Googling for Your Grade

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A screenshot of the "Internet Famous" blog (, as devised by teacher Jamie Wilkinson at Parsons The New School for Design in New York City

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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."

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