A college course centered around becoming "famo", or popular in the internet is more of a novelty. It actually holds some weight, as the internet is the future of commerce.
Googling for Your Grade
By S. JAMES SNYDER/NEW YORK
It's the week before finals, and Jamie Wilkinson's students are getting nervous. No matter how many videos they post, how many blogs they subscribe to, how many friends they sign up, it just isn't working. They aren't reaching enough people; they still aren't famous enough.
And no, they aren't goofing off.
On the contrary, becoming famous is the main point of Wilkinson's class, organized through Parsons The New School for Design in New York City. All semester long his students have monitored their own progress, fully aware that a piece of Internet-scouring software, not their teacher, will be issuing the final grades. And as the 15 students regularly check the class's blog for the latest rankings, Wilkinson has structured his curriculum to give them tips on how to get and stay famous in this increasingly saturated virtual world.
"Actually, we don't call it being online famous; we call it 'famo,'" says Wilkinson, who conceived the "Internet Famous" course along with friends and semi-famo digital artists James Powderly and Evan Roth. The trio came up with the idea after realizing that their online strategies for distributing and promoting their own art would one day become essential tools for emerging 21st century artists trying to break through the static.
For both Wilkinson and his students, the "Internet Famous" course marks something of an educational, and technological, experiment. In essence, they are attempting to quantify fame on the Internet by developing a matrix that simultaneously measures the number of eyeballs, the amount of attention, the caliber of the social network, and a variety of other factors. The goal of it all? To help students learn how to use, and even manipulate, the new set of rules guiding online commerce.
"In a world where Facebook is valued at something like $16 billion, it makes sense to encourage students and faculty to study together not just to explore how these new online systems work, or to sit around reading case studies, but to interact directly and play with these systems," says Ted Byfield, associate chair of Parsons' department of communication, design and technology. "This isn't 16th-century German literature; you can't have an expert from the field come in and teach. There's no established body of knowledge. It's all new."
On this particular December evening, Wilkinson is astounded by what he sees something of a finals crunch among his famo-seekers. Having failed at "legitimate fame," he says, many students are desperate for anything to generate traffic and get a last-minute bump to influence their grades. One popular tactic: posting short videos of scantily-clad women, all bearing suggestive titles.
As Wilkinson goes around the class, asking people to show what digital art they've made over the last week, it's clear these tawdry music videos are the hit of the day. One student reveals that his short video has generated 13,000 views in only a few days. "Wow, talk about selling out," Wilkinson marvels. "I thought you weren't going to stoop that low...but you can't deny the numbers. Look at those page views; that's amazing!"
Day and night, three computers in Wilkinson's bedroom scour the Internet, caught in a constant loop of what he terms "scraping" constantly going through search engines, blogs, networking sites, video hubs and other sources for what's hot, what's new, and where his students stand. Thus far, what they have uncovered is a sprawling, and expanding, virtual hierarchy that is all but unknown by most Americans.
"Some of these crazy famous people online just started doing their own thing, and somehow it caught on," says Danny Durtsche, a student in Wilkinson's class. "You have Tay Zonday, who just started posting videos of himself singing, and now millions of people have watched and he's become the posterchild of YouTube, even paid to do a Dr. Pepper commercial. And then you have something like 'Wizard People, Dear Reader,' which spoofs on 'Harry Potter' and clearly started as an inside joke, but now has been reviewed by the New York Times and is watched by hundreds of thousands of people. That's better than some independent movies." Or Wilkinson's choice for the current famo champion: Lauren Caitlin Upton, better known as Miss Teen South Carolina, the Miss Teen USA contestant whose flubbed response to a questions during the pageant has become one of the most watched videos in the history of the Internet.
As Wilkinson sees it, this is the world in which his students will be competing a world wide web where almost everyone is "trying to become viral, and constantly confronting savvy online audiences that have razor-sharp bullshit detectors."
For all the tricks and shortcuts his students have learned about how to use headlines, keywords and tags to attract the attention of search engines, and how to use social networks to seek out the audience that will be most receptive to what you have to say Wilkinson said the key to attaining "legitimate famo" is the same as it's always been: quality, tenacity and persistence. "If you want more than temporary fame, it's still about putting feet to pavement, about going out there and making a million MySpace friends and developing a following. There's a reason that the people who were online first are the ones with the larger networks who have crazy famo."
Durtsche says the class has helped him to look differently at the Internet, at how quickly famo comes and goes. "Things become popular so quickly that they are almost instantly inside jokes, and then yesterday's news," he says. "You have to be creative, especially in this class to get an A. Why do you think I'm talking to you? This story is going online with my name, isn't it? That's more famo, right there."