Learning How to Get 'Internet Famous'

Andrew Mahon needed to get famous—fast. So he set up a Web site——asked people to give him suggestions, and acted out their fancy on YouTube. He videotaped himself getting his bellybutton pierced, dressed as a Wall Street banker begging for change—even rode his bike around Manhattan in nothing but an American-flag thong.

"Famous Andrew" was an experiment, but not the kind you'd think. It was actually Mahon's homework for a design and technology course. It was an unconventional learning tool, to say the least. But at Parsons, the New York City design school where Mahon is now a senior, professors Evan Roth and James Powderly, both artists, along with software developer Jamie Wilkinson, believe that learning how to spread your work on the Web can be almost as important as creating it in the first place. "I think there's this kind of romantic notion of why artists make things, and many are reluctant to admit they want people to view their work," says Roth, a graphic artist who helped teach the class remotely, via Skype, from Hong Kong last semester. "We wanted to overcome that."

So he and two buddies created Internet Famous, a class dedicated to the art of getting hits. Now in its fourth semester, the course is graded exclusively by algorithm, and aims to quantify students' Web fame by adding up their followers and friends, tracking blog pickup and YouTube buzz, as well as assessing the caliber of discussion about each project. By analyzing sites like Twitter, Digg, and nearly a dozen others, a software tool assigns each student a "Famo Index Score" that determines each grade. The point is to get people to watch you—in whatever way you can—and then build on that fame to get your real work out. "It's basically applied social networking," says Ted Byfield, a communications professor at Parsons who is the former co-chair of the design and technology department where the course is taught.

It's not a science, the professors admit—a lot of getting your work out there has to do with trial and error. And just because a lot of people see your stuff, it doesn't mean it's necessarily good: as they learned their first semester, the Internet loves nudity and rap music. The second semester, they added a stipulation that students create fame they can build on. Roth advises coming as close to the "not safe for work" line without going over it. Mahon certainly achieved that. Whether his patriotic thong will come back to haunt him remains to be seen.

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