Let’s Make This Go Viral, Dawg!

Everyone getting started on YouTube has lofty aspirations, hoop dreams, that his/her video is going to be the next sensation, the next “Chocolate Rain” or Chewbacca Mom, or kid getting taken home from the dentist babbling nonsense. It seems so easy, and many of the most popular videos are effortless. Why couldn’t I do that?

I recently read a wonderful book that delves into this topic called Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger. The book makes clear that going viral is not easy, but it also offers insight into the reasons why certain videos do. After I read the book, I decided that I wanted to try my hand at creating a viral video. And all the while, I wondered if doing so was ethical.

My Big Idea

Before Governor Bruce Rauner called the likes of my kind “illiterate,” he called Chicago Public Schools “crumbling prisons.” I was upset–perhaps more upset than I’d ever been at a politician. My students shared my outrage; theirs confused as to what gains a governor could achieve from bashing his own schools. My Broadcast Journalism students decided to do something. Well… I decided to do something, and my students agreed it was a good idea.

Again, remember that I had just read Contagious. I can’t deny that I had the lessons of the book in my head when I created the idea for a viral video directed at Rauner, staring my students.

The video would show my students walking in a pseudo-chain gang while one of our school’s best singers belted out “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” After the students shook off their ankle ropes, they’d declare that the school is not a prison, and they’d invite Rauner to see the school for themselves, while b-roll played of the wonderful things Senn has to offer. We also planned to create a new hashtag: “Do Your Job,” pointed at the fact that he hadn’t passed a budget during his tenure.

How to Make a Viral Video

Contagious presents six qualities of viral videos and explains in depth the psychology behind them. I considered all six in producing this video, though some were accomplished more than others.

  1. Social Currency: The video was for the third installment of our YouTube show, Senn TV. But we planned to not only open the show with the video, we’d also use it as a stand-alone. Everyone was hating on Rauner on Facebook in mid-July. And many of my fellow teachers (and Facebook friends) were sharing stories that put Mr. Business in his place. Amundsen High School recently did it with the help of documentary makers. And Senn had success by showing what a classroom with 50 kids would look like. Everyone would share this video, and it would make Senn look good. Lots of people gave Rauner an online middle finger, but we’d share the ultimate super-middle-finger. This is social currency. People would look good and feel good by sharing this. The students too!
  2. Triggers: The video was edgy. Perhaps even pushing the envelope further than most. Was I comfortable with this? Yes! The only way to get people talking about a video, the only way to get people sharing a video is to surprise them. Our triggers would be the connection to old-fashioned prison imagery. “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and the chain gang image–these would serve as the triggers that would get people talking or at least paying attention.
  3. Emotion: The biggest surprise of Contagious was in this section–anger and humor get shared and liked, not sadness or despair. I attempted to mix both. First, I wanted to create anger by matching a controversial image over Rauner’s words (from his mouth). As a group, we fueled the anger by having the students speak directly to the camera, directly to Rauner. Humor wasn’t appropriate, so we used joyous images of Senn students smiling and interacting in order to create excitement behind the issue.
  4. Public: We wanted the public in mind with our piece. We wanted to speak for the under-appreciated teachers and the marginalized students. We created a video that could fuel the anger for the public, with them in mind. By using 13 student voices, a sense of public agreement was created. The viewer would be more inclined to include him/herself in the camp angry toward Rauner.
  5. Practical Value: Here we lacked. The video didn’t necessarily inform the viewer of much. We tried to “show not tell” how our school was not a prison. But what practical value was gained? I doubt people felt much more intelligent after watching our piece.
  6. Stories: Viral videos tell stories. Even if details are not plentiful (such as with the boy returning from the dentist), we fill in the blanks to create a narrative. A beginning, middle, and end. Did we have a structured narrative, even one where the viewer could fill in the details?

I’ll let you be the judge. The video opens the show and ends at 1:43.

A Question Arises

I honestly think the video could have gone viral. Through sharing and promotion, the video had the potential to be a talking point. I posted it to YouTube and got eighteen views immediately, prior to putting it on social media. But before I shared it, I decided to ask my wife what she thought.

“I don’t know if I get it,” she said. She was being nice. I pressed further. “Is there a hint of slavery in it?” she asked.

My mind raced. Maybe I should share this with my principal before I let this go far. 

My principal responded quickly not disliking the video, but not responding enthusiastically. She wanted to think about it before I shared it further. I changed the setting and placed it on private.

The following day, I asked another teacher for his thoughts. “Could you edit out the students walking with the rope and the song?” I didn’t know what to say. I was happy to get other people’s opinions, but at the same time, I didn’t want to hear them. I wanted to publish my video, share the hell out of it, and make it go viral.

I’d lost the forest through the trees. The point of the video was not to make a video go viral. The point was to make a statement that would unify the public against Governor Rauner.

A Question of Ethics

The ethical question here is not whether or not we should have put down Bruce Rauner. It’s not about the imagery that resembles slavery. The question is whether I did something unethical when I hoped to create a viral video. I’m not alone. I’d imagine everyone with a YouTube account has considered the same.

My intent was all wrong, and thus my ethics were not virtuous. I hoped to make a change to education policy only as an extension of the glamour, satisfaction, and positive feedback my viral video would gain. Had my intent been geared more towards educating the public rather than becoming clickable, I would have been more virtuous.

But if a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? If we made a great video at Senn about the top-down issues facing CPS, but few watched it, would we have accomplished anything?

It’s crucial to strike a balance between going viral and informing the public. A viral video of a cat falling out of a tree doesn’t make the public more intelligent; it only makes the person uploading it feel the satisfaction of an empty accomplishment (and possibly a little money).

More so, I crossed a line by involving my students with my idea. Though the students all took part willingly, the effort was decidedly mine, and thus a failure even if successful. The point of having students organize a video like this is to enable them to be the backbone of the content. As an educator, I suppressed my students autonomy. I didn’t let them construct the idea and pursue it on their terms.

Moving Forward

I see the error of my ways. I realize that we’ll have many opportunities next year to craft videos that could have an impact on the public. Though I’m fascinated at the possibility to create a video that thousands of people might watch, I’m promising myself to not sell out to the idea.

Paramount to these types of videos is that the students form the idea and perform the execution. Secondly, I’d be sure to use these videos to inform, not incite. Educate, not be clickbait.

As much as I want to teach my students the reality of what makes the world tick, I want to teach them to resist some of the cultural trends perpetuating empty victories over thoughtful commentary.

About Michael

Hello, I'm Michael Cullinane, a high school English and Journalism teacher presently working toward my Masters in Digital Storytelling, using every free moment to complete the revisions of my first novel.

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