Subtitle: What 15 minutes of fame looks like in the 21st Century
Cross posted from 21st Century Collaborative

NOTE: I plan to update or amend this post as new things happen.

urban outfitters twitter

In what world do strawberry picking, crafting, the royal wedding and social media all have something in common? In Amber’s world.

As some of you might know, my daughter Amber Karnes is a passionate crafter who also happens to be a web developer and marketing consultant. Like many of her contemporaries her passions are varied. A quick scan of her blog brings up titles ranging from strawberry picking and fashion to social media and marketing tips. Her most recent post, Anatomy of a trending topic: How Twitter & the crafting community put the smackdown on Urban Outfitters, is the focus of my comments here. Why? Because this interesting story contains some valuable lessons for educators.

A Little Background

So we were sitting in my office and Amber was scanning her Facebook account. She read a piece about how Urban Outfitters was ripping off an independent crafter who sells her designs on Etsy, a web-based store for those who want to make and sell things online. Without much deliberation sent out a Twitter post — an emotional response to what she’d just read, spurred by her own identity as a crafter who also sells things on Etsy.

Amber's tweet

Some remarkable events unfolded as a result of Amber’s tweet. Here’s my take-away, from my perspective as an advocate of passion-based education.

How Students Can Leverage Passion to become Influencers with Social Media

Lesson #1 Amber had just under 1000 followers on Twitter when she launched her jab at Urban Outfitter’s ethics. She is not rated influential by any of the scales that measure social media impact. But she does follow people who are, and some them have reciprocated by following her. Never underestimate the power of the ReTweet.

The other important thing here is that her Tweet wasn’t contrived. It was pure emotion tied to her passion and sense of social justice. It felt authentic.

Ok, now think students. Think teachers. Your students, like Amber, also have things they feel passionate about that are attached to social justice issues — issues that can be easily aligned with your school or state’s curriculum. And even if neither you nor they have a large network in Twitter, chances are that you are following others who do have large and influential networks.

Back to the story: 10 minutes or so after her tweet, Amber’s smartphone explodes with people who are becoming her followers and retweeting her. Her Twitter network grows by 500 within hours. We start to sit up and notice. We take a closer look at what is happening as we try to get our minds around what this all means. Then this message from an influential web service comes through on Amber’s phone.
urban outfitters twitter
I start to get excited. This is a teachable moment for both of us. We had never thought about following or paying attention to what was trending on Twitter. We look it up and she is trending internationally.

What is trending? It means that a certain concentration of people in an area (city or country) are tweeting about a word or phrase. In this case it was Amber Karnes, her name.

urban outfitters twitter

Understanding How to Leverage Generative Technology Use as a Literacy

Lesson 2: There are new literacies that are important for today’s connected learners. Before our eyes Amber became a global citizen. People from around the world were adding her to their network.

Trending topics are often hot global events. During the recent uprisings in the Middle East and the earthquakes in Japan, social media carried the stories long before traditional media outlets organized themselves. What is shared is real time data — pictures, quotes, videos and live events provided by eyewitnesses — all available for your students to gather, examine, and interpret. Case studies of real time historical events make for powerful curriculum.

As educators we should be discussing these new literacies and how to cultivate them as we work with our students. Our students should also be discussing with each other the implications of a world constantly being defined by social media. Together we need to make sense of generative ways to leverage these technologies for deep learning in the connected world.

We looked and looked and couldn’t find where Urban Outfitters responded. Then someone shared this Tweet.

Ok, a step in the right direction. Meanwhile, the artist who was ripped off was reporting hundreds of orders for necklaces in support of her craft — something that pleased my daughter immensely since the real reason for her tweet was in defense of the artist’s creative work. We talked about why it happened and reflected on lessons learned and then Amber left my house for the gym.

However, (and this is key) she takes a detour and decides to stop by Starbucks and write a blog post about all that happened. I tweet it out, thinking this post would make a great discussion item in classrooms around intellectual property and networking. My tweet goes pretty much unnoticed.

Shift to Today

Amber stops by and asks if I saw the post. I pull it up and notice it has been shared out quite a bit. In fact her blog post is now viral. Take a look at the various stats under “Share This” below.

Two hours later it has doubled its reach!

Then things get crazy. The Washington Post calls. They’ve already posted a blog article that describes Amber’s role in the developing Urban Outfitters story and want to interview her for a story that will post the next day. Then Canada calls. A radio station wants an interview. Her site is overwhelmed by all the traffic and goes down. Her site host creates a special, larger space for her and redirects the traffic. ABC News calls and talks to her about an interview. A fashion magazine calls and wants a spread. The local news station calls for an interview. All because of a “tweet” that called attention to a socially important issue by connecting it to a carefully selected tribe of followers who pushed it out across the world.

In all the confusion, excitement and cognitive dissonance, Amber is growing and learning. We both are. With each interview she thinks about her messages and why this is important and why it is happening. She highlights the intellectual property issues, the marketing issues, and how life has shifted in an open world. She talks about the importance of creating your tribe and reflecting deeply about what you’re experiencing when events like this happen.

Self Directed Learning is Supported by Active Blogging

Lesson 3: Amber blogged about the event. She reflected deeply about its implications. When I asked her why did she decided to write about it in a public way, she replied: “I just wanted to blog about it because I am a blogger and I document my life and that was a crazy thing that happened to me.” Yet, through her transparent sharing and documenting, she also made sense of it for others. She spoke to the marketing aspect for her clients. And the networking aspect for her tribe. As she shared her own feelings and emotions things became clearer for her personally as well. That’s one thing that hasn’t changed in the connected world: We write to learn.

As educators, we need to be transparent learners and help our students find their online voices. Blogging and developing a readership for your blog was an important precursor in what transpired here. Because Amber blogged about this event from Twitter, the message spread further. When your students hone in on social injustices that relate to your curriculum, they need to have a place to unpack and reflect on all they are learning as well.

You also need to be blogging as an educator or parent so that you can give what you learn about using your online voice to your students and children. Blogging can also serve as a critical final step for students as they pull out the meaning of their experience and commit it to writing. And blogging can be a significant piece of the formative assessment that supports and validates self directed learning.

Amber’s learning from her blog

In her post from Starbucks, Amber wrote:

1. Don’t underestimate the power of Tribes.
In his book Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us, Seth Godin explains that you only need 1,000 true fans to make a living. That the secret of success is no longer in mass appeal, but in niche. In the tight knit group of a network. Today’s Twitter craziness was all about that.

Lesson 4
I agree with Amber’s spot-on analysis. The reason her tweet resonated with so many? It was aligned with the Crafter Tribe’s expectations — a tacit understanding that they all shared and believed in passionately. And from there the message went forth. When I tweeted it, only four educators retweeted. It was clearly the wrong kind of social activism for my tribe. However, if I had tweeted about a similar personal injustice done to an educator by a large institution, it might have caught fire among my tribal members.

Align your messages with your tribe. Teach your students how to carefully select subject matter experts and others that align with their passions. Teach them to use their social media muscles. Teach them to stand up for what is right. Teach them how to leverage their voice through blogs, communities and personal learning networks.

2. If you have customers, social media matters
If anything was reinforced to me today, it’s that social media happens FAST. If you have customers, you can’t afford to sleep on it.

Lesson 5

Urban Outfitters was slow to respond and then only promised to “get back” to an audience that was paying close attention. There is a powerful message here for school leaders. Apologize. When a school does something wrong, it’s crucial they acknowledge the mistake and take responsibility. Every educational leader should have school guidelines for handling crisis responses related to social networking.

As you empower your teachers to use their social networking skills in building positive digital footprints for themselves, your school and their students, also make sure they have a set of ground rules or a playbook of sorts to reference when mistakes are made and a social media explosion ensues. And mistakes will happen when we are learning something new. Make sure you respond immediately. That means you need to be tracking what is said about your teacher and your school online.

3. People love a cause
A big corporation ripping off small businesses and independent artists is wrong. And in a time when it’s hard to find or keep a job, that’s an easy cause for people to get behind. I think another big reason this spread so quickly was because it was a genuine sentiment (stick it to the man, support this little guy) and that’s something that plenty of people believe in.

Lesson 6
Passion-based learning is a wonderful way to connect students to higher and deeper thinking and encourage them to grow as digital citizens. Help your students find ways to act collectively around your curriculum. Imagine the discussion that might take place around this issue of a corporation taking ideas from a small online artist. For example, what if the artist had given a Creative Commons license to their work? What legal rights does the artist have? Teachers should find ways to incorporate discussions about the internet and intellectual property into the curriculum. Today, and in the digital future (as this tale illustrates), it matters.

Lesson 7
Teachable moments are just that. Carpe Diem! When all this started happening yesterday, my first reaction was: “Great. Now, can we just get some work done?” I was wanting to stay on schedule. I wanted to make all this fuss around a tweet go away until Amber and I were done with the project we were working on. A day later, it became clear with all the calls from news agencies and other attention Amber was getting that I needed to let go and ride the wave with her. I needed to see where this was going to take us. What we would learn. That any planned objectives I had in mind needed to be set aside while we got all the learning we could out of this serendipitous event. The same holds true with our planned curriculum. Sometimes the best experiences in your classroom will come from you getting out of the way and letting learning happen.

So we examined each moment and event throughout the day. We made that our curriculum, learning like crazy as we went along.



Screen captures for how far this post is being shared.
(click on pic to make it larger)


Interview with
Canada Broadcasting Corp As It Happens Live radio (
Click here to listen (8min) interview


More Questions than Answers

This whole experience has created more questions than answers for me as I contemplate the remarkable effect of a handful of passionate words on a tribe, and ultimately, a high-profile company. I would appreciate you guys helping me figure it all out. Please reply with questions and ideas that all this raises in your mind. What might be the implications for teaching and learning and the curriculum? What insights do you see that I don’t? I look forward to our conversation.

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During a 25-year education career, Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach has been a classroom teacher, technology coach, charter school principal, district administrator, university instructor and digital learning consultant. Sheryl is the co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Powerful Learning Practice, where she works with schools and districts from around the world to re-envision their learning cultures and communities through the Connected Learner Experience and other e-learning opportunities. She is the author (with Lani Ritter Hall) of The Connected Educator: Learning and Leading in a Digital Age (Solution Tree, 2012) and serves on the ISTE Board of Directors.
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