Ryan Ball never anticipated being a local celebrity, let alone the star of viral TikTok videos.
Yet that’s exactly what happened when the clinical assistant professor of business administration in the Stephen M. Ross School of Business changed his Zoom profile to a potato during a recent review session.
A student in the review session captured some footage of “Professor Po Tato” and shared it on TikTok that night. It had a modest few likes and views when she went to bed.
The next day, it had 2 million views.
The student was so concerned by the reaction that she took it down, but at Ball’s insistence reposted it — and a second video — that as of Sept. 17 had a combined 49 million views. It reached the attention of NBC’s “Today” show, which featured a story on its website.
“I taught the whole two-and-a-half-hour review session as the potato,” Ball said. “The fact of the matter is, people were paying attention and that’s all I care about. It’s hard to capture people’s attention on Zoom.”
The filter is a potato with googly eyes and a mouth. He tells the student in the review session that, “Once you are the potato, you can’t get it off without leaving Zoom, so you’re stuck with me.”
He then says, “Let me just check on my family first.” His background changes from a photo of the Ross School exterior to four baked potatoes slathered in butter, to which Ball looks mockingly horrified.
“Every student I met with the following day made it a point to say it went viral, and I didn’t even know what that meant,” Ball said.
At a recent visit to a local restaurant, Ball said he was sitting at the bar eating a steak and checking on the views of the TikTok videos.
“The bartender saw that and asked me, ‘Oh my God, have you seen that potato?’” he said. “I told her not only have I seen it, it’s me. Next thing I know I’m getting my picture taken with the staff.”
It actually was not the first time Ball had used the potato filter on Zoom, but it was certainly the most impactful. The first time was April 1, 2020, shortly after the university went to a virtual teaching format.
He had not realized it was April Fool’s Day until a student pointed it out during virtual office hours and said Ball must have something funny planned for class that started in a half hour.
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He quickly scoured the internet and a search “how to do a prank on Zoom” yielded an article about an executive who attended virtual meetings as the potato after her children had used the Snap filter on her desktop.
“So I got the bugs worked out, showed up to class five minutes late as the potato, with no music, no hype,” he said. “My wife to this day is like, ‘I thought you were going to die of a heart attack you were laughing so hard.’”
Ball said despite the potato filter and his sense of humor, he’s all business when it comes to teaching, knowing how important the information and material is for the students, especially to Master of Business Administration and Master of Management students who are unlikely to seek accounting as a profession.
“A lot of times you’re sitting in this elective and going, ‘What am I doing?’” he said. “Well, I know what you’re doing. You’re trying to prepare for the fact that you don’t want to be a deer caught in headlights when this stuff arises. It’s not that you’ll know exactly what to do, but I’m trying to build a confidence for you to say, ‘I’ve done it once, I can do it again.’”
What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?
Winning the Golden Apple Award in 2016 was a memorable moment that stands out in my mind for at least two reasons. First, it was a great honor that the MBA students took time out of their busy class/recruiting schedules to recognize me in this way. Second, the “last lecture” that I gave as part of receiving the award provided a rare opportunity to reflect on my path from a shy engineering student in undergrad that transformed into an energetic and over-the-top professor of accounting that loves learning about/from new people.
What can’t you live without?
My wife, Sarah, and my two kids, Alex and Ivy. All four of us have very different personalities and aspirations, so there is a lot of scope to take in new ideas and inspiration.
Name your favorite spot on campus.
I cannot really call my spot a favorite spot because it is no longer around. However, the spot on campus for which I have the fondest memories is the billiards/pool hall in the student union prior to its recent renovation. … I taught my son, Alex, to play pool there beginning at the age of 9.
What inspires you?
People, especially students. I am fortunate to have the opportunity to meet 400-plus new students each year who have interesting and diverse backgrounds and, more importantly, are going to go on to accomplish great things in life.
What are you currently reading?
I hate to admit it, but I have been reading way too much TikTok lately for two reasons. First, there were so many positive comments left by users on the two potato videos that there simply isn’t enough time to read, let alone respond, to them all. Second, TikTok is like a train wreck because you really want to look away in horror, but you simply can’t because you want to see what happens next.
Who had the greatest influence on your career path?
My dad, a politician when I was young, taught me the value of looking people in the eye, even for a moment, and having a firm handshake to forge lasting connections with people. Robert Bushman, University of North Carolina accounting professor, is someone I consider to be a second father because he taught me how to be my true self in teaching and research by living what he preached. Eric Ghysels, UNC economics and finance professor, showed me the value of balancing knowledge and insightful research with a great work ethic and attitude that attracts the interest of other colleagues, especially myself.