YouTube may not be a profit machine yet, but it can be big business, and limitless free marketing, for the people who put videos on it. Validation of cultural realities previously thought of as throwaway come through academic settings, and as proof, Northwestern University, near Chicago, has launched the world's first college class dedicated to viral videos.

Viral videos, in case you don't know, are those little short movies you see on the web. They're the inspirational/maddening/funny ones your friends send links to in e-mails and spread like wildfire, hence the nickname: Diabolical groundhogs, little boys high on the dentist's drugs, spinster singers blowing Simon Cowell away on one of those British shows we can't see. They're conversation pieces, albeit for very short conversations that usually begin with "Did you see.." and end with "...That was great."

Although some are heralding YouTube, Twitter, and Digg as proof of the democratization of the media, others see them as not much more than new delivery systems for ads and shallow self-promotion. Even the Pope has a YouTube channel, and he's not doing it for the art of it. Indeed, the Northwestern students aren't just studying viral videos as a social phenomenon worthy of cultural critique, but also how to make their own and seed the ground for their success.

One of the tricks being taught to the students is called "astroturfing," in which several different accounts are set up to show the same video, giving the impression that it's caught on in popularity. They also learn how to time their videos for maximum impact.

"Being able to make an online video go viral is incredibly important," rhapsodized a senior planning an advertising career. "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?" Yeah, it sure beats putting fliers on windshields, although the students' efforts to create the next hit video mostly fizzled at about 7,000 views as opposed to the 3.3 million hits that Susan Boyle's audition has racked up since last Saturday.

Another student, a sophomore, admitted to watching online videos for a half-hour a day -- a cheap pursuit for a student who presumably doesn't have cable TV.

I went to Northwestern myself, but I attended the journalism school, where anything less than chasing fire trucks with a notepad was looked on as fluff. This course is being taught by the film and TV department, which tended to take a more secular approach. I'll actually be glad when they start teaching this class in the journalism schools, too, because reporters need to know how these things reach the market -- and it is a market. They've gradually become reliable spokes in the news cycle, ending up as 30-second filler on your local news and even on this blog (here's one about a disgusting fast food joint).

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