Starting an Epidemic: Producing Virality from a Rhetorical Framework
- Analyze and assess contemporary texts (viral productions) from a rhetorical perspective
- Incorporate rhetorical concepts in order to design, produce, and deliver multimodal texts
- Employ methods of social media analysis using basic tools for data analytics
Stage 1: Analyzing
For homework, ask students to find and share at least one example of viral content to a communal location such as a class Twitter hashtag, blog, or discussion forum. Encourage students to consider different genres of viral content such as YouTube videos, memes, articles, websites, etc. Ask students to examine at least 2 other students’ examples of viral content.
In class, begin by having a general discussion about what students saw in the viral productions. How would students classify or describe the viral productions? How did they decide if a text had gone viral? Were there any commonalities across the various genres and productions? On the board, begin to collect a list of what characteristics make a production go viral. Examples may include: funny, emotional, short in length, simple message, etc. After collecting the characteristics, ask students to reframe the characteristics in rhetorical terms. For example, funny and emotional may refer to the rhetorical appeal of pathos, length may be a function of arrangement, the simplicity of the message may relate to invention, etc.
Suggested readings: Selections from Limor Shifman’s Memes in Digital Culture, Jonah Berger’s Contagious: Why Things Catch On, various “how to be a YouTube success” and other viral marketing how-to guides that are easily accessible online
Stage 2: Producing, Distributing, and Tracking
Divide students into small groups of approximately 3 people. Provide time for students to brainstorm and design their rhetorical production. Students should consider the rhetorical situation of their production: what is their rhetorical purpose, who is their audience, and how will they design a viral production that will accomplish their purpose for their intended audience? Students should also pay attention to their rhetorical constraints: how much time and money do they have to produce their text, what kind of access to technology do they have, and what technical production skills do they have in their group?
Allow students time over multiple days to work within their groups. Provide access to technology if available, but viral productions can be created even with limited technology like a smart phone or non-digital multimodal elements. Check-in with groups periodically in order to make sure the groups are on track and to assist with any technical difficulties.
After the groups have finished producing their viral text, they will need to distribute it. Students should consider how best to reach their intended audience and how to make their text go viral. Remind students that distribution may not be a one-time action; instead they will need to consider how they can make the best use of the digital technologies and distribution methods available to them.
Students will also be responsible for tracking the virality of their production. In their groups, students should articulate their methods for measuring how viral their text becomes. Some basic methods of tracking may include counting the number of shares, favorites, retweets, or views. This is easily accomplishable with the pre-existing interfaces on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and other popular social media sites. Depending upon the type of production, Google Analytics may be able to provide additional insights into how often something has been shared, by whom it was shared, where that individual got the link, etc. (some more information about that here or here).
Stage 4: Reflecting
Depending upon the amount of time, you may want to include one reflection or multiple reflections. We included a debrief after students had distributed their viral productions. As a large class, we discussed the various rhetorical choices they made during the design and production phases of the project, the challenges they encountered, that aspects that were easier than expected, in what ways they considered themselves to be successful, etc.
After about a week, ask students to report back on their tracking. Did any of the productions go viral? If so, how did they determine how viral a text went? Were they able to determine anything about the audience of their viral text, as in, did their intended audience access the text? Did they discover any patterns of access like increased traffic during a specific window or from a referral site?
Most likely, students will report that their production did not go viral. However, this experience can be just as worthwhile to discuss. Why do students feel that their production did not go viral? What rhetorical concepts could explain their success or failure? What would they change if the constraints (time, money, technology skills and access, etc.) were removed, and how would they justify these changes rhetorically?
PDF: Starting an Epidemic teacher plan
Starting an Epidemic by Kaitlin Clinnin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.