Year in Review: Most Viral Student Media of 2011
Strippers. Shootings. The Oscars. Osama bin Laden. One-night stands. Natural disasters. Asians in the library. And skinny jeans. These are a few of the most prominent buzzwords at the center of the student news stories, columns, online creations, and video rants that went viral in a major way over the past year.
The spread of some content was linked to its quality, especially when it involved reporting on an issue or event of national importance. Other content garnered web attention for its eye-opening sexual candor or controversial views. One involved an angry A-list celebrity. And another garnered interest for a focus on journalism itself.
Below is a chronological review of student media that blew up on the web in 2011.
Coolest Student Journalist Résumé Ever
In late February, Chris Spurlock, a senior majoring in convergence journalism at the University of Missouri, became the Bono of the blogosphere and Twitterverse. In preparation for his graduation, Spurlock created a résumé awash in design awesomeness, meshing a visual timeline of his experience with a bubble chart breaking down his digital skills.
J-School Buzz, a blog focused on Mizzou’s journalism school, posted a screenshot of the résumé on its own site and The Huffington Post with the header, “Is This the Coolest Student Journalist Résumé Ever?” It quickly spread across the interwebs with a virility that would make Antoine Dodson and that David After Dentist kid proud, “amassing thousands of Facebook ‘Likes,’ hundreds of tweets, and tens of thousands of pageviews,” according to TechCrunch’s Alexia Tsotsis.
For a brief moment, it seemed like Spurlock was everywhere online. As one Mizzou student jokingly tweeted at the time, “I knew @ChrisSpurlock before he was famous.” He was subsequently featured in a follow-up post in which he offered five snippets of wisdom about résumé-building and personal branding. And in the end, the résumé worked. Spurlock, the most famous journalism job candidate of 2011, accepted a position as a Huffington Post infographic design editor. As Arianna Huffington said, “We couldn’t resist hiring him after seeing his amazing infographic resume, which became a viral sensation.”
The Anti-Asian Rant
In March, a student’s YouTube video diatribe against Asians uploaded in the wake of Japan’s earthquake and tsunami became the “rant heard around the world” and caused huge headaches for the University of California, Los Angeles. As World Monitor TV confirmed, “A UCLA student equipped with a dorm room, a pushup bra, a webcam, and two minutes fifty-two seconds too much free time managed to ignite a ‘Kill the Beast’-caliber Internet mob in a matter of hours.”
In the video, UCLA student Alexandra Wallace complains about the “hordes of Asian people that UCLA accepts into our school every single year.” She advises Asian students to learn and start using “American manners” while attending the university. And at one point, she imitates Asian students talking on their mobile phones in the library with the phrase, “Ohhhh. Ching chong ling long ting tong.”
The anti-Asian rant vaulted Wallace into the national consciousness primarily as a face of ignorant bias and as the main character in yet another cautionary tale about online sharing. She said the massive feedback was overrun with “harassment of my family, the publishing of my personal information, death threats and being ostracized from an entire community.” A few days after posting the video, she left UCLA.
In March, Madeline Huerta, a Boston University student majoring in marine science, quietly began College Problems on Tumblr. Her motivation was to provide people with a platform to share the many, varied, and often-hilarious difficulties associated with the undergraduate experience. The site’s tagline: “Everyone’s got them. Tell me yours.”
Among the quick complaints posted by Huerta and her followers in the past year: “Your roommate never leaves the room … So much homework that you don’t know where to start … The only thing lower than your GPA is your bank account balance … Laptop dies [so] forced to pay attention during class … Study abroad where you’re legal to drink. Come back home and you’re still not 21 … Professor says the test is easy. Lies.”
Upon its launch, College Problems’ popularity skyrocketed, quickly becoming Tumblr’s top humor blog. According to Huerta, CP currently boasts more than 15,000 page views per day and roughly 95,000 Tumblr followers. It also sports more than 15,000 Twitter followers and 7,000 Facebook likes.
“I think the main reason people are drawn to the site is that they can relate to almost everything I post,” she said in May. “Some College Problems are funny things that everyone goes through, and some are more serious issues that students have to deal with. It’s a site that people visit and go, ‘Wow, I thought I was the only person with this problem.’ Students read College Problems and submissions from other students and realize they’re not alone.”
The Lame-ness of James Franco’s Twitter
In March, just after his Oscars hosting debacle, actor-writer-soap star-graduate student James Franco did not publicly acknowledge any of the scathing reviews. Instead, he felt compelled to only respond to a Yale University student’s snarky critique of his tweets. In a 3 a.m. blogging session prior to the Academy Awards, Cokey Cohen wrote a 300-word review-of-sorts for The Yale Daily News focused on “the lame-ness of James Franco’s Twitter.” The nut graf of the post that Franco, and his fans, found offensive: “James Franco, your Twitter sort of sucks.”
Franco’s odd Photoshopped reply: placing sloppy red letters spelling out “F*ck The Yale Daily News” over a photo of himself in a car, seatbelt buckled, sporting a Terminator-as-a-teenager look. With Franco’s post-Oscars buzz still fresh, the image triggered a ton of attention for Cohen and the newspaper, including a string of mentions in the blogosphere and mainstream media and endless repostings of the infamous FU image. As Perez Hilton noted, “No, New York Times. James Franco has no qualms with you. Relax, Hollywood Reporter, you’re safe from his wrath. Turns out, James has beef with only one publication in the free-speaking world: The Yale Daily News.”
In a follow-up post, Cohen sarcastically called the incident “the pinnacle of my career as a writer, at least based on the fact that [the original] blog post officially has the most comments of anything I’ve ever written, even if they are all defending James Franco against my typos and general meanness.”
See Below the Fold
The legend of Vinny Vella is built atop strippers, censorship, and a partially blank front page. This past spring, an embarrassing story began leaking at Philadelphia’s La Salle University about a professor hiring exotic dancers to participate in an extra-credit student seminar.
The La Salle University Collegian, run by Vella (since graduated), had the scoop but was forced to hold off on publishing due to a temporary embargo imposed by school officials. After the news broke elsewhere, administrators finally gave the Collegian the green light, but only if the piece was first vetted by a university lawyer and run below the fold of the front page.
At that point, Vella decided enough was enough. So he beat the school at its own game, by following its edict literally. In the subsequent issue, the paper ran nothing above the fold except a teaser to check out what was beneath it — the story its staffers had been waiting weeks to print. The four-word message, surrounded by white space, stated simply: “See below the fold.” As Vella said at the time, “You need to stand up for yourself every once in awhile. You can’t let authorities intimidate you.”
The pushback prompted nationwide press attention and strong statements of support from the journalism community. In August, Philadelphia Magazine included Vella on a “Best of Philly” list under the heading, “Flouter of Authority.”
Providing Disaster Updates
The Crimson White, the University of Alabama’s student newspaper, earned major kudos from the journalism community and shout-outs from celebrities for its coverage of the late April tornado that tore through UA’s hometown of Tuscaloosa and the death, destruction, and emotional devastation it wrought.
In the storm’s wake, as the rest of the student body went home, current and outgoing staff reported from Tuscaloosa for 20 hours a day. They temporarily added a three-word phrase to the CW’s online masthead that summed up their singular mission: “Providing Disaster Updates.” Under the direction of editor in chief Victor Luckerson, the paper delivered frequent related stories, photo series, and video reports — and a slew of tweets. The Crimson White’s web traffic surged to historically high levels, and its Twitter followers increased by roughly 1,000 a day.
As the paper’s editorial adviser, Mark Mayfield, wrote, by the end of the paper’s initial coverage phase, “MSNBC, The New York Times, Dateline NBC, and other national media outlets would link to stories in The Crimson White, or use images from the newspaper’s photographers. National TV personalities, including CBS News anchor Katie Couric and MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough (a UA graduate), ‘tweeted’ links to CW articles … Video interviews with NBC News anchor Brian Williams and celebrity Charlie Sheen drew tens of thousands of viewers nationally.”
Among its most viral efforts was a Google map providing a geographic breakdown of everything tornado-related, including the path it took, the lives it claimed, the communities it affected, the buildings it leveled, and the volunteer opportunities available to help locals lessen its impact. Brandee Easter, the CW staffer who created the map, even received recognition from a United Nations representative.
The Osama Circus
In early May, amid the conversations — and celebrations — that erupted immediately after Osama bin Laden’s killing, the national student newsmagazine NextGen Journal published more stories on more angles than any other student media outlet. NextGen earned the attention of the wider web for its dispatches on student reactions at roughly two dozen schools — from West Point cadets running around in “crazy patriotic costumes and underwear” to Stanford University students who “roasted s’mores, drank beer (mostly the American variety), and chanted ‘U-S-A U-S-A!’”
NextGen staff simultaneously debated the merits of the country’s celebratory mood, including a Michigan State University student who decried the “Osama circus” atmosphere and a Tulane University student who separately described the national party as “perhaps the only time that I’ve felt proud to call myself a young college student.” NextGen also reflected on the meaning of the terror kingpin’s death for current students who were in grade school when 9/11 occurred. It ran a reminder op-ed that “terrorism does not die with Osama bin Laden.” And it discussed the growing skepticism surrounding Pakistan’s alleged ignorance of bin Laden’s whereabouts.
Similar stories were run throughout the professional press, but hardly any on a national level from the student perspective. As NextGen editor in chief Connor Toohill, a student at Notre Dame University, said, “Our best pieces, our most popular pieces — whether it’s Egypt or the State of the Union or health care reform or the Super Bowl — really look at, what is the impact here for students? What is the significance for our generation? We’ve seen there is really a demand for that. Huffington Post College is sort of established as a section to cover what’s going on at college. Basically, what we’re saying is that college students deserve their own Huffington Post.”
Harvard, Please Admit Me!
Over the spring and summer, Grace Oberhofer was a web sensation on the Harvard waitlist. In late April, the high school senior from Tacoma, Wash., went viral with a song she wrote and placed on YouTube aimed at convincing Harvard University admissions officials to change her enrollment status from waitlist to fully accepted.
In the video, while sporting a maroon Harvard winter cap with oversized Harry Potter-inspired spectacles, Oberhofer plays the piano and sings with satirical earnestness about Harvard’s many virtues. Imploring the school to let her in, she closes the original anthem, “Dear Harvard,” by crooning, “H-A-R-V-A-R-D College, so scholarly. H-A-R-V-A-R-D be my universe-ity. Harvard, you mean the world to me. On John Harvard’s statue I’d never pee … Let me into your community. Harvard, please admit me!”
The video has since received more than 93,000 hits on YouTube, garnering especially high kudos from tech geeks, Harvard students and alums, and Oberhofer’s fellow Ivy League wannabes. As one student commented in late May, “Hi Grace, I’m a fellow waitlistee … I really hope you got in. I think you deserve Harvard! I didn’t do anything half as cool as this to get into Harvard!”
Ultimately, Oberhofer was not admitted to Harvard’s incoming freshmen class. Instead, she enrolled at nearby Tufts University, a school that has earned plaudits for its web-friendly admissions practices. To share the news, she wrote a follow-up song titled, appropriately, “Dearest Tufts.”
Worth Keeping Alive
Near the start of this past fall semester, a student op-ed on journalism’s shortcomings earned rock-star status online and was regarded as a come-to-Jesus column by many in the field. In the piece, published in late August, Daily Californian senior staffer Mihir Zaveri at the University of California, Berkeley, seemed to tap into an I’m-mad-as-hell fervor among student and professional journalists about the current state of the news media.
Zaveri’s thesis: Forget advertising woes, Internet challenges, and economic ugliness. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves. “All of that stuff is on us, the journalists,” he wrote. “It’s our fault. Our job was to report the news, and we did that. But we got complacent, and we stopped evolving, and soon the concept of a news article became far removed from what you, as a person, valued. Now we find ourselves in an awkward position where an indispensable component of democracy is slipping away, and we’re scrambling.”
The commentary blew up on Twitter and landed on a number of blogosphere hotspots, launching Zaveri into a stratosphere of fame most student journalists never experience. It appeared Zaveri’s youth and idealism — and the back story of his column emanating from a midsummer night of drinking — were the keys to its social media virility.
In Zaveri’s words, “Journalism is in a dark time. But we can’t give up. We have to fight for relevance in your lives. We need to gain back your trust that what we’re doing is worth keeping alive.”
Along with La Salle, the most viral student press censorship of 2011 occurred in Lexington, Ky. In late August, University of Kentucky athletics officials, angry over a story published in The Kentucky Kernel, temporarily barred the campus newspaper from one-on-one interviews with the school’s basketball team.
Kernel sports writer Aaron Smith was specifically singled out for his reporting on a seemingly innocuous article about a pair of walk-ons being named to the Wildcats hoops squad. As part of his legwork, Smith called the players, using phone numbers listed under their names in the university directory.
That contact violated an unofficial UK rule that limits journalists from speaking to student athletes without the coordination of university media relations. According to the school, the rule is in place to ensure athletes are not “bombarded with interview requests constantly.”
For failing to follow this preferred method of communication, Kernel staff were shut out of a preseason media event highlighted by brief private interviews with players. The saga spurred a national media blitzkrieg that included a spate of condemnations from major journalism figures and organizations who felt the rule and punishment were overreaching. It also prompted a spirited protest on Twitter, with related tweets employing the hashtag #FreeKernel. The most talked-about and retweeted comment came from Sports Illustrated senior writer Andy Staples. His words: “Until Kentucky agrees to #FreeKernel, I think I’ll revoke SI coverage of their mediocre football team.”
Sex, and Sex Abuse
In late October, the premiere of the first sex column in The Daily Collegian at Penn State University provoked a massive online response. In less than 24 hours and a bit more than 700 words, Kristina Helfer became a household name in Happy Valley.
In her debut column, “Mounting Nittany,” Helfer offered a simple message: Sex happens in college, and it’s OK to talk about. As she wrote, “I love sex. I love talking about it, I love having it, and I’m sure I’m not the only one, male or female, who feels the same way. Someday, all of us will be having sex — unless you’re still living in your mom’s basement — and it won’t be a big deal. Maybe you’re having sex right now, while you’re reading this column (lucky you).”
Helfer’s words stirred a torrential rainstorm of reader reactions. By the morning after its placement online, comments numbered more than 300 — some praising the piece’s boldness and others decrying it as pointless and an embarrassment to journalism and Nittany Lions worldwide. On Twitter, the hashtag #mountingnittany gained immediate momentum with a range of tweets mixing snark and sexual innuendo. As student Davis Shaver, the founder of the PSU online outlet Onward State, tweeted in the piece’s wake: “Definitely the most viral … column launch I’ve seen in my time at #Penn State. Let’s see if they can keep it up.”
Helfer kept at it for a month, until Sandusky-gate and the fall of Joe Paterno. The Daily Collegian stopped publishing “Mounting Nittany” in the wake of the sex abuse allegations that enveloped the campus. Instead, staff provided nonstop coverage of the scandal and the deafening furor surrounding it. They garnered national attention and commendations for the breadth and depth of their reporting and commentary about the alleged acts, the related criminal investigation and legal proceedings, the apparent cover-up, the impact on PSU’s legacy, and the reactions of alumni and longtime football fans.
The paper earned especially impassioned praise for its real-time tweeting of various events, including the mid-December preliminary hearing Sandusky ultimately waived. For its efforts, BuzzFeed named @DailyCollegian as one of the top Twitter feeds of the year, noting, “Their coverage of the sex [abuse] scandal … has been illuminating.”
Gotcha Student Journalism
The Athenaeum News was perhaps the strangest — and definitely the most vengeful — student media start-up of 2011. During the fall semester, a 40-year-old sophomore journalism and electronic media major at the University of Tennessee began publishing the weekly paper to share details of an affair between his now ex-wife and a UT professor.
Apparently, Moussa’s ex-wife entered into a flirtatious relationship with a UT geography professor in 2006 while still his student. She was also still married to Moussa at the time. She has since divorced him and married the professor. UT decided not to intervene, deeming the relationship consensual. But Moussa has not let it go, writing about it explicitly and at length in his 10,000-circulation paper, stoking the curiosity of local and national press and the repugnance of some readers.
Critics are accusing him of character assassination, press-pulpit bullying, and general creepiness. Inside Higher Ed labeled the entire enterprise “Gotcha Student Journalism.” Moussa counters that he is attempting to alert campus about a figure he feels is a danger to students and fighting a university he contends is wrong for letting him continue teaching there. As The Knoxville News Sentinel reported, “He knows most of the attention’s due to the first issue’s cover story on [the professor]. Moussa said that’s fine with him. ‘He put us on the map,’ Moussa said. ‘I have him to thank for that.’”
Regarding the Gunshots
In early December, a midday shooting and campus lockdown at Virginia Tech brought back memories of the horrific 2007 shootings that killed 33 people. During that episode, The Collegiate Times, VT’s student newspaper, provided tireless, innovative coverage unmatched by the hordes of outside media that descended upon Blacksburg, Va.
Nearly five years later, on a late semester Thursday, the CT again stepped up. As rumors and reports circulated about a fatal shooting and a gunman on the loose, staff turned to Twitter to tell the world what they were seeing and hearing and the trusted information they were receiving. They also interacted in real-time with students and other observers. As one of their early tweets asked, “Has anyone heard or seen anything regarding the gunshots? Tweet us @CollegiateTimes.”
Similar to the Crimson White after the Tuscaloosa tornado, the CT’s Twitter followers skyrocketed — from 2,000 to 20,000 in a single afternoon. Additionally, as Media Decoder confirmed, “[J]ournalists from ABC, NPR, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, and other outlets pointed readers to The Collegiate Times’ account on Twitter, helping the college newspaper gain attention.” Subsequently, the CT earned a spot alongside the Daily Collegian on BuzzFeed’s best Twitter list. The paper also published a much-lauded special print edition (a portion of the front page shown above) the day following the incident.
One-Night Stand’s Weeklong Uproar
Near fall semester’s end, an erotic essay about a one-night stand published in an Orthodox Jewish university’s student newspaper caused controversy on campus and sparked a weeklong news feeding frenzy — one that stretched from Manhattan to the Middle East.
The piece appeared in early December in The YU Beacon at New York City’s Yeshiva University. It was an anonymous first-person account of a female student’s tryst with a male classmate and the shame that accompanied it the next morning.
As a New York Times report noted, the essay’s explicitness angered the conservative school’s “religious students who consider premarital sex — not just the act but even talking openly about it — well beyond the acceptable bounds of modesty.” Initially, talk about the piece itself was confined to the national Jewish student magazine New Voices, but was soon followed by “everyone else on the planet.”
At one point, as New Voices editor David Wilensky wrote, “[T]hings really went nuts. Once the Wall Street Journal had it, The New York Times mentioned it in a blog post, the Daily Mail had an article and then Haaretz [the leading English-language news source focused on Israel] came in, riding the Mail’s coattails.” The Jerusalem Post declared, “It’s less of a sex scandal than it is a sex shanda, an embarrassment.”
When the firestorm first sparked, there was speculation the university would sever its ties to the Beacon. Staff subsequently decided to proactively end the affiliation, losing $500 in related funding per semester. The paper’s news editor and a co-editor in chief also quit.
Trousers of the Devil?
At around the same time as the NYC sex shanda, an independent student newspaper more than 2,000 miles away ignited a national debate on, of all things, skinny jeans. In an article that has spawned more than 600 comments and 12,000 Facebook Likes, The Student Review at Brigham Young University-Provo focused on staffers at BYU-Idaho acting as fashion police and banning students sporting the popular pants from taking required tests and exams.
As the buzzworthy piece began, “Trends come and go, but the skinny on BYU-Idaho’s most recent addition to the honor code shows one trend going more quickly than some students would like. Students at Brigham Young University-Idaho recently encountered a new sign in the university’s testing center that read simply, ‘No skinny jeans.’”
The sign was apparently an offshoot of the general “dress and grooming standards” suppressing “form-fitting” clothing on all BYU campuses. BYU is a Mormon school known to some informally as “The Lord’s university.” The central question related to the jeans ban, according to the Review: “[A]re skinny jeans the gateway style to more scandalous attire, or a legitimate clothing option with a bad rap?”
Upon its publication, the short feature quickly “unleashed a torrent of Internet stories … spurring bloggers and news outlets alike to comment on the university’s honor code and unique culture.” Related “Here’s the Skinny” reports appeared everywhere and soon after prompted an official school response clarifying the ban. As a Gawker writer admitted, “The first time I read [the Review report], I thought it was parody … Skinny jeans: trousers of the devil? Don’t tell Mitt Romney.”
Dan Reimold is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Tampa. He writes and presents frequently on the campus press and maintains the student journalism industry blog College Media Matters, affiliated with the Associated Collegiate Press. His first book, Sex and the University: Celebrity, Controversy, and a Student Journalism Revolution, was published in fall 2010 by Rutgers University Press.