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YouTubing 101: Northwestern Offers Course on Viral Videos

Erik Patrick, assistant professor of radio/television/film, teaches what he believes to be the first academic course on viral videos.

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March 19, 2009 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Less than three years ago, Google announced that it was buying YouTube, a profitless Web site started by three 20-somethings, for $1.65 billion in stock. More than a few business analysts at the time wondered what the seemingly savvy Google folks were thinking.

Today the short videos on YouTube and other online video sites are a huge part of digital culture, said Eric Patrick, Northwestern University assistant professor of radio/television/film. So in winter quarter he offered what he believes to be the first academic course on viral videos.

"Viral videos -- video clips that gain widespread popularity through Internet sharing -- sometimes draw more viewers than the evening news," said Patrick. "They're not just about puppies, college pranks and bloopers. They're also platforms for advertising, political discourse and ideas."

President Obama's weekly addresses appear on YouTube, and even the Vatican and British Royal Family boast YouTube channels. One need only think of the doomed candidacy of presidential hopeful George Allen to appreciate online video's influence. When the former Virginia governor's ill-advised "macaca" comment went viral his chances to be president evaporated.

"YouTube and other online video sites are pervasive," said Patrick. "Since our goal in radio/TV/film is to make our students savvy consumers of media artifacts, it only makes sense that we also look at online video."

He asked his class of 14 undergraduate majors in radio/TV/film to produce weekly videos -- with complete knowledge they would be unpolished and rough -- and attempt to make at least one of them go viral. In addition, the class engaged in readings ranging from memetics to medium theory, and viewed and analyzed viral video classics.

Among those classics was "Dramatic Look," a five second video of a hamster set to gothic horror music, that has been seen on YouTube nearly 14 million times in fewer than two years. Others included "David After Dentist" (a current YouTube favorite with more than 16 million hits since January) and user-generated footage of protests by Buddhist monks in Burma.

If videos ever went viral without marketing, it is highly unlikely that they do today, Patrick said. YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley last fall noted that no less than 13 hours worth of video were uploaded to YouTube every minute.

Research by comsScore, a company that measures activity on the Internet, recently reported that 147-plus million U.S. Internet users watched an average of 101 videos in January this year. Little wonder, then, that Patrick's class also learned some of the marketing techniques used to boost online videos into the stratosphere.

Senior Marcy Capron, who plans to go into advertising, called the class extremely relevant. "Being able to make an online video go viral is incredibly important," she said. "YouTube is still the future of advertising for at least another couple of years. I could get hired solely based on my experience in this class, who knows?"

Among the marketing techniques the class explored were best keyword and timing practices. In addition they learned about a technique called "astroturfing" In it, one uses multiple accounts to create what looks like grassroots "buzz" about a video in the hope of bringing it to the attention of others on the Web.

One of the most successful videos (as judged by number of hits) was a "mashup" of SuperBowl TV commercials created by senior Sean McCormick. He was less interested in production values than in the timing of the video's release and in using keywords that would draw viewers to it. To date, the video has had more than 7,000 hits.

"From a curricular standpoint, the viral video class was a way to acknowledge that there's much more than film out there these days," said Patrick. "New technologies, whether on cell phones, iPods or computers, are creating new forms and aesthetics that deserve critical study."

Patrick also hoped the class would validate Web video, something his students and their contemporaries enjoy but often consider less than worthy.

"When we went around introducing ourselves at the first class it felt almost like an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. People would look away and say 'My name is George and I like Web video' or 'I'm Megan and I watch a lot of video.' I wanted to remove their embarrassment about watching online videos and encourage them to think of these short works as legitimate media artifacts," the professor said.

Sophomore Jed Feder, a double major in film and music composition, took the course because he wanted "to have a solid familiarity with online videos, to see and discover what it takes to for a video to be culturally significant." He created an intriguing music video by mixing together different iPhone sounds.

"I'm a fan of online video, like everyone else," says Feder, who estimated he watched online videos at least a half-hour a day. He feels that they allow him "to see the world through the eyes of ordinary people and not only through Hollywood. The class gave me insight into this cultural phenomenon and a better idea about what it is that people want to see."

Sata Katz-Scher, who expects to graduate in 2010, said the class gave her the chance to create her first work in machinima, a genre in which videos are made within videogame environments. She recreated the opening theme from the 1960s television show "The Jetsons" within a popular Playstation 3 game called Little Big Planet.

The class also changed her video posting relationship with YouTube. "Now I understand how to tag things and even how to choose a topic in order to milk it for views," she said.

Students indicated that while the class was fun -- after all, they got to view and analyze some of their favorite videos – it was also demanding. Junior Arianna Stern called the "breakneck speed" at which she had to work the greatest challenge. Others found coming up with ideas the most difficult part of their weekly assignments.

Sophomore Jane Wang created a montage of television clips from "So You Think You Can Dance" to the popular song "Just Dance." It got 2,000 hits. Assigned to make a music video, she and three musically inclined friends were separately videoed improvising on the piano, cello, violin and oboe.

While that video – which presented footage and sound of the four musicians together – got fewer hits than her dance video, the musical results were surprisingly harmonious. "I'd been brainstorming for a long time before I came up with that idea," said Wang. Pleased with the result, she expects to make more improvised music videos in the future.