From Barstool Sports to Conan: How mac 'n' cheese went viral

In this screenshot, UConn student Luke Gatti is seen arguing with a Student Union manager after being denied service at the Union Street Market on Sunday, Oct. 5, 2015. (Screenshot/YouTube)

The now-infamous YouTube video of UConn student Luke Gatti berating and shoving a Student Union manager has reached peak viral video status after being posted late Monday. The nine-minute video – shot by an unknown student and uploaded under the username iujm ujnh – generated nearly 3 million views, and took on a life of its own among students.

The video, which has since been removed, received widespread national media coverage, being featured on widely-read sites like Deadspin, Barstool Sports, Gawker, USA Today, The Huffington Post, The New York Post, The New York Daily News and even British tabloid The Daily Mail, among many others. It even made its way into "Conan."

By Tuesday night, the story was trending on Facebook.

“We have received media inquiries from as far away as the United Kingdom on this matter, which isn't surprising given the nature of Internet videos,” UConn spokesperson Stephanie Reitz said. “However, all of our regular processes – including the confidentiality provided to students under federal law – remain in place, and we hope others will respect that.”

The story was first published by Heavy.com reporter Tom Cleary, who had a post up on Monday night at 11:45 p.m. Heavy.com is “a real-time news and information website reaching 18 million monthly unique visitors worldwide,” according to its about page.

Barstool Sports, which boasts a devoted following among college students and has a strong presence on northeastern campuses like UConn and UMass Amherst, was also among the first sites to post the video. The site’s post was written by Keith Markovich – known on the site as Kmarko – who runs its Barstool U vertical.

Markovich said the way the story came to him was unique, based largely on the amount of tips he received.

"I was in bed, it was like 12:15 (a.m.), and Twitter started going all crazy,” Markovich said. “And I got like four tweets in a row real quick, and so normally with something like that I’m kind of skeptical, because it’s like a bunch of friends who are doing that on purpose to promote their blog or something. But I got a bunch of emails too, and they kept coming for like 10 minutes. So I opened it up.”

Markovich said he quickly realized that the video “was going to go viral,” prompting him to break the site’s normal protocol of waiting until the peak morning hours, usually around 9 a.m., to post a story.

“The amount of people that were sending it to me told me that it was big,” Markovich said. “And then when I sat down and watched the whole thing, you could just tell that it was going to go viral right away. Plus we have a huge fan base at UConn, and even with that, I’ve never had this many kids from one school sending me a story, so that was kind of a tip off that it was going to be pretty big.”

Barstool’s post, titled “Drunk UConn Kid Wants His Bacon Jalapeno Mac and Cheese So Bad,” went up on Tuesday at 12:50 a.m., and has since generated 88 comments.

Outside of the Hartford Courant, the Associated Press and a handful of other newspaper websites and television network affiliates, it tended to be sites like Barstool and Deadspin that shaped the conversation surrounding the story. The coverage led to a ripple effect, with one site picking up the story, and then another.

Kelly McBride, vice president of academic affairs at the Poynter Institute and one of its chief media ethicists, said there are many websites “that aren’t necessarily news organizations, but they are based on the BuzzFeed model of finding content that has the potential to go viral.”

As those sites pick up a viral video or other piece of viral content that drives a large amount of web traffic, other sites “want to pick up a piece of it,” McBride said. This leads to coverage rapidly expanding from one site to another.

The video continued to gain momentum on Tuesday morning, with USA Today’s For The Win blog posting a story at 9:10 a.m., Deadspin blog The Concourse posting a story at 9:43 a.m. and Gawker posting a story at 10:32 a.m. The Hartford Courant posted a story just after noon.

The video was also uploaded by WorldStarHipHop, whose post generated over 8,500 comments and more than 300,000 views.

Internet celebrity MrTechnicalDifficult posted the video on his Facebook page at 2:38 p.m., where it received 3 million views, over 28,000 likes and more than 14,000 shares. Comedian Chris D’Elia also tweeted about the incident to his 459,000 followers at 4:43 p.m.

Ladies and gentleman... I present you the worlds most giant douche of all time.... ENJOY!FULL VIDEO: http://dudecomedy.com/douche-college-student-assaults-employee-over-mac-cheese-then-cries/

Posted by MrTechnicalDifficult on Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Amidst the growing national attention, students began to get creative with the video on the Buy or Sell UConn Tickets Facebook page, an online gathering place for UConn students that has over 25,000 members.

The page’s feed featured dozens of memes, remixes of the video, students selling t-shirts related to the video and, more controversially, screenshots of Snapchats of Gatti and his family packing his belongings into a minivan.

Local restaurants like the H.A. Cafe, D.P. Dough and the Nathan Hale Inn’s True Blue Tavern even added mac ‘n’ cheese-themed menu items, while the Wikipedia pages for both UConn and Gatti’s hometown of Bayville, New York were edited to include references to the incident.

“It’s just sort of amazing how things go viral so quickly these days,” said UConn journalism professor Marie K. Shanahan, who teaches the journalism program’s Online Journalism course and specializes in online media. “If it was just something somebody witnessed, and they talked about it, and maybe there was a still picture, that wouldn’t have captured it. Because you can witness it, the whole thing, nine minutes, that is what makes it even more [of a story].”

Shanahan said conversations with students in her class have revealed mixed feelings about the video.

“Some people, it depends, like they’re horrified that this is what UConn gets attention for, so that’s not necessarily a good thing,” Shanahan said. “But then also, it’s a funny thing that people can talk about, we have a shared conversation that everybody can have, because everybody’s seen it.”

As the story continued to grow, it revealed a number of stories within the story, with some students on the Buy or Sell page tying the video into conversations about privilege, class and race.

Alyssa Rametta, a seventh-semester journalism major, said that the viral nature of the coverage masked the real issues at play in the video.

“I don’t feel like a single journalist – professional or student journalist – is getting the story of the backbone of the problems here,” Rametta said. “Of the privilege that our generation has, of the entitlement that they feel to get served, to get whatever they want on demand.”

Shanahan said the story’s response has generated a wide variety of viewpoints, reflecting the true free market of ideas that the web allows for.

“One thing that I love about social media is that, when you start to hear from the crowd, you get different perspectives,” Shanahan said. “So you get the perspective of someone who created a meme of the kid, so that’s one thing. And then there was one that said, ‘Clearly this kid is overprivileged,’ so there was that argument. And then the next one said, ‘Dining hall employees are always mistreated. What about that story?’ So I just thought it was interesting to get all these different perspectives on this thing that happened.”

Some students on the Buy or Sell page left comments expressing concern about the memes and backlash going too far. But Markovich – who posted a follow-up story on Barstool on Wednesday that broke the video down in play-by-play fashion – said that, as he would with any other post, he gave his coverage of the video a lot of thought.

“I definitely think about the consequences of everything that I post,” Markovich said. “This video I would post 100 percent of the time, the first video. I mean there’s no question that that would get blogged. But the follow-up stuff, like people taking Snapchats of him packing his car and the mugshots, that’s stuff that I think really hard about, whether or not to spread it around.”

So where does the story go from here, if anywhere?

“I think it’s done,” Markovich said. “I think the initial post was worth it, I think all the other stuff that came out about [Gatti] made a follow-up worth it. I really try to avoid beating a story to death, especially when it’s like, a kid’s life involved. No matter how big of an a------ he is, I’m not going to kill the kid everyday on the blog for it."


Jackson Mitchell is digital editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at jackson.mitchell@uconn.edu. He tweets @jxnmitchell.