Social Awareness

Family Resources on Picture it! in 280 Characters or Less

Project and Purpose

Students will consider how social media posts can be interpreted by others and how to think about posts that they may see on social media.

Essential Questions

Can we really control the way others interpret what we post online?

If this lesson was used in the classroom: Students learned that social media posts often may not provide a complete picture of an event. Students viewed a picture posted on social media that could be interpreted in more than one way; and was, in fact, posted and misinterpreted on social media. Students then discussed and wrote a mock social media post to see if they could create a post that could be interpreted in context.

Getting Ready for the Conversation

There are many contexts where social media and internet posts are misinterpreted (or even outright fabricated). Being able to look deeper and think critically about social media posts and internet web pages is extremely important for individual safety as well as civic understanding. Learning to interpret and understand context online is an essential skill for our connected world.

Conversation Starters and Practice at Home

The first item is for follow-up after participating in class activities.

Explain the picture you saw and the interpretations of the social media post. Why do you think it was misinterpreted in the first place?

What are some reasons why social media posts can be misinterpreted?

What are some effective questions to ask before making a judgment about a social media post? Why are these good questions?

Can someone be hurt because of incomplete information provided in a social media post? Why or why not? Share some examples.

School to Home Resources on Picture it! in 280 Characters or Less




1. Begin this lesson with a discussion of the phrase “A picture is worth 1,000 words.” Share that we believe that the phrase is American in origin and began to be used often in the American press around the 1920’s as applied to graphics in advertising.

  • Ask students what this phrase means to them.
  • How might it apply to fine art that we view in a museum?
  • How does it apply to the photos and comments we post online?

2. Tell students that the title of this lesson is “Can a Picture Tell 280 Characters?” Why was that title chosen? What can they infer (make an educated guess) about the title? How does that title relate to the well-known phrase referring to a thousand words? (NOTE: Twitter messages have a maximum length of 280 characters.)

3. Next, share with students the photograph of the famous Rembrandt painting Night Watch, which hangs in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. It is Rembrandt’s largest, most famous canvas. Rembrandt was the first to paint figures in a group portrait actually doing something. The captain, dressed in black, is telling his lieutenant to start the company marching. The guardsmen are getting into formation. Rembrandt used the light to focus on particular details, like the captain’s gesturing hand and the young girl in the foreground. She was the company mascot (reprint available at end of lesson or use recommended websites).

4. Now that the importance of the painting to the art world and to the people of Amsterdam has been established, have students look at what recently went viral. Show the photo snapped and posted on Facebook by a professional photographer:

  • What do you think is happening?
  • How would you feel if your image was captured at the museum on a field trip?

5. Explain that the viral image caused a stir. Ask students what they might expect were some of the Twitter remarks on social media (almost 9,500 posts) before sharing these actual comments:

  • The “distracted” society. No wonder we’re in the shape we’re in now. Teach Your Children!
  • Anyone believe they’re Googling Rembrandt? Nope, me neither
  • What a sad picture of today’s society!
  • Doesn’t it make you think that maybe we ought to be questioning the relevance of old brown paintings?

6. Share the real story. It turns out the students were actually researching a school assignment when the photo was taken. Here is the photographer Gijsbert van der Wal’s explanation:

“A small group of high school students were sitting on the benches in front of Rembrandt’s Night Watch. Almost all of them were either looking at their own smartphones or their classmates’. I thought it was a curious sight and took a photograph.

“That same evening, I posted the photo on Facebook where, to my utter surprise, within a few days it was shared almost 9,500 times. The image was also reposted by others and shared on Twitter, Tumblr and Reddit. It went viral, with people often adding rather dispirited captions: today’s youth is more interested in Whatsapp than they are in Rembrandt.

“On the other hand there were people who warned not to be misled by the image: they asserted that the students were in fact attentive to the art works, using the museum’s freely downloadable multimedia tour. That seems a plausible explanation. However, I think a well-designed museum app should continuously direct the attention of the user from the phone to the actual objects on display.”


7. Explain that student will do a writing activity called Connecting the Centuries. Let’s say the characters in Rembrandt’s Night Watch could post on social media as well. What might they have to say as they look out at today’s museum visitors? Ask students to be creative and think about the wonderment and confusion these individuals from the 1600’s might have on today’s dress, conduct, tools and technology. How might we be misunderstood? How might we be admired?

8. Have students share their ‘posts.’


Discuss the following: Can we really control the way others interpret what we post online? What do we need to think about when posting?

The Night Watch (1642) by Rembrandt van Rijn is one of the most famous paintings in the world. Rembrandt was the first to depict the figures in a group portrait in action, showing the civic guardsmen taking up their positions in order to march out. His manipulation of light was also unprecedented.

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