Think back to the summer of '06.

That's not that long ago, but it was likely around that time that someone asked you, "Have you heard of YouTube?"

The video sharing site was just a few months old and not yet owned by search powerhouse Google. When you went there, you saw things that made you laugh, other things that shocked you, and things that made you likely think to yourself, "So-and-so has to see this."

Fast-forward less than three years and that impulse to share is the focus a new undergraduate class at Northwestern University.

"Viral videos -- video clips that gain widespread popularity through Internet sharing -- sometimes draw more viewers than the evening news," said Northwestern University assistant professor of radio/television/film Eric Patrick. "They’re not just about puppies, college pranks and bloopers. They’re also platforms for advertising, political discourse and ideas."

Patrick's class of 14 produces weekly videos and attempts to make at least one of them go viral, important for those trying to make a name for themselves, or companies trying to market a product or message.

There's theory behind virality, Patrick teaches, including keyword, timing, choosing a category for the video and "astroturfing," where someone 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, a Northwestern University press release explained.

"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."

And the students are having some success, and they say they're looking to put to good use what they've learned.

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.

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?"

Contact Us