Friday, November 16, 2007

The Wall Street Journal Home Page

Tips From Web Greats On Becoming a Legend In Your Spare Time

November 14, 2007; Page B1

It's sad, really sad, to see so many Americans work hard and play by the rules without ever getting ahead.

YouTube is bulging with videos from citizens, especially young ones, who want nothing more than the American Dream: celebrity status without appreciable talent. They work long hours chasing the dream, doing take after take of their mash-ups, their parodies, their response tapes. But at the end of the day, they're no more famous than when they woke up, most likely in a bedroom in their parents' home.

If this sounds like you, you're probably telling yourself that you've just had bad luck. But real-life Web celebrities know better: They got where they are today not just because they were lucky, but because they knew a few secrets you probably don't.

That fact was abundantly clear when I interviewed some of the biggest Net stars last week, asking what advice they'd give to someone trying to break into the business. Here's what they told me about "Becoming a Viral Web Superstar: Tips From the Experts."

The most important thing is to understand the dynamics of the medium and the nature of your audience. "The Internet moves very fast," says Gary "Numa Numa" Brolsma. "Your video has to be funny, or get to the point, very quickly. People are clicking all the time. If you don't hook people in the first 15 seconds, they'll move on."

Mr. Brolsma certainly knows what he's talking about. He was voted "Greatest Internet Superstar" by VH1. You may not have heard of him, or for that matter, any of the other megasuperstars mentioned in this column. Well, you can read about them on Wikipedia. Or, ask the guy in your office who seems always glued to his computer, "working on PowerPoint."

Another glide path to online fame involves pushing as many demographic buttons as possible. That's the word from Judson "Evolution of Dance" Laipply, whose video has long reigned as the most-viewed on YouTube.

"My video crosses almost every generation -- it doesn't have a language barrier and it has nostalgia going for it, too," he says. "One of my favorite emails was from a grandmother who said she watched it with her daughter, her granddaughter and her great-granddaughter, and they all were laughing hysterically."

Tenacity and self-confidence also should be in your arsenal. "Be obsessive," says Fritz Grobe, the short, bearded one on the right in the famous Diet Coke and Mentos video. "We spent six months developing our experiments and asking ourselves, 'Is this cool, or are we just crazy?' Lots of the biggest Internet videos have been made by real people showing what they are passionate about."

It helps to have been lucky in the parents department, at least according to Adam "Chocolate Rain" Bahner, known as Tay Zonday. "The song took off because it had a catchy hook and because there were aspects of its presentation that were unconventional: my young looks and my deep voice. There is something mystical, captivating and even a little freakish about the genes I've been given," he says.

One more tip: Avoid what Matt "Where the Hell Is Matt?" Harding describes as "closing the loop."

"You want to leave something for people to figure out," he says. "The videos I am interested in are the ones where, at the end, I still have lots of questions: Who is that? How did they learn to do that? Is this for real? A debate still rages about whether my video is fake. There are a lot of people who don't believe that you can go to places like the Galapagos or Antarctica."

So what is it like being what Mr. Harding calls a "pseudo-faux celebrity?" Pretty sweet, mostly. Naturally, though, you're always worried whether lightning will strike twice.

Mr. Brolsma, whose new "Numa Three" video debuts today on his Web site, says Web celebrity lets him live like he would with a regular job, without having to actually have one. Mr. Laipply has been on "Oprah," giving his career as an "inspirational comedian" a big boost. He chatted last week while driving from one college gig at South Dakota State to another one at Mississippi State.

Mr. Bahner is hoping his appearances on the likes of "Jimmy Kimmel" will turbo charge a career in show business and voiceover. Mr. Harding was in New Guinea last week filming a new dancing/traveling video for release in June. And Mr. Grobe and his partner are paid to travel the globe setting up Diet Coke fountains. They last for just a few minutes, but oh, what a show!

To be sure, being the latest, greatest Web meme has its drawbacks. You're human kitsch, so you're never sure whether people are laughing with you or at you. And until your dying day, strangers will be coming up to you on the street asking you to make cola shoot out of a bottle.

Some readers may wonder why anyone would want to become a Web celebrity in the first place. All this youthful exhibitionism! What ever happened to the good old days, when Greta Garbo wanted to be left alone?

Note to kids: If you want to defend yourself, but have never heard of Greta Garbo, she was a celebrity back when they were called "movie stars." You can look her up on Wikipedia. Or, just ask someone who is always glued to a TV set watching real movies.