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The Social Media Phenoms of Yesteryear: Where Are They Now?

Rob Walker

Somehow, social media still feels new. Maybe that’s because platforms like Twitter (which dates back to 2006) and Tumblr (launched in 2007) continue to spit out new entertaining novelty accounts and super-specialized projects for the rest of us to follow and share instead of doing our jobs.

The fun never stops — for us.

But what about the social media fun-makers themselves? Do their viral hits change their lives? How much, and for how long?

You could almost imagine a VH1-style gauzy-memories documentary on the subject, evocatively reminding us of the stuff we used to like and reblog, when we were all younger and more innocent, and still had a handle on what “a BlackBerry” was.  

While we wait for some cable-TV genius to launch Behind The Sharing, let’s see if we can remember what was online-hot five years ago, and discover what became of that which used to be trending. 

Social-media hijinks
By the time Twitter and Tumblr came along, the idea of the Internet phenomenon was already established — bloggers getting book deals (from humor like Stuff White People Like to the street-fashion photography of The Sartorialist), Web celebs (Tron Guy, xkcd), weird hits like The Million Dollar Home Page, and so on.

So it makes sense that what some say was the first known parody Twitter account was really just an adjunct to a viral blog: When Fake Steve Jobs launched on Twitter in early 2007, the blog version had existed for months. Consisting of phony “diary” entries by a cartoonishly fictionalized version of Apple’s CEO, this Web sensation soon spawned a book — Options: The Secret Life of Steve Jobs, published in 2007.

And that more or less ends the story. The actual Steve Jobs passed away, of course, and both the blog and the Twitter account have been dormant for years. Their author, Daniel Lyons, is now a “marketing fellow” for HubSpot, a software platform for businesses, and will apparently help write the next season of the HBO comedy Silicon Valley. 

But the social-media hijinks continued, and perhaps the real breakthrough came in the form of “S*** My Dad Says.”

Just as it says on the handle, this was writer Justin Halpern’s rolling catalog, started in August 2009, of humorous and profane remarks by his father. The ornery old cussing of this ornery old cuss attracted millions of Twitter followers and placed a related book on the best-seller list.

But evidently the masses had had enough of that s*** by the time a sitcom variation (starring William Shatner!) arrived on CBS … and swiftly departed. Halpern published another book (I Suck At Girls), which became the basis of another TV show (Surviving Jack) … which was also canceled.

His original landmark Twitter account’s most recent update is from June, promoting a Father’s Day-themed GQ essay by Halpern. So presumably its productive and legitimately attention-getting life is basically done. Still, it seems fair to say that it transformed Halpern’s career. And it arguably transformed our perception of just how much pop-culture noise a social media account could make.

For others, the aftermath of social-media stardom has been more fleeting. But maybe that’s not a bad thing.

How long does one serving last?
In 2008, blogger Jason Kottke famously identified the concept of the “single-serving site” — that is, websites “comprised of a single page with a dedicated domain name” that “do only one thing.” Conceptually, the “single-serving” idea of seizing on a relatively narrow gimmick and repeating it endlessly became a staple of social media.

Tumblr (which is now owned by Yahoo) became a single-serving staging ground and remains full of contemporary examples — Screenshots of Despair, The GIF Connoisseur, and so on. Over the years, a number have had moments of genuine crossover hotness, like Garfield Minus Garfield or I Love Charts, two of the many that have landed book deals.

The Social Media Phenoms of Yesteryear: Where Are They Now?“She’d asked for prism colors — not prison” on Unhappy Hipsters. (Justin Fantl/Dwell)

Consider Unhappy Hipsters, a Tumblr that juxtaposed images from the aspirational shelter magazine Dwell with bleak captions that fell somewhere between microfiction and design critique. Or Scanwiches, which boils down to the following: a sandwich, sliced in half, and scanned to offer the viewer a cross-section view of its innards.

Only on the Internet could such ideas take off. Unhappy Hipsters was written up in The New York Times; Scanwiches enjoyed an exhibition under the auspices of the foodie-famous James Beard foundation. Both got book deals.

We in the peanut gallery might be slack-jawed at the idea of lives transformed by silly-sounding Web one-offs. Book deals? Art exhibitions? But the reality is a lot more relatable than the hype often suggests.

“There was this weird perception that we had been ‘successful’ ” because of all the media coverage, Unhappy Hipsters co-founder Molly Jane Quinn tells me via email. “But we never made any money off of the site.” Ads always seemed like a dicey idea. And the book deal — “which people think we made some fortune off of” — really funded one crazy summer of intense work. “We’re not rolling in Unhappy Hipsters cash.”

Quinn now works for a Portland, Oregon, startup and still sporadically updates the site. (She’s also created a related Instagram account.) Her Unhappy Hipsters confederate Jenna Talbott is an independent art director and illustrator. “I have not posted in ages,” Talbott admits; a new parent, she’s more focused on balancing familiar life/work dilemmas.

Both recall the amazement of seeing their diversion take off on social media. (They started it anonymously while working together at a regional magazine.) But, as Talbott relates, the lengthy process of publishing a book wasn’t necessarily a boon to an online property. “By the time the book was out, nearly two years had passed,” she says, “and Molly and I were both on to other things.”

Opportunity, not obligation
Scanwiches continues to post new images, as recently as this past June But creator Jon Chonko hardly keeps up the pace of its heyday and has at times put it aside completely to deal with other matters. “Scanwiches has brought a lot of great opportunities,” he tells me. “But I’ve never wanted it to feel like an obligation.” 

Half a chicken sandwichHomemade: Grilled Chicken Sandwich. (Scanwiches)

Chonko has a full-time gig as a designer at Studio Rodrigo, working on apps and websites and the like. Asked about the highlights of his Scanwiches experience, he charmingly mentions being tweeted about by Pee-wee Herman.

It’s nice, he concedes, to fantasize about this kind of project turning into a whole new living. But such dreams can be a trap: “You’ll be crushed when they don’t work out.”

He says he “always tried to celebrate the most recent thing that happened,” around Scanwiches, but also tried to keep it in perspective. “The nature of viral content is that so much of the success is out of your hands,” he says. It was helpful to remember that not only when it took off, but also when “I felt disappointed with where things had gone, or thought too hard about what I could have done to make it better.”

It’s a reasonable response to the reality of social-media stardom. “Internet infamy can be so instant,” as Talbott put it. “And instantly fleeting!”

Write to me at rwalkeryn@yahoo.com or find me on Twitter, @notrobwalker. RSS lover? Paste this URL into your reader of choice: https://www.yahoo.com/tech/author/rob-walker/rss.