The Power and Potential Pitfalls of Creativity Online

During my recent winter break, I watched the charming movie Hugo. (Thank you Amazon Prime!)

Hugo tells the story of an orphan boy living in the catacombs of a Paris train station in the early 1930s who finds an automaton. The scribblings of this mechanical man ultimately leads him to the discovery of the true identity of an elderly toy story owner in the train station, who turns out to be the trailblazing early filmmaker, Georges Méliès. The movie portrays Georges Méliès as a sullen man, forced to sell off his movie studio and all of his precious film prints to avoid bankruptcy decades earlier after audience tastes moved away from the fantasy/ science fiction genre that was his specialty. The movie ends with a ravishing movie revival where Georges Méliès is given the opportunity to present his rediscovered masterpieces to a new generation of amazed viewers.

Although the orphan boy and the automaton are fictional, much of the details of the life and work of Georges Méliès is true. He was a pathbreaking filmmaker in the early 20th century, later subsisting in obscurity as a toy shop owner in a Paris train station, until he lived to see the revival of his legacy decades later after his films and their creative genius were rediscovered. His most famous work, A Trip to the Moon, appears below.

What touched me most about this movie was its focus on the power of creative genius to span the generations, making the old young again. This is of course a very Jewish concept. We always speak of our great giants from the past as if they are existing in the present. When we quote the commentary of Rashi on the Torah portion for example, we never say, "Rashi said", rather we exclaim, "Rashi says". As R. Yochanan said in the name of R. Shimon Ben Yochai in Talmud Yevamos 96b-97a, any scholar whose statement is quoted in his name, his lips move in the grave. We literally perform Tehiat Hameitim, bring the dead back to life, every time we quote someone in their name.

The long lasting power of ideas and creative endeavors is especially pertinent to us in the early 21st century. We live in a time, with the rise of the Internet, Web 2.0, and social media, where anyone with an idea can find a global audience. As I pointed out in a recent discussion in the magazine Jewish Action on the Social Media Revolution, this can be very powerful for our students. No longer does rank or credentials matter. In our pure meritocracy, any good idea, well written article, clever video, or witty status update can almost immediately attain a very wide audience.

I suspect as well that these ideas will continue to live online for the foreseeable future. Even if the current platforms like Facebook, Blogger, or Twitter are supplanted, which they likely will be in the coming years and almost certainly in the coming decades, with the cheap and almost limitless storage space of the "cloud", these sites will probably live on in some form. As I saw with a favorite class project of mine, the How to Learn Talmud webpage, which I created with my ninth grade class at the old Frisch School building almost twelve years ago in June 2001 on the now defunct Geocities; when Yahoo decided to retire Geocities, other services like quickly stepped in to give these old sites a new home. Digitally created media, long forgotten, can live on forever and might see a resurgence, much like the works of Georges Méliès did decades after their creation, as they are rediscovered by future generations using new platforms.

This is a tremendously empowering idea for our students, but an equally terrifying one as well. What you post online can quickly reach an audience in the thousands and will likely NEVER GO AWAY.     How do we teach our students to deal with such a reality? My first public record online, a comment I made to Rabbi Yitzchok Etshalom which he posted in his class on the Rambam's Mishneh Torah on what was then called Project Genesis which is now known as the indispensable site, was originally made in 1995 when I was 23 years old. I did not live my tumultuous teenage years online. If I wanted to communicate to the masses when I was in high school, the most I could do was call a radio show or create a flyer and hang it up around campus. I was shielded from the ability to have my rants read by the masses.

Our children and students live in a very different reality. Even if we shield them from posting information about themselves until they reach the age of 13 or so when they can legally have a Facebook profile, what then? We cannot shield them from the online world forever. If as Modern Orthodox Jews we choose to teach our children to engage in this world, how do we communicate the power this new platform provides while assuring that they do not make the inevitable mistakes along the way which will now be easily searchable via Google for a very, very long time to come?

I don't have the answers. If anyone else has a good curriculum on developing a healthy digital identity and becoming an upstanding digital citizen, I would love if you can share it with me in the comments to this posting.

The one strategy I have used to some effect is modeling. I try to model healthy online interactions for my students. I do not let them friend me on Facebook. I try to model the value of some type of professional distance and personal space. But I have created Facebook groups to give them the opportunity to interaction in school-wide events like our Shiriyah. I welcome my students following me on Twitter or reading this blog. A colleague of mine at The Frisch School, Tikvah Wiener, has even required her students to publicly blog as a regular part of their English class so that they could each find their digital "voice". You can read some of the highlights of her FrischLeads program here. It is my hope that we can teach ourselves and our students to utilize the power of cyberspace to create a lasting positive digital legacy that we can be proud of for many decades to come.