From the Editor’s Desk: If it’s “Viral,” Will You Get Sick?

TED Talk: Kevin Allocca       I’m currently a little enamored with the TED Talk video format. The videos got their start documenting talks at two annual conferences on “Technology, Entertainment, Design.” TED charges presenters to provide inspirational and game-changing ideas in 18 minutes or less. Not all of the presenters (and the videos preserving their talks) have something to offer, and there are even a few wildly misguided ones. But I’ve seen a slew of really inspiring ones – at least a couple which I would place in the epiphany category. Recently TED has moved to supporting short educational lessons  on specific ideas, produced by exemplary teachers in partnership with innovative animators. It was in pursuit of some of these new videos that I happened to catch Kevin Allocca, a YouTube “trends manager,” in a TED Talk titled “Why videos go viral.”

       As TED Talks go, it was pretty lightweight, getting some entertainment punch from such viral videos as “Friday” and “Nyan Cat.” Allocca states that three things can cause a video to go viral:
  • Tastemakers.  If someone already has a huge presence in pop culture, their endorsement (or indictment, really doesn’t matter which) will propel a video into the spotlight.
  • Communities of Participation. A large number of comments, satires, and parodies will add to the buzz. 
  • Unexpectedness. No one will get excited about a video that portrays a predictable sequence of events. Videos which surprise and twist have a better chance.

       Allocca, of course, is doing a TED Talk because of a larger point – that viral videos (and the processes which produce them) represent broadly democratic participation in popular culture, empowering the creativity and ownership of people who might be, otherwise, simple consumers.�
       Well, maybe.�
       Interestingly, there is one thing missing from Allocca’s list: content! As the several examples he uses very ably illustrate, viral videos do not necessarily have great ideas (or, perhaps, any ideas at all) as a part of what makes them so popular. As a matter of fact, if you look at the list above, only the third point has really anything to do with content, a point further reinforced by the fact that most videos go viral months, sometimes years, after their first posting on YouTube. Viral videos are clearly, in themselves, not fulfilling any particular content or informational need.
       This is the Pandora’s Box of broad participation in social media – it is heavily slanted towards popular culture and mass entertainment, a place where interesting or high-quality content isn’t a sufficient condition for broad attention. It’s not even a necessary one.

       There are educators who think that the forces of social networking have broad implications for learning and instruction. (Yes, I’m one.) And the recent funding of greatly expanded wifi connectivity in many schools (and, with it, the possible support of personal, student-owned devices in classrooms) seems to be, at least in part, poised to leverage this potential. In this blog, I’ve written pretty extensively about how student ownership and collaborative knowledge construction can be greatly improved through online interactive project-based learning. However, a lot of teachers will be quite worried about this, for a few very good reasons. After all, a step into the world of social networking might very well be a step into the world in which content-free “viral” entertainment rules. This observation can even be heard by the better of our own students, a fact I witnessed at a recent student focus group meeting. 


       The word “viral” used to have a negative connotation, and the other declensions of its noun form, “virus,” still do. Take “virulent,” whose first two definitions are “…actively poisonous; intensely noxious..,.” and “…highly infective; malignant or deadly…” Maybe the new use of the word “viral” still should have a connection to its old meeting.  The fear isn’t just what social media produces, but what it displaces – if socially-produced content is given a presence, does it take the place of something much more valuable?
        Of course, there are lots of examples of “viral” videos with actual content (some TED Talks amongst them, and Randy Pausch’s “The LastLecture” being another I can think of quickly). Crowdsourcing media production, and learning, has potential value, but it is the presence of a guiding editorial force which makes TED so much better than most of the YouTube fodder. So the trick will be to leverage the best of participatory culture and media in an environment which includes knowledgeable, experienced guiding forces.
        Seems a little like a classroom, doesn’t it?
        We have been here before. This isn’t really a substantial shift from the first use of Internet access in instruction over 15 years ago. Then, as now, It will become an educational wasteland, if teachers fail to participate in it themselves, and fail to help facilitate its effective use.  The solution then, and now, isn’t just to turn off the computers. Nor is it to pretend that social media production constitutes, in itself, a lesson plan. (I can still remember teachers coming to the computer lab, handing a general research topic to their students, and then sitting in a corner reading the newspaper for the entire class period. The results were a waste of time and technology. That is my biggest fear!)
        Like the treatment of an enormous number of virus-inducing diseases, the best way to avoid getting Nyan Catsick is to have been slightly infected already – the guiding principle behind most vaccines. It’s tricky – there are teachers out there who have actually become fully infected. (I know a half-dozen who spend more time on Facebook pursuing entertainment than they do reading, and the 10-hour version of “Nyan Cat” has had over 12,000,000 views. Ten hours?A-choo!!)
      We should recognize the bulk of viral videos for their banality. But with the addition of the goals and experiences of content-driven education, we should be prepared to embrace the participatory nature of social media production. If you want to be an effective teacher in the coming changing classroom landscape, some exposure to the “virus” will go a long way towards making it work for learning.

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