The Cult of Personality on the Social Web

@Kevin | Social

(Note: This was another paper I wrote over a year ago. I just wanted to share it and get it up on here. I thought about updating it since some of these cases have been talked about a little too much but instead decided to revisit the topic at a later date. Especially after my guest post on Social Media Explorer yesterday where I bashed people for using the same examples. I just wanted to clear through some of my old stuff that I had kicking around. )

Social networking has become the most powerful promotional tool in the modern age. Despite this, it has only been successfully utilized by niche and fringe groups. Since the peak of Friendster.com in 2003, a range of people- comedians, authors, bands, and models- have used social networking in diverse ways to advance, create, and even propel their careers. Dane Cook, OK Go, Brad Listi, and Tila Tequila all used different techniques to market themselves through social networking, and their cases help illuminate the possibilities and pitfalls of social networks as a self-promotional tool. While these four examples serve as interesting case-studies, in the rapidly changing world of new media, the models that are employed here are, in many ways, no longer feasible. A huge part of their successes depended on timing; they knew how to use social networking is its infancy, before it began to evolve into a streamlined marketing prong for mainstream media. All four of these examples, however, help shed light on the sometimes messy intersections between mainstream and new media, as they were on the forefront of that transition.

Dane_Cook Dane Cook was an emerging comedian in Los Angeles who wanted to jump-start his career. Though he had received some small roles in movies and was beginning to climb the ranks of the comedy world, he wanted to break new ground and expand his audience. In 2002, he drained his retirement account and took his entire life savings of $25,000 and dumped it into his own media rich website (danecook.com) that had video of his appearances, audio of his act, and other interactive content.[1] Cook was laughed at by his peers for wasting his time and money on a venture that seemed unlikely to reap much benefit. As the site grew, however, Cook capitalized on his new-found visibility by linking his social networking profiles on Friendster and then on MySpace. As a result, he reaped the benefits of being an early adopter of MySpace, where by 2007 he boasted over two million friends[2], two platinum comedy albums, and an exclusive deal with HBO to design and create content for both television and the web.

Cook readily attributes his success in entertainment to the interaction and exposure the social web brought him. He was able to respond to fan’s e-mails as well as comment on their profiles. At one point Cook would respond to thousands of messages daily and talk to fans via AIM. This one-on-one interaction with his fans helped establish a repoire between Cook and fans as well as between fans and other fans. Cook has painstakingly branded himself as an energetic and hip comedian that could easily be your best friend or brother. One of his early bits about a “super finger” became a running joke between Cook and his fans. Fans would take a picture giving the super finger in all types of different locations and would post these pictures on his page. Cook would often reply with comments to their page as a “reward”. This helped foster a community amongst his fans as they were all in on and part of a running joke. He was on the cutting edge in relating to his fans, as fellow comedian Robert Kelly explains,

You gotta understand, comics never did that. Comics were antisocial. Comics never hung out after shows and said hi to fans. They never went on the Internet and gave out their cell-phone number. Now everybody’s doing it. This is why people respect Dane, especially other comics. He made it without the industry’s permission. They basically said no to him the way they said no to the rest of us. But he said, ‘F— it, I’ll do it myself.’ And he did.’[3]

The core value of social networking is the connection that is created between people, be it one on one or a large number. Cook understood the value of this connection and as an early adopter to social networking benefited from it greatly, while other people in his industry were slow to see the value in it.

With his success though, there has been some pushback from the comedy industry. Critics though have been quick to point out that using social networking as a barometer is like a high school popularity contest, where packaging and looks mean more than the talent. Stand up comedian, Andy Kindler, who is known for his State of the Comedy Address given at the Montreal Comic festival, has been a powerful critic of Cook. Kindler has publicly said of Cook, “Thank you MySpace for inventing Dane Cook. Cook is a pyramid scheme, ‘Tell ten friends who know nothing about comedy about him.’”[4] Cook has received a lot of criticism beyond Kindler from other comedians about using his looks and MySpace to gain a following, not his skill as a comedian.

In addition to the pushback Cook has experienced from the comedy industry, there have also been rumblings from fans of other comics on the internet. He has been accused of stealing a lot of his material which has been documented by people using YouTube and other social networking platforms. Fellow comedian Louis CK has used the social web to point out how Cook has adapted three of his bits. Users on multiple comedy message boards pointed out similarities between tracks from Cook’s comedy CD RetaliationStruck by a Vehicle, Itchy Asshole and My Son Optimus Prime– that have the same premise as Guy on a Bike, Itchy Asshole, and Kid’s Names from Louis C.K’s Live in Houston release.[5] C.K. downplays the issue.

‘Okay, this kid is stealing from me. And making lots of money. Three bits on one CD,’ he wrote on A Special Thing’s bulletin board in 2005, adding, ‘Just so you know, guys, I’m not going to do anything about this…. I’m not going to court over a bit called ‘Itchy Asshole.’’[6]

Cook’s personality and the connections he has created online have made it hard for people to believe that he would steal jokes. His fans see someone they connect with while these comics look like they are jealous of his success even though they have pretty reasonable demonstrated that Cook lifted the material. This is a great example of how Cook has branded himself through social networking; while in the comedy community he is looked down upon for stealing jokes and being a pretty boy, his public persona isn’t damaged because of his overall brand. The criticism and controversy hasn’t stopped Cook’s impressive rise, as he has had 3 major staring roles in film in the last year and a half.

While Cook has used interaction through the social web to build an audience and a carefully constructed brand, the band OK Go has used a gimmick and benefited from the timing of the video sharing revolution to establish themselves as a lead act. Chicago based OK Go became one of the “poster boys” for YouTube in 2006. With the success of two homemade videos, “A Million Ways” and “Here it Goes Again” the band earned over 50 million views combined. The gimmick was the result of a television appearance where they were forced to lip synch and decided to up the ante. They decided if they were going to lip synch that they should do an utterly ridiculous dance routine. The band worked on a routine for their appearance which was surprisingly successful. Three years later at the Reading Festival in England, they deployed the dance routine to set themselves apart from the 75 other bands. The gimmick worked. According to their lead singer Damian Kulash, “It turned into 5,000 wasted people with their jaws on the floor, screaming,”[7]

Ok_GoOK Go felt they had a winning hook and decided that on their next tour to support their album, Oh No, they would do a dance routine to close out the show. Kulash enlisted his sister, dancer Trish Sie, to help them come up with a routine. While preparing the routine they taped it in the backyard of Kulash’s home so they could see how it looked. The tape of the performance ended up on the desk of the CEO of the bands label, Capitol Records. CEO Andy Slater originally signed the band in 2001 and didn’t really have an opinion on the video; he let the band use it even though it violated the labels rights to the song.[8] The tape ended up on the desk of Mico, Capitol’s senior vice president of marketing who had some interns post the film on some video sharing sites. Along with this effort, the band burned DVD copies of the video and handed them out to fans at their shows. “We’d give them to the kids who looked the nerdiest,” Kulash says. “We told them we weren’t allowed to give them out, and say, ‘The record label would totally freak out if they knew!’ The next day, it would be everywhere on the Internet.”[9]

What followed next was a flood of user generated content, as fans from all over the world were copying the video and posting it to MySpace and YouTube. People from Vietnam, Russia, France, Norway, Argentina, and numerous other countries began to post their versions of the video. The band had a genuine phenomenon on their hands and decided to release a second video incorporating the idea of systems into the setup. Kulash once again relied on family, calling his sister, “We brainstormed on how to ratchet it up a notch. It had to be some sort of systems thing. She came up with the treadmill idea.”[10] They filmed “Here It Goes Again” and coupled with a traditional media push (appearances on TV, airing the video on VH-1, and other traditional media outlets) it became an even bigger success.

‘It fits YouTube like a glove,’ says Henry Jenkins, author of Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. The single camera and single take make it a stunt: ‘a visual spectacle that you want to show someone else,’ Jenkins says. ‘It has an authenticity that comes from being slightly crudely made. It feels like it’s from the bottom up, which is hard to pull off.’[11]

The results were staggering: an 182% sales increase for an album that was over one year old, and the emergence of the band as a headliner. OK Go combined happenstance, experimentation, and an openness with their material, to become an example of social media success, owning the 14th most viewed video in the history of YouTube. Their success was one of luck, a creative hook, and being in the right place at the right time.

In distinction to Ok Go’s combination of luck and marketability, Brad Listi used social networking to build an audience and transition that audience into purchasing a traditional media staple, a novel. Listi teaches creative writing and English Composition at Santa Monica College, and is the author of Attention. Deficit. Disorder. a novel published by Simon & Schuster in 2006. Listi used his MySpace blog to create a fan base by sending blog and friend invites. His hard work, determination, luck, and talent combined to help land his novel onto the Los Angeles Times Best Seller List.

Though Listi had a contract with his publishers, he was confronted with a very limited budget to promote his work. An executive at Simon and Schuster turned him onto MySpace as the executive was excited about the potential that the social networking website held. Listi took the advice and began to publish and promote a blog. He recognized the shift in the publishing industry and adapted:

This is the way things are going these days. Writers are building an audience online and interacting directly with their readers. It’s a matter of necessity, and it’s a natural application of the technology. The Internet permits levels of autonomy and interactivity that weren’t available ten years ago. The playing field is changing. Publishing is changing. And I like to think that we’re somewhere at the forefront of that.[12]

Like Cook, Listi’s success can really be attributed to the connection he could maintain with his readers. “And I also think it probably has something to do with the fact that I’m very willing to engage people. I’m pretty easygoing, and I try to be honest. I’m not insulated. If someone reads my book and my blog and sends me an email or a letter, I always write them back. I take the time to talk with my readers, and I’m consistent with it. I try to be friendly and genuine and have good manners, and so on.”[13] Listi has begun work on his second novel and launched a website that is a collaboration of writers, thenervousbreakdown.com.

On MySpace there is a section on the site for top ranked blogs. Each day there are between 400,000 to 500,000 blog published through the social networking giant. The rankings, while able to be gamed with the use of auto refreshing computer programs, usually has a diverse collection of bloggers with large audiences at the top of the charts. Low level celebrities have used their MySpace blog to vent and usually rank well on MySpace. The celebrities that usually rank best consist of reality show TV star like Adriane Curry, former boy band member Lance Bass, British songstress Lilly Allen, director Kevin Smith, various cast members from the TV show The Office and actor/director Zack Braff. Mixed with these celebrities are other bloggers ranging from poets, pop culture observers, misogynistic jerks, attractive girls with little to say, and political observers. Surfers usually don’t go past the first two pages of the rankings on MySpace, because of the bloggers placement on the chart, it is easier for people to discover their blogs Their placement perpetuates success and they continue to build an audience due to the accessibility of their blogs.

While celebrity bloggers may have a ready fan base that allows them to maintain their public personas, a lot of non- celebrity bloggers attempted to spin off their audience into other projects ranging from monetized websites, self published books, web-radio shows, cleverly written t-shirts, and other paid writing gigs. None though were able to gain the success that Listi had when it came to book sales. He had a traditional publisher as opposed to taking the self publishing route, which gave him legitimacy. In addition, Listi’s prose is actually well-written, as opposed to many other bloggers who rely on “personality” as opposed to talent. The quality of what Listi was putting out was much better than the other bloggers on MySpace, which helped him transition from new media to traditional media while importantly converting fans into purchasers. He achieved the same thing that Cook and OK Go did. He transferred the use of the social web to success in traditional media.

Unlike Cook, Ok Go, and Listi who were able to make this transition, Tila Tequila, while perhaps the most blessed with online fame, lacks the talent or the insight to make a successful transition to traditional media. While she has been able to transfer her online fame into opportunity, the quality and success of the end product is still debatable.

Tila Tequila, born Tila Nguyen, can attribute her success to social networking, hard work, and a little bit of luck. An early adopter to MySpace, Nguyen has an extremely low friend ID number. When MySpace was originally setup people were unable to change their top 8 friends. The top 8 friends was a feature on every user’s homepage that showed 8 people from their friends list, this list was populated by the people on the user’s friend’s list with the lowest user ID. Her number was so low she appeared on anyone that added her on their front page. The importance of this is often overlooked in her success, but the impact of the top 8 was very instrumental, as she essentially had free advertising on most MySpace profiles for two years before people could change their top 8. Her profile picture was getting millions of impressions per day by residing in other user’s top list. This accelerated her growth beyond anything else she could have done. Combine that luck with scantly clad outfits and straight out hustle and Nguyen is the most popular woman on MySpace.

“I joined MySpace in September 2003,” Nguyen recalls. “At that time no one was on there at all. I felt like a loser while all the cool kids were at some other school. So I mass e-mailed between 30,000 and 50,000 people and told them to come over. Everybody joined overnight.”[14] With each new friend she brought in, she created another level of people to promote her as she was going to appear on all their main pages. The former import model’s profile grew rapidly leading to various gigs as a spokesperson for products and functions. Nguyen’s “brand” includes a clothing line, cell phone wall paper, and various other products. She continued to expand eventually signing with Interscope records. Unlike Cook, Ok Go, or Listi, Nguyen is a total creation of MySpace; she used the site to brand herself and turn herself into her own entity. Time Magazine claims of Nguyen:

Nguyen clearly grasps the logic of Web 2.0 in a way that would make many ceos weep. She sells Tila posters, calendars, a clothing line of hoodies and shirts. She has been on the cover of British Maxim. She has a single due to be released online. She has a cameo in next summer’s Adam Sandler movie. She has four managers, a publicist and a part-time assistant. It’s hard to know how to read the rise of Tila Tequila. Does she represent the triumph of a new democratic starmaking medium or its crass exploitation for maximum personal gain? It’s not clear that even Tila knows. But she knows why it works. ‘There’s a million hot naked chicks on the Internet,’ she says. ‘There’s a difference between those girls and me. Those chicks don’t talk back to you.’[15]

Recently, she landed a reality show on MTV where she would pit men against women to win her affection, playing on her bi-sexual orientation. Viacom, the parent company of MTV, is using Nguyen’s internet popularity to mold the show into a cross format production. MTV has made it clear that they plan on using Nguyen on as many platforms as possible. In their recent press release they concentrated on the internet and mobile products they were going to produce in conjunction with the television show. Companies like Viacom have realized the potential of cross platforms entertainers and have begun to mesh new media with traditional media. None of them has had the success that Nguyen has had.

The problem with the success of Nguyen lies in a critique of her actual talent. Just because someone is popular on a social networking site doesn’t really show that they have talent. Nguyen’s detractors have been numerous, though some give her credit for her work ethic and the fact that she knows how she obtained popularity and lets everyone in on the joke. Despite the begrudging respect afforded her by her more generous critics, there are still plenty of people who have been quick to point out that she lacks any real talent. Rolling Stone magazine has reviewed some her music and has yet to write anything positive: “Myspace: A place for friends. A place for music. A place where even a shitty band fronted by a Playboy model named Tila Tequila can have 630,000 ‘friends.’”[16] Others have focused their attack on her overall business model. To put it bluntly, the “do it yourself ethic” that she preaches is ultimately limited to what it can produce. People while eager to be her “friend” online are not so eager to spend their hard earned money on her products. Once promoted as the face of a new era in the recording industry, the results of her single destroyed that reputation:

She rejected large record company advances to retain total control over her output. She would instead make her single available for digital download through Apple’s iTunes store. In short, she’d bypassed the system and looked like the first artist to achieve a global breakthrough digitally, without major label backing.It all looks rather different, today. Tequila’s iTunes single sold only 13,000 copies, netting her around $8,500. It failed to crack the iTunes own Top 50. That’s not bad for a single, but it’s a poor return on the efforts, and nowhere near what she might be enjoying with the advance from a major label. With no advance to fritter, her chance at the big time might now have passed.[17]

Nguyen has yet to really recover musically from what some would call a failed launch of her self propelled musical career. She has moved onto other media ventures. At the time of her single release Nguyen had over 1.8 million MySpace “friends”, meaning that a paltry 1.3% of her fan base purchased her single. This failure was the result of the product’s inferiority. Her status as a Myspace star does not translate into sales of sub-par product, and all of Nguyen’s popularity cannot salvage that.

All of these cases have achieved online success for different reasons. Luck, hard work, sex appeal, and interaction are important ingredients for success on these sites. These four cases manufactured stardom on the social web with a few crossing over into mainstream media. While people can criticize their online popularity and how they have achieved it, their success in the “real world” is the ultimate barometer. They have been able to brand themselves away from traditional media and have been able to become a commodity for people looking to expand into different media formats. MTV, HBO, and other companies have approached these people in order to use them and establish their brand in other mediums. The fact that these corporations are signing these individuals demonstrates the power a single person has in the social networking community if they grow and promote themselves right.


[1] Casey, Susan. Everybody Likes Dane Cook. EW Online. Retrieved October 11, 2007 from http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,1111150,00.html

[2] www.myspace.com/danecook

[3] Casey, October 11, 2007

[4] Kindler, Andy. Andy Kindler Live in Vancouver Part 1 of 2. YouTube. Retrieved October 11, 2007 at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HSCrlYRBYek

[5] Getlen, Larry. Take The Funny and Run. Radar Magazine. Retrieved October 11, 2007 at http://www.radaronline.com/from-the-magazine/2007/02/take_the_funny_and_run_1.php

[6] Getlen, Larry. October 11, 2007

[7] Maney, Kevin. Blend of old, new media launched OK Go. USA Today. Retrieved October 11, 2007 at http://www.usatoday.com/tech/news/2006-11-27-ok-go_x.htm

[8] Maney, Kevin. October 11, 2007

[9] Maney, Kevin. October 11, 2007

[10] Maney, Kevin. October 11, 2007

[11] Maney, Kevin, October 11, 2007

[12] Belardes, N.L. Brad Listi of Attention. Deficit. Disorder. gives fiery interview. Nlbelardes.com. Retrieved October 11, 2007 at http://www.nlbelardes.com/blogger/2006/09/brad-listi-of-attention-deficit.html

[13] Henderson, Susan. Brad Listi. Litpark. Retrieved October 11, 2007 at http://litpark.com/2007/01/24/brad-listi/

[14] Grossman, Lev. Tila Tequila. TIME. Retrieved on October 11, 2007 at http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1570728,00.html

[15] Grossman, Lev. October 11, 2007

[16] Eliscu, Jenny. New CDs: Darkness, Chris Brown. Rolling Stone. Retrieved October 11, 2007 at http://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/8878167/new_cds_darkness_brown

[17] Orlowski, Andrew. Phew! Tila Tequila isn’t the future of music. The Register. Retrieved October 11, 2007 at http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/04/12/tila_tequila_itunes_flop/

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