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.