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How to Go Viral on YouTube

Two Duke students share the secrets of their success

Duke students Jacob Tobia, left, and Rachael Nedrow, center, describe their success posting
Duke students Jacob Tobia, left, and Rachael Nedrow, center, describe their success posting "viral videos" on YouTube. They met Thursday morning with Duke social media manager Cara Rousseau, right, and other campus communicators who oversee social media sites. Photo by David Jarmul

Move quickly. Be entertaining. Pay attention to what actually works online.

Those were some of the suggestions Thursday morning from two Duke students whose videos have "gone viral" on YouTube. They shared their experiences with campus communicators who manage some of the university's busiest social media sites.

Rachael Nedrow, a first-year student from Oregon, has produced videos viewed more than 24 million times on YouTube showing her stacking cups at record speed. Jacob Tobia, a senior from North Carolina, has produced several popular videos on political and social issues, most recently in support of Nina Davuluri, the Indian-American woman whose victory in the Miss America pageant elicited racist comments online.

"People find me more intriguing when I'm really hyper and excited," said Nedrow, who tries to keep her public identity as "speedstackinggirl" separate from her personal life. Her videos have been featured on numerous websites and TV shows, including Tosh.0 and America's Got Talent. She has her own channel on YouTube.

Students, faculty and others who want to succeed online need to meet the medium on its own terms, she said, arguing that "it's just a matter of getting comfortable with a camera." Nedrow views herself as an old-timer in the world of sport stacking, saying "most of the really good stackers are 11 years old and I'm 18, so ..."

Tobia said he produced and uploaded his video in support of Miss America with several other Duke students in just a few hours. It has now been viewed thousands of times online and sparked a Twitter campaign called #standwithnina. Davuluri welcomed the campaign and thanked the Duke students when she appeared on CNN, Bloomberg and other news outlets.

In 2012, Tobia produced a video describing how he planned to run across the Brooklyn Bridge in stiletto heels to raise money for a homeless shelter for LGBT youth. More than 10,000 people watched "Run for Shelter 2012," which led to both donations and news coverage. In an earlier video, Tobia and fellow student Dominique Beaudry urged opposition to Amendment One, the subsequently passed North Carolina law that bans same-sex marriages.

"One thing I've learned as an activist is how you get people's attention and get them invested in what you're doing," Tobia told the Duke communicators, who oversee the university's main Facebook and Twitter sites and social media activities in Admissions, Athletics and other campus offices. "I'm really interested in taking social justice issues and blowing them up online."

Tobia said speed is critical when responding to breaking stories such as the controversy involving Miss America. "I knew she would only be in the news cycle for one more day, or two if we were lucky. You have to get things out really, really, really quickly."

Tobia said he has drawn on his theater background in the videos and has learned video editing fairly easily. He hopes more Duke students will produce and upload their own videos, whether on social issues or other interests, and urged them to share their best work with campus communicators who can help them reach wider audiences.

Cara Rousseau, Duke's social media manager, led the discussion. Duke's social media site provides additional information about the university's online activities.