People who got rich and famous off Twitter

Making big money from the social networking boom

Twitter accounts and blog ramblings are now being turned into best-selling books, lines of merchandise and even sitcoms. T3 unveils the people who've become rich and famous off the back of their Twitter accounts

Meet Justin Halpern. Or you may probably know him as the 'Shit My Dad Says' guy. In August 2009, he launched a Twitter feed chronicling the eccentric utterances of his 74-year-old father, Sam Haplin. A year later and he's on track to become a social networking millionaire with a bestselling book and a sitcom based on his @shitmydadsays Twitter feed.

And while you're at it, you may also want to say hello to Howard Davis-Carr. A couple of years ago he was idly filming his young children playing when Charlie, his youngest son, bit the finger of his older brother, Henry, causing him to cry out in pain. Three years and millions of YouTube views later, the family are still making money from their home video.

Or how about Esmee Denters, the pancake waitress from Holland who dreamed of pop stardom, so uploaded cover
songs shot on her webcam onto YouTube? Well, she’s now signed to Justin Timblerlake’s record label and playing to packed arenas.

Forget The X-Factor circus and hanging your hopes of a big break on Big Brother - the internet is churning out stars by the day. And guess what? You can become one too.

“I’m 29. I live with my 74-year-old father. He is awesome. I just write down shit that he says.” That’s Justin Halpern’s Twitter bio. Shit My Dad Says is now nothing short of a phenomenon. By sharing his father’s irascible take on life, Halpern has become the poster boy for web 2.0 success. He’s got 1.6 million followers refreshing their Twitter feeds in anticipation of his old man’s latest hilarious pearl of wisdom or filthy euphemism. That’s more than Ben Stiller or Russell Brand and just shy of Stephen Fry, making Halpern easily the most followed non-celebrity on Twitter.

Shit My Dad Says came about when, after years of toiling as a journalist and writer, Halpern decided it was time for a change. He moved from LA to San Diego to work for Maxim.com and also to move in with his long distance sweetheart. “I got there and we broke up almost immediately,” he recalls. “This left me with a dilemma. I had nowhere to live and the best option was to go to my parents.”

Justin rolled up at his father Sam Halpern’s house, preparing the arguments he was dreading to make. After he finished his spiel, Halpern Snr said, “Of course you can stay. All I ask is that you pick up your shit so you don’t leave your bedroom looking like it was used for a gang bang. Also, sorry that your girlfriend dumped you.”

Little did Halpern know this all-time low and the first of dozens of similarly hilarious paternal utterances would change his life.

“I found the things he was saying hilarious and I put them on Twitter so I could share it with my friends. After a few weeks there were hardly any followers. One of my friends used the feed as a follow Friday [the practice of suggesting feeds to your followers every Friday] and it was re-tweeted by the comedian Rob Corddry [Hot Tub Time Machine] and that’s what sent it viral.”

The exponential growth synonymous with internet sensations meant the feed soon had hundreds of thousands of followers. Before he knew it Halpern’s phone was red hot with literary agents wanting a piece of Shit My Dad Says.

The book, which is more of a warm tale of family adventures interspersed with quotations spanning Justin’s life has already sold around 450,000 copies at the time of writing. The Twitter star is now a bestselling author. Many of his new fans aren’t the least bit interested in Twitter, but they’re still repeating quotes such as, “Jesus Christ, one f*cking Snickers bar and you’re running around like your asshole is on fire,” to their literary-minded friends.

The initial book pitch soon made its way into the hands of the same Hollywood agents who’d turned their noses up at Justin’s TV pitches just months earlier – “Hollywood is full of perceptions,” he says. “If you have something that has been a success, suddenly that screenplay they didn’t buy is the funniest thing they’ve ever read.” A sitcom got the green light, albeit with a subtly altered title.

The William $#*!ner-starring $#*! My Dad Says, which Justin is now co-writing, combined with continuing sales of the book, will make Halpern rich. What’s his secret?

“I think that if you can find something genuine that’s also something you find funny then hopefully it has a chance of catching on.

“The first thing I tried to remember was not to jump on crazy offers which would have really ruined the feed and made it a novelty thing, which I was already fighting against.

“People wanted me to make up a tweet about their business and give me $5,000. Sure, at the time, I’d have loved $5,000 but it would have ruined the thing that people enjoyed.

“As soon as you lie and make up something, you’ve ruined what you’ve done. I wanted to keep it purely stuff that my father had said, not sell T-shirts, or do any of that ancillary stuff and just concentrate on creating content for this Twitter page.”

So forget all of this retweeting, @replying and folowing all and sundry to grease the palms of the Twittersphere. Justin’s recipe for success is simple. Come up with a good idea that you find funny, never fake it and whatever you do, don’t
sell out too soon.

“When I first got the book deal, I told my dad, ‘as much of this as you want to take, you can have.’ He was pissed off that I even asked him that. He said, ‘I have my own f*cking money, I don’t need yours.’ He’s just psyched that the pizza place in our neighbourhood gives him half off.”

Although Justin still tweets occasionally, the Twitter feed is coming to a standstill as Halpern only sees his dad once every three weeks. He now has his own place and is back with the girl who kick-started the whole thing by chucking him out on his ear. Effectively, the success of his Twitter page has killed it, but a second book and TV land await.

People who got rich and famous from Twitter Part 2

The internet is full of attention-seeking babies, crying out to the world for attention in their quest for stardom. YouTube is the main offender. The site which gives the world not just a voice, but a face to go with it, can at times be like the audition queue for Britain’s Got Talent. Eccentric desperation is there in abundance; talent less so.

However, sometimes talent is not required so much as a knack for capturing a moment that strikes a chord with people. Call it a skill, blind luck, fate or what you will, but Briton Howard Davies-Carr has it. Heard of him? No? How about the phrase “Charlie bit my finger”? Ah, there you go.

Howard is Charlie’s dad and was behind the camera at the moment the baby clamped his fledgling gnashers around his three-year-old brother Harry’s index finger.

That moment of innocent, playful violence and the one minute YouTube upload which followed has had over 200 million views. Apart from Lady Gaga, that makes Charlie and Harry the most viewed people in YouTube’s history. As with Shit My Dad Says, becoming a global sensation was never the plan.

“I only put it on YouTube to show the boys’ godfather, who’s American,” Howard tells us. “Then my family and colleagues wanted to see it and it became too much of a hassle to keep it private. Just as I was about to take it down, I noticed that someone had uploaded a remake and that views had grown from hundreds to thousands. After that, the views doubled daily, and by Christmas 2007 it had reached one million views. It had gone viral.”

What does it take for something to go viral? Amidst everything that YouTube has to offer, how does a video so innocuous, unlaced with search-friendly tags, without a marketing strategy and featuring no known personalities, spiral to the point where it has been viewed 200 million times, spawning countless re-enactments and tributes?

Howard’s break came when someone posted the clip video on CollegeHumor.com, a small but hugely influential web video channel Stateside. From there links spread across the world. Subsequent videos on Howard’s channel have generated tens of millions of views, although of course none has come near the original.

While Twitter fame won’t make you any cash directly, YouTube fame is a different story. The YouTube Partner Program is the reason today’s viral stars are getting more than star ratings and “LOL” comments for their endeavours.

The scheme pays uploaders a small sum per video view for the privilege of selling ads on the channels and in-video. Partners are contractually forbidden to reveal the sums involved, but informed estimates vary from $0.30 (20p) all the way up to $2.50 (£1.60) per 1,000 views. Hence Howard’s YouTube channel, which has had just shy of 290 million views, could have earned somewhere between £58,000 and £460,000. Not a bad little earner at all.

Howard’s giving nothing away: “I’ve always tried not to talk about the money we’ve earned, because there’s always a negative connotation. The reality is that if we wanted to, we could potentially give up what we’re doing, but it’s not in our nature to do that.

“My wife and I are very much of the view that the money earned by the boys is their money. It’s not for everyday living.”

The family keeps their earnings up by posting new content to the channel every couple of months. As well as that, the boys have an agent and are shooting some promotional videos. Surely the next logical step for Britain’s most famous toddlers would be a reality show?

“There have been offers,” Howard sighs, “but I’ve cut everything off very quickly. I set myself some guidelines quite early on and I didn’t want to have anything that was intrusive to the children. You watch those fly-on-the-wall programmes like Big Brother and you think, ‘we just don’t want to do that’.

“With every family, there are good days and bad days. Now, everyone sees the good moments because I control the content. I don’t want people to see Charlie waking up, feeling a bit grumpy and having a go at someone.”

Despite being a very reluctant YouTube star, Howard has still faced accusations of exploiting his children and had to put up with the welldocumented dark side of YouTube. “If I could turn the clock back three years, I probably wouldn’t have done it,” he admits. “I am exposed to parts of society that are not very nice. The comments of trolls and haters and requests for photos are generally something I have to ignore.”

Capturing a special, finger-biting moment on camera and relying on the content to speak for itself is one way to make a living from YouTube, but for the smart, web-savvy businessman there are more sophisticated ways to work the system.

Harry and Charlie have 100,000 subscribers. Ryan Higa, who goes under the nom de YouTube NigaHiga, has 2.6 million, making his the most popular channel on YouTube. Ryan is a video blogger; not a particularly funny or interesting one, the unkind might say, but undeniably one who’s mastered the art of social networking.

He pushes his content on Twitter and Facebook, spends a lot of time encouraging subscribers and linking back to influential channels. The result? Around 15 million views per video and a dumper truck full of cash. Oh, and apparently an ego big enough to ignore an interview request from T3. Imagine that.

People who got rich and famous from Twitter Part 3

Aside from a great singing voice and a pretty face, why did YouTube viewers in the millions – her total views now top 159 million – pick Esmee out of the thousands of cover artists uploading to YouTube every day? She thinks it was the personal touch.

“It’s almost like the viewers and I became friends,” she says. “I would go back and forth with them about the songs they wanted to hear next and it was a very fun relationship.

“I think people liked the fact that the videos were so poor quality and my voice still shone through. I could be your next door neighbour and I think people were into that.

“You see the numbers and it’s difficult to imagine two million people watching, so I just had fun with it.”

But even without YouTube exposure, the cream always rises to the top. Esmee would have made it anyway, wouldn’t she? “I don’t think I would have,” she says. “The internet is such a great way for an artist to create their own fanbase and put what it is they want to do out there. With no label behind it, it’s very natural and I think that’s what people like about it.

“Eventually the people who are watching and following you are the people who have to go out and support you and buy your album. I think that it’s a great way and it gives the artist a lot more power. I didn’t have a reality show with millions of viewers watching me every week. I built that all up myself.”

And the rewards justify the hard work? “Let’s just say I’m making a lot more now than I would be as a pancake waitress,” says Esme.

People who got rich and famous from Twitter Part 4

George “Maddox” Ouzouzian hit upon a different route to fame and riches. He decided to become the most obnoxious man on the internet. That’s not easy by any means, let’s face it.

On his blog, The Best Page in the Universe (maddox.xmission.com), Maddox depicts himself as a bearded and eyepatched, pirate-cum-Che-Guevara figure and spouts provocative opinions, using the persona of an intelligent yet vengeful and permanently irate geek. Running since 1997, it made him one of the first internet blogstars, but Maddox received barely a penny for his efforts until 2006 when his book The Alphabet of Manliness reached the New York Times bestsellers list, and topped the Amazon.com chart. Today, his website still brings in two million readers a month despite updates slowing to a crawl.

As you may have gathered, Maddox is a little different from our other success stories. His HTML page design might politely be described as “primitive”, for a start.

“Web design is overrated,” he told us. “There are literally millions of websites that look better than mine. Pretty much all of them, actually, yet my site gets more traffic than most.

“A great example is Google versus Yahoo. Yahoo inundates you with design and content. Google says ‘here’s a search bar, have fun!’ Same thing can be said of Craigslist, and Drudgereport and countless other ‘simple’ sites.”

He also refuses to sell ads on his site or market it in any way. Merchandise sales barely cover his costs of hosting it. “Ads cause self-censorship and they’re annoying and abusive,” says Maddox. “There are countless examples of advertisers bullying content creators to change their opinions to be more favourable towards the advertiser and they’re continually using more invasive methods to advertise, such as audio and video clips that disrupt your viewing experience and slow down your computer. No thanks.”

Money has come though from his book, which consists of 26 mini essays, one for each letter. For example N is for (Chuck) Norris.

“The Alphabet of Manliness changed the publishing industry. Before it there was only one known book on manliness and it was in 1998. My book hit #1 on Amazon.com sales through presales alone, and #2 on the New York Times bestseller list. That kind of success is virtually unheard of for a first-time author. That said, I’m not a millionaire by a long shot.”

Maddox was in talks with US network Spike TV about turning his unique brand of comedy into a TV show, but as talks stalled he took his idea to YouTube.

“Why subject yourself to the heavy-handed editing and censorship on television when you can kick everyone’s face with your dick on the internet,” asks Maddox. “Publishing online lets you produce something once and have it be read or watched by millions of people forever.”

A new book, entitled I Am Better Than Your Kids is coming to a bookstore near you, meaning Maddox’s moneymaking days are far from over.

People who got rich and famous from Twitter Part 5

Conducting these issues got the team here at T3 thinking. If Maddox can do this; if Charlie and Harry, Esmee, Chocolate Rain man and Justin Halpern can do this, why can’t we?

@StartlingFacts is the creation of two of T3’s writers. On a regular basis, they’re delivering pearls of whimsy such as “Fact: Despite a fine covering of hair and the ability to produce milk, coconuts are not actually mammals.” Could this feed lead to a book deal and a fortune from the lucrative stocking-filler market this Christmas?

We asked Phyllis Zimbler Miller of Miller Mosaic Social Media Marketing to take a look and help us build on our following of 79. We have to admit, she wasn’t totally positive.

“First of all,” she said. “You don’t have a Twitter bio. It’s nada. Why should anyone be interested in following you? Secondly you have a fish as your profile picture. I don’t really like that. I’d get rid of it and replace it with a photo of you. It’s more personal. Also it’s better to have your name in the name field and then StartlingFacts as the username. Also you must switch from the plain Twitter background.”

“Also, start having conversations with people on Twitter. A list of FACTS is boring. I can look up startling facts online anywhere. It’s the human interaction that’s actually very important on Twitter. Start looking for conversations that you can join. The search field is very good for this because you can search by topic.”

Sensible suggestions, all. Phyllis also recommended that we mention others, post links and encourage re-tweets and followers of our contents through engaging with other more popular Twitter users.

But didn’t Justin tell us to keep things natural? Keep the content genuine and focus on creating funny content for the page? It worked for him and he’s the one staring a million bucks in the face. Most of the major Twitter, YouTube and blogging stars became phenomena not through endless networking but through the content itself.

Justin Halpern had very funny and original content that he was savvy enough to turn into a book and sitcom. Charlie and Harry’s dad captured a timeless moment. Esmee had girl-next-door appeal and a decent singing voice, while Maddox had great content and refused to sell out – it’s only in the last five years that he’s seen reward for his efforts. Tay Zonday had… Well, he had something people liked.

The days of seeing £250 from You’ve Been Framed as a reward for a funny video clip are gone. Talented singers such as Esmee and Tay don’t have to languish undiscovered in their bedrooms, or face inquisition by the Simon Cowells of this world. And the rest of us don’t have to live in a world unenlightened by Mr Halpern Snr’s unique view of it.

There are riches out there for the right content. If you’re lucky enough to capture a random moment on video that captures the hearts of millions, or have the right talent and the willingness to work at it, they could be yours.

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