Aaron Dinin, Trinity ‘05 and lecturing fellow in the innovation and entrepreneurship initiative, has a bold vision.
“My goal is to put Duke on the map if you want to learn about social media [and] content production,” he said. “If you want to learn about film you go to USC or NYU, but if you want to do social media content production, you come to Duke University.”
Dinin has previously taught two courses centered around social media and content production, and his so-called “TikTok classes” are spurring a social media frenzy. During spring 2023, his students’ content reached over a quarter of a billion people around the world, according to Dinin.
A look into Duke’s TikTok classes
The first of Dinin’s classes, Innovation & Entrepreneurship 253, Social Marketing, provides a broad overview of social media, highlighting the “history and cultural lineage” of social media while delving into its ethical implications.
Innovation & Entrepreneurship 250, Building Global Audiences, is the more advanced course designed for students who are already building a personal brand and regularly posting on social media.
Enrolling in I&E 250 requires instructor consent. Dinin’s primary metric for determining admission is how consistently a student posts, rather than their follower count.
“It's much easier to take somebody who's got crummy content and help them figure out how to make better content than it is to take someone who isn't posting and get them to post regularly,” he said.
Through I&E 250, Dinin hopes to foster community among social media personalities at Duke, who may be “outcast[s] around campus.”
“The class helped me not just make better content, but also connect and collaborate with other creators,” said sophomore Nicole Dave, a TikTok creator who took Building Global Audiences this past spring. “Those relationships will definitely outlast the class itself.”
In fall 2023, Dinin will be teaching a third course, called Innovation & Entrepreneurship 295S, Arts Entrepreneurship. A partnership with Duke Arts and Duke Athletics, the course aims to introduce experienced content creators to the production side of social media.
Dinin said he will teach the new course alongside content creators for Duke Men’s Basketball, which has the largest social media following of all college sports.
From English literature to high tech
Dinin has taken an unconventional path to academia. Equipped with a bachelor’s degree in English, he initially envisioned a career as an English professor and the next “great American novelist.”
Shortly after graduating from Duke, he was accepted into an English language and literature doctoral program at the University of Maryland. Dinin, the self-described “worst grad student you can possibly imagine,” quipped that “they kicked [him] out with a Ph.D.”
Rather than becoming a novelist, Dinin grew interested in software development, eventually working in the technology sector. Dinin taught himself to code because he “got annoyed” relying on other people.
Over the next decade, Dinin founded three venture-backed tech companies. He also participated in two high-profile startup accelerators, DreamIt Ventures and The Startup Factory, In 2012, he was named a Microsoft Fellow.
“You can kind of teach yourself anything,” Dinin said. “That's one of the core messages I'd like to share to my students in entrepreneurship.”
Professorship and content creation
Dinin returned to Duke in 2018 after moving back to the area for his wife’s doctoral program at North Carolina State University. He began teaching marketing classes for the department of innovation and engineering, drawing on his personal background in entrepreneurship.
“You can build the greatest product in the world, but if nobody knows it exists, it doesn't matter,” he said. “So it turns out marketing [and] being able to reach people is wildly more important.”
Dinin decided to boost his credibility as a social media marketing professor by attempting to grow his own following after he realized that he lacked the “ability to speak with any sort of authority” about how to build an audience on social media.
In just a short time, Dinin amassed nearly 50,000 followers on Medium, a platform for long-form blogs. He now ranks as one of the most followed authors on the platform, particularly in entrepreneurship and business.
Dinin then turned to TikTok, where he racked up over 37,000 followers and six million likes posting university-related content. His most viral video has more than 17 million views.
“I got this fun rivalry with my students because every semester, I wound up putting out the TikTok that gets more [views] than all theirs,” he said. “The professor beat them out.”
Building a content creation community at Duke
Duke is already home to a host of seasoned content creators with large followings.
Senior Allison Chen has garnered more than 300,000 followers on TikTok, where she documents her life as a French pastry chef and cookie baker. Senior Natalia Hauser found her niche making lifestyle videos, amassing nearly a quarter of a million followers on TikTok. Meanwhile, smaller creators like juniors Sarah Muzzy and Catherine Esrey have gained followings by documenting their lives as college students.
Student-athletes have also made use of TikTok to grow their public platforms. Women’s basketball player Emma Koabel, a sophomore, is nearing 700 thousand followers on the app, while men’s basketball player Jacob Grandison, a graduate student, amassed 48 million views on a single video. Emily Cole, a senior on the track team, has more than 300 thousand TikTok followers despite her sport’s smaller public profile.
Dinin hopes to cultivate community among social media personalities at Duke beyond the classroom. In the fall, he’ll help launch the Creator Lab, “a gathering place for students interested in content creation.”
“We're just kind of trying to create a community that has benefits for creators on campus, whether that be exclusive speakers to come in for creators to attend … or even private dinners hosted by I&E,” said Hauser, who sits on the lab’s executive team.
Dave, another executive team member, added that the ultimate goal is to create a physical space for content creators, which might take “a few years” to implement.
Above all, Dinin sees content creation not just as a lucrative opportunity for students, but as a service to society.
“We have moved into an age where the way you get your knowledge of the world is via platforms like Instagram and TikTok and LinkedIn,” he said. “If you have people curing cancer, there should also be people making sure the world knows that we cure cancer.”
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Mia Penner is a Trinity sophomore and an associate news editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.