She posted the picture to her private Facebook page. Only her few hundred friends could see it. "My privacy settings are set as high as they can go," she said. The sign asked readers to like and share the picture and contact her when someone from another state or country saw it.
There were no grumpy cats, no small men dancing to catchy, foreign music. Just a picture of a woman holding a sign.
It went viral.
She posted the picture at about 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 18, hoping it would reach all 50 states in time for a character education lesson that Friday. "If I could get this to all 50 states in 48 hours... what a lesson," Peterson said.
Beers saw the photo shortly after it was posted. She shared it.
Keeping track of the spread of the photo was tricky. Peterson could only tell when her friends liked or shared the pic. She ended up at 76 of those. If someone who was not her friend saw the picture on a friend's wall, she was not notified.
But some of those who helped spread the image kept in touch, letting Peterson know how many shares and likes they had. "In 12 hours, I know that it made it to 12 states and two countries," Peterson said.
"My cousin, Charlene, in California, had 383 shares just from hers in 24 hours," she said.
She used a formula estimating that each person who liked or shared the picture had an average of 200 friends and a fairly small portion of those friends liked or shared it.
At 18 hours, the spread had reached 22 states and six countries. She estimated 120,950 people had seen the picture.
After 36 hours, in time for the last day of school before Christmas vacation, Peterson had confirmation that the photo had been seen in all 50 states and 31 countries. The estimate of total views, shares, likes, and comments was up to 500,000. "That's when the reality kicked in - a half a million people have seen this picture," she said.
Peterson put together a PowerPoint presentation. Rather than share the message to each class individually, school officials figured the impact would be greater in an assembly. The entire middle school student body saw how far a post could go in two days.
"We asked the kids to consider this (as if it were) something negative about themselves," Beers said.
"What if this was mean comments that someone had posted about you? What if this was a post about a fight that you had gotten into? What if this was an inappropriate picture posted of you?" were some of the questions posed to students at the assembly.
"Your picture can be seen by people who are not on your friends list," Peterson said. "Once you put it out there, you don't have control over it. Even if I delete this, it's too late. It will never go away."
The staff was hoping the students would be impressed.
"I got on Facebook one day and saw it," eighth grader Danielle Brown said. "I liked it and shared it."
She saw it again and again. "It just kept popping up on my news feeds," Brown said. "My friends keep sharing it."
"I got a notification that (Peterson) had posted a pic," eighth grader Angel Bailey said. "I clicked on it. I looked at it. I shared it."
Neither student thought Peterson's post had much potential.
"I didn't think it was going to go very far," Brown said. "I'm surprised so many people saw it and so many people shared it."
"I didn't think it would go very far," Bailey said. "On a normal person's Facebook, they post a picture, they get maybe 50 likes."
"It went everywhere," she said.
"I wish people would do things like this more because it tells people how fast media spread," Brown said.
"This shows me that on Facebook, don't post things that you don't want someone else to see," Bailey said.
The point of the lesson was not that people should avoid social media. "I don't want you to worry about Facebook," Peterson said. "I want you to think."
"They will think," Beers said. "The majority of students took this lesson to heart."
It's also a lesson for parents. "You have allowed your child to have Facebook," Peterson said. "Do you understand what that means?"
"You need to know their password so you can have access," she said. "You need to friend them so you know what they're doing. Be aware of the potential and the power so your kids are safe."
"It's absolutely frightening as a parent," Beers said. "These conversations need to happen."
Since the assembly on Dec. 20, about three weeks ago, the picture has continued to spread like wildfire across the internet.
"At this point it's totally unquantifiable," Peterson said.
"A random person at the Y came up to me and said, 'Are you that teacher?'" Peterson said. After confirming that she was, he told her he had liked and shared the picture.
She guessed that it has been seen in almost every country in the world.
As of Wednesday, cousin Charlene in California had 122,339 shares from her page alone.
The experiment was interesting enough that news outlets well outside of Warren County are interested. "My cousin contacted me because NBC in San Diego had contacted her to contact me to do a story on it," Peterson said.
More people were contacting Beers, as principal, than Peterson regarding the photo and the experiment.
She received a "friend request from Finland" on Wednesday, Beers said. In addition to teachers and administrators from all over the United States, "I've been contacted by teachers in England asking for the statistics." She is willing to share, but suggests that the lesson will have more impact if it's done at each school.
"I have hundreds of requests to join the school Facebook page," she said.
"I never expected it to be this big," Peterson said. "Facebook is crazy."