THE BLOG

Story-telling, Selfies and Safety

06/03/2015 18:08 GMT | Updated 06/05/2015 10:59 BST

For as long as we can trace back time story-telling has been the fabric of all society, bridging generations, communities and cultures. But never before the advent of the digital age has it been more critical to identity and security, particularly for women and girls.

I have been studying and writing about the profound affect social media has had on young people born in or after 1997, touching all aspects of how they learn, share and collaborate. And from now on, these young people start to leave education and move into the world of work or entrepreneurism. And the opportunity for young girls to make their mark has never been more great.

Social media is gender neutral in its benefaction, but there is one area where the need to be and remain safe has brought back the story telling skill, particularly for girls.

But not story-telling in its traditional form.

I began my understanding of this shift at a hack we ran a couple of years ago for Refugees United. This is a charity working in the refugee camps of Kenya, putting family and communities back together, who have had to shatter at the borders in order to have a hope of getting into the overflowing camps. Whilst they had many charity workers on the ground with clipboard and phones, they were failing dismally to find a way to identify people, and therefore match them and put them back together with their friends and loved ones.

The problem arose because sometimes people lied to avoid being caught and sent back over the border, names were often the same and in some cases, for example for women, if they became a mother then their name would actually change.

At the hack a group of young people came up with the idea of capturing stories, those that only family members would tell, or small communities would know; and then writing an algorithm to match words and phrases to see who was telling what looked to be a similar story.

Such a simple but effective solution, cheap too. It captured the imagination of everyone there and I started to look across all social media and noticed something: we no longer use names as identifiers there either.

Young people are using the tools of story-telling to identify themselves and each other, especially girls. The millions of selfies, much derided by the media are not born of simple arrogance - they are a continuous stream of identifiers: this is me, I look like this I am here wearing this. They tag each other to say, yes this is you, you look like that and you were there.

Can you imagine a better system of safety? A better way to make sure that a person is who they say they are? I cannot and this is why I make this plea today on International Women's Day.

We need to continue our vigilance in safeguarding women and girls, especially online. But we must step back from young girls and not interfere or discourage overt engagement in social spaces. They instinctively use these verifiers to identify each other, to validate and reassure that you are who you say you are. In this space strangers find it hard to hide and have to work very hard to create a web of deceit, and it gets harder and harder to validate yourself if you are masquerading and you will be quickly exposed and blocked.

Let the older girls teach the younger ones the ways to stay safe, ensure they are sharing in spaces where tagging, photos and geolocators is central to community and communication, and we too can learn about how our stories really are important now - and not only shape peoples' knowledge about us, but they are our new names, our new identifiers. Tell your story. Stay safe.

PS We had a great debate last night at The Trouble Club about whether it was really true any more that 40% of the internet is porn. We reckon selfies must be taking over now - so that's a secondary win right there!