The Fame Game: When Making a Viral Video is Homework

By Lauren Noonan YouTube is littered with them – viral videos with millions of views, most involving animals, babies or kids on Novocain after wisdom tooth surgery. It seems like a new one pops up every week, grabbing the attention of people and spreading like wildfire through email, social media and news outlets.

Usually these videos happen by chance. Someone will randomly capture a funny moment on camera and decide the rest of the world needs to see it.

But that’s not the case in Josh Gunn’s Celebrity Culture class. Gunn is an associate professor in the College of Communication, and his research and interests in psychoanalysis and critical theory led him to teach courses such as Rhetoric and Psychoanalysis, Rhetoric and Popular Music and Rhetoric of Film.

The class is designed to familiarize students with fame while also teaching the basics of how celebrity works. Students in the class are assigned a group project where they must develop a publicity campaign centered around a blog post or YouTube video. “I was really nervous about the assignment because it was so vague,” senior Kayleigh Rivera says. “We could do almost anything. Since it was so broad, it was hard coming up with an idea of what to do. It was also nerve-wracking to think of an idea to get views.”

According to Gunn, this is the third time he has assigned the project to his class of about 220 students. He says there can be multiple lessons learned depending on what the students create and how their publicity efforts go. “The experiential take-away for the students when I've used this assignment in the past is that it is hard work to promote something into circulation. One has a lot of competition, if only because of the expanding media networks and increasing access to them.”

The objective is simple: develop a strategy to get as many views as possible. The goal is to have at least 1,000 views by Dec. 12. “The point of the assignment is to see how things circulate,” Rivera says. “A big point of our class is how celebrities circulate themselves, so he wanted us to see how fast things circulate on the internet.”

Among the most popular videos from the class are “UT Baseball Warms Up Gangnam Style,” a video of the baseball team dancing to Psy’s mega-hit “Gangnam Style” in their locker room, which has over 28,000 views. “Spaghetti Dogs,” a short clip showing two dogs sharing a pasta noodle Lady-and-the-Tramp style, has over 23,000 views.

But the most successful video from the class has more than 1.5 million views. “Ruff Dog Days Official Video” features Dudley, a chocolate Labrador retriever, going about his day – waking up, getting dressed, brushing his teeth and even driving with human hands via his owner, senior Charli Kilpatrick. The video has been featured on multiple national shows, including “Good Morning America” and “Anderson Live.”

Gunn says he has at least one or two videos go viral each year, and he works to incorporate these new strategies into his lectures. He says the unpredictability is part of the joy of teaching the class. “I get to learn along with the students,” Gunn says. “I never know what is going to happen.”