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University teaches the keys to ‘viral video’

In a course that many believe to be the first of its kind, Northwestern University film students last winter learned the keys to creating online videos with the potential to draw mass audiences in a phenomenon known as "going viral."

Students in the Evanston, Ill.-based school’s viral video class, also known as YouTubing101, produced online videos according to seven popular YouTube genres and learned how to craft tag words and terms that would push their videos near the top of popular search engines such as Google and Yahoo.

Eric Patrick, a Northwestern assistant professor who taught the 10-week class, said the utility of web-based video–for marketing purposes and distribution for artists–could eventually spur similar viral-video courses on campuses nationwide.

"This has been coming for a while, and I think that universities are going to have to get in on the game," said Patrick, who started teaching at Northwestern in 2007.

Patrick and a university release from March said Northwestern’s viral-video course is the first such course in the United States. An online search showed that public relations students at the University of Georgia created web-based marketing videos for the university’s admissions department, but the class did not focus exclusively on how to create videos that would "go viral." A 2007 University of California, Santa Barbara, pilot course explored video distribution on the internet and awarded $5,000 to two students whose video received the most hits.

Students made weekly videos for Patrick’s course, tailoring their works for genres such as politics, gags and bloopers, music, and culture. Students had to embrace online video as a legitimate form of film, Patrick said, before they could create works to be spread across the internet.

"They were very confessional," said Patrick, who studied art and film at the University of New Mexico and earned a master’s degree at the California Institute of the Arts. "They all watch these web videos all the time, but they feel like it’s a dirty secret because it wasn’t a valid form."

Students’ familiarity with internet video was made clear almost immediately, Patrick said, when the class focus turned to tagging videos effectively for maximum distribution.

"It became apparent right away that these students really knew what they were doing," he said.

Sean McCormick, one of the 14 students in Patrick’s viral-video course, said the curriculum showed that adding tag words and terms is far from an exact science.

"There’s a lot of room for experimenting and figuring out what kind of online video will draw the biggest audience," said McCormick, 22, a Northwestern senior who majors in film and economics. "Some of it’s kind of luck, but there are certain ways you can push it in the right direction."

McCormick said videos are more likely to draw thousands–sometimes tens of thousands–of viewers when there is a perfect mix of tag words, the video is timely and related to news events, and the title is accurate and eye-catching. McCormick made a commercial consisting of Super Bowl commercial clips–called a "mashup"–in February. The video was posted online the day after the Super Bowl, and more than 2,000 people watched it in 24 hours. The hits tapered off, he said, but the mashup still received more than 8,000 total views.

Patrick noted that the film industry is cluttered with "juvenile, silly, and mindless" works, but audiences still consider movies a legitimate form of art and communications. Colleges and universities, he said, should see online videos in the same light, despite the pantheon of unserious YouTube clips posted every day. 

"There was a point where we said this isn’t something to be taken seriously," he said, adding that political races have been affected by web-based video, including the 2006 Virginia senatorial race, when incumbent George Allen was caught on camera making a comment that was construed by many as racist. "There’s just so much stuff that I think it’s deadly serious."

McCormick said he wants to launch a web site this year that would focus on the internet’s latest viral videos. Making money from the number of hits a viral video gets, he said, could one day be a full-time job for college graduates who are well-versed in ways to spread videos across the web.

"I don’t think that YouTube or online videos are going away any time soon," he said. "There are a lot of eyes watching them, and those eyes can be monetized somehow. … I’m trying to figure out the viability of how to make money at this … and [this course] was incredibly helpful and a great tool."


Northwestern University viral video course

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