Brittany and I quickly became obsessed with a YouTube channel run by a girl named Brookers. She lived in Massachusetts like us, which made the idea of being on YouTube all the more real and accessible. More important, she had the same whack-job sense of humor that we did, so we knew that there was an audience for our style. She had around forty or fifty thousand subscribers, which was huge in 2007. One of her videos was a recap of the first Harry Potter movie that devolves into a weird heavy metal song. In another, she prankcalls a restaurant and manages to keep her victim on the line for nearly eight minutes. Genius. I had found my new creative outlet.
Brittany and I decided to start our own channel to post videos to, and we needed a name. We were sitting at my kitchen table, and I was doing random Google image searches for inspiration when my cat, Pookie, jumped up on my lap.
The only problem was that we didn’t know what our first official video should be. I wanted it to be cool and really stand out. It needed to make some sort of splash since it was our debut.
“I know,” Brittany said. “Pookie Productions!”
“That’s a terrible idea.”
Somehow I’d landed on a page full of GIFs and one caught my eye — a tree that bloomed full of green leaves on one side and was barren with snowflakes falling on it on the other, representing two seasons. Something about it clicked in my brain.
I’d been spending a lot of time playing the game World of Warcraft, because like RuneScape before it, I loved that I could wander through an entirely made-up universe. One of my favorite places to go was an area called WinterSpring. (If you want further proof that I’m a total nerd, it’s located in northeastern Kalimdor and is home to the goblin city Everlook. There are a lot of demons in the southern region, so watch out.)
“What about WinterSpring Productions?” I asked, showing Brittany the picture and explaining the origin. “This picture could make a really good logo that goes perfectly with the name.”
She shrugged. “Sure.” Brittany always indulged my weird ideas.
And so our channel was born. We quickly shortened the name to WinterSpringPro (or WSP), because those last two syllables just seemed to get in the way.
The only problem was that we didn’t know what our first official video should be. I wanted it to be cool and really stand out. It needed to make some sort of splash since it was our debut. Brittany and I spent hours on the computer watching the other kinds of videos that people were posting; one that had gone viral was basically just a piece of fruit moving across a countertop via stop-motion animation.
“We could do that with our bodies,” I said. “Like, make us move without it seeming like we were actually moving. It would look so much cooler than this.”
Brittany was into the idea, and so on the last day of our sophomore year, we spent nine hours recording our first official YouTube video, “Humanation.” The premise was simple: wake up, get dressed, get breakfast, go outside, jump around, all in stop motion and set to a technobeat.
Unfortunately, we happened to pick one of the hottest days of the year to record it, so we spent more time indoors than out, and when we were outside, we tried to film in the shade whenever possible. Once we were finished, I spent another five hours editing it, uploaded it to YouTube, and waited for the comments and views to start blowing up.
Insert sound of crickets.
NOBODY was watching our video. So I decided to be proactive.
I made up a bunch of fake YouTube accounts and started leaving positive feedback for us under different names. Stuff like “OMG COOL VID!!!” and “How did they do that???” and “Best video EVER!!” (Don’t judge me, guys. It’s not easy to establish yourself!)
By the end of the summer, our videos were averaging around ten thousand views, and we had almost two thousand subscribers. How crazy is that?
Next, I began spamming other YouTubers’ comments sections, writing stuff like, “If you think this video is cool, you HAVE to check out WinterSpringPro!” I wasn’t afraid to work it, which was weird for me, because in real life I could still be shy and socially awkward, even with all of my new friends and growing confidence. But it was easy to be aggressive online. It wasn’t face-to-face; I could hide behind a screen.
And it worked. Suddenly people started watching and giving “Humanation” five stars, leaving really nice comments and, best of all, subscribing. Subscriptions meant that they really believed in us and wanted to see more. Seeing that someone from across the world was watching a video that we’d made in Marlborough, Massachusetts, was surreal and my first glimpse of how powerful the Internet is at connecting people.
We made sure to return the favor: if anyone asked us to watch one of his or her videos, we would, and we’d leave positive feedback. It was a give-and-take system of goodwill, and even though there were a lot of crap videos, I felt that if someone took the time to say something nice about us online, it was only fair to do the same thing in return.
Once the views and subscriptions started pouring in, we realized we needed to step up our game. We posted around twelve videos in all over the summer break. Some of them were really simple—footage of us jumping into a swimming pool, but in reverse so it looked like we were flying out of the water. Other times we got really high-concept, like The Joey Show, where I played a deranged talk show host who used a mop as a microphone while documenting Brittany’s made-up tragic life.
By the end of the summer, our videos were averaging around ten thousand views, and we had almost two thousand subscribers. How crazy is that?! I don’t think it would be that easy for a newbie anymore; it was sort of the Wild West of YouTube at that time, and the market wasn’t as crowded. We were lucky that we got in early, but a lot of it also had to do with developing friendly and supportive relationships with YouTubers who were just like us—basically, a bunch of nobodies who shared our bizarro sensibilities.
On the first day of eleventh grade, my English teacher asked everyone in the class to give a presentation on what we did over the summer, and when I explained what Brittany and I had done, everyone was really impressed. The same people who used to bully me when I was younger watched the videos and told me they loved them. They were probably still making fun of me behind my back, but I didn’t care, because I was also getting recognition from people I knew genuinely liked what we were doing: the underclassmen.
I could tell from the WSP comments section that a lot of our viewers were younger, and it turned out that some of them went to our school. My English class that year was located in the wing that housed the eighth graders, and one week I started noticing a trio of girls who always grinned and pointed at me whenever I passed them in the hallway. They made me nervous: I couldn’t tell if they had a crush on me or were making fun of me for some reason.
It was my first experience with real-life audience interaction, and it made me feel that Brittany and I were doing something right.
One day they finally surrounded me outside class.
“We love your videos,” one of them said with a giggle.
“You’re so funny,” another one said, nervously twirling a heart-shaped pendant around one finger.
“Can I have your autograph?” the third one asked, handing me her red backpack and a black pen.
I still wasn’t sure if they were just teasing me or if they were legitimately fans of WinterSpringPro. It seemed too bizarre that strangers in my school were watching my videos and liking them enough to ask for my autograph.
“Sure,” I said. “Thanks so much for watching.” As I scribbled my name on the girl’s satchel, I kept waiting for them to burst out laughing, like maybe it was all just a big joke. But they were totally serious, and from then on, they always waved and said hi to me whenever I passed them in the hallway and complimented me whenever a new video went up. It was my first experience with real-life audience interaction, and it made me feel that Brittany and I were doing something right. Maybe there was a bigger reason for us to be creating our odd little videos than just a sense of wanting to be seen. Our videos were actually making these girls, and clearly other people too, happy.
I signed up for a television production class that our school offered, and the quality of our videos got much better. It was the first time it dawned on me that I could make a living out of my love for videos and become an editor or director.
By the end of the school year, we had posted twenty videos, and for our one-year anniversary, we celebrated by filming “Humanation 2,” a much more elaborate version of our first stop-motion video: we used our bodies as if they were cars zipping around the school and playground.
Around this same time, YouTube announced the Partner Program. If you were accepted, you’d get an ad banner on your channel and share the profits based on the number of views and subscribers. We were having fun doing WSP as a hobby, but we worked hard at it, so the idea of making money off it seemed too good to be true. Our application was rejected: we didn’t have enough subscribers. But the people at YouTube were encouraging and told us we were getting close and that we should try reapplying in two months. So we spent the summer working our butts off, hustling for subscribers, and putting even more effort into our production values.
We of course assumed we’d become millionaires immediately and were pretty bummed when our first check came in for one hundred dollars, which we split. Still, it was an incredible feeling to get paid to do what we loved.
YouTube was getting bigger and more popular, and we started to pay close attention to trends. We noticed that a lot of the videos that tended to go viral referenced pop culture in some way, so we started incorporating outside influences into our work, but with our own spin. For example, we took a clip of Lisa Nova, one of our favorite big-time YouTubers, and inserted her into a sketch about the Jonas Brothers going to public high school. I borrowed a bunch of life-size cardboard cut-outs of the band from Alison, who ended up becoming a huge fan of theirs after we went to the Veronicas’ concert, and animated Brittany’s and my lips into their mouths to make them speak.
We also shot a fake trailer for Saw 6 (although we accidentally used the roman numeral for five in the title credit), where we were chained together in a basement and forced to play fillin-the-letter word games. Another mistake from that one: we flashed cards throughout the clip that were full of spelling errors like, “Sacrafices Will Be Made” and “Unspeakable Torcher Will Occur!” (Thanks again, paint chips!)
We racked up a lot more subscribers, and by the end of the summer; it paid off: YouTube informed us that we’d made partnership. We of course assumed we’d become millionaires immediately and were pretty bummed when our first check came in for one hundred dollars, which we split. Still, it was an incredible feeling to get paid to do what we loved.
As our channel slowly grew larger, we started communicating with other YouTubers. One of the first was a hyperactive, temper-tantrum-prone kid named Fred Figglehorn, with an eerily high-pitched voice who was the alter ego of a guy named Lucas Cruikshank. He was extremely popular online, and Brittany and I watched his videos regularly. We managed to get his cell phone number through a friend of a friend and started prank-calling him. At first we’d just giggle nervously and hang up, but soon we started talking to him as if we were old friends.
“Hey, man! How’s it going?”
“Oh, good,” he’d stammer, sounding a little confused.
“I’m so hungry. Are you? We should go grab something to eat.”
“Wait, sorry, who is this?”
I’d laugh. “Oh come on. You know who it is. So what do you think? Olive Garden, say, around eight o’clock?”
“I’ve already got dinner plans,” he said as we tried not to crack up.
“Oh, well, next time!”
Brittany and I alternated doing a few different versions of that exchange for about a week. It was actually really sweet that he pretended as long as he did, not wanting to hurt the feelings of his “friends” by not recognizing their voices. He finally got fed up, though, and demanded to know who we were.
Brittany was the one on the phone when he finally snapped, but he laughed when she told him it had been WinterSpringPro calling him the entire time. We couldn’t believe he actually knew who we were, and he was a really great sport about the whole thing. We’d just filmed a spoof of an appearance he’d done on Hannah Montana and asked if he’d be willing to tweet about it or mention it in one of his videos. But our version made fun of the show a little too much, and he didn’t think his manager would appreciate it. Still, now that he was talking to us, we were desperate to get him to mention our channel somehow since he had such a huge audience. We came up with an idea to contact as many other YouTubers as we could to do a little short film congratulating him on reaching 1 million subscribers—he had been one of the first YouTubers to do so.
Sure, I’d tweet about that, he texted when we pitched the idea. That would be awesome!
We reached out first to Shane Dawson, a YouTuber we both really loved, and he was immediately game to shoot something for us. Then we reached out to another favorite, iJustine, and as soon as we got her on board, the rest just fell into place. We e-mailed more of our favorite YouTubers, and they were all really into the idea. I’d like to say it was done purely in the spirit of supporting other talent, but although we all genuinely liked each other, there was an unspoken understanding that by collaborating, we’d be spreading our own brand across new platforms; we hoped everyone would gain more subscribers.
The concept of the video was that as soon as Fred reached 1 million subscribers he had become an all-powerful, vengeful being who started killing off other YouTubers one by one by shooting death rays out of his disembodied head. Fred tweeted about it and the video blew up with over half a million views.
During this whole time, even though we had a huge audience of our own, I had continued to audition for school plays with varying degrees of success. In tenth grade I managed to get into the chorus of the spring musical of Guys and Dolls. I played a drunk guy who stumbles onto stage and utters one line: “What vulgar jewelry!” It was awkward but better than nothing. My junior year, I got a role in a student-written play, “Teenage Dream.” It predated the Katy Perry song and was all about the nightmares of being a teenager. I played a little kid who, along with his brother, spends an evening terrorizing their babysitter (What is it with school plays about psycho little kids??). At that point I was deep into WinterSpringPro, so my confidence was way higher than it had ever been before — so much so that I convinced my “brother” to go off-script with me on opening night.
We added in a bunch of our own lines and improvised a physical fight. But the whole thing backfired, and instead of enhancing the show, it just caused us to lose our place once our new bits were over. I found myself standing on the stage in silence, sweating under the lights, desperately trying to remember what my real lines were while people out in the audience coughed nervously. Thank goodness the girl who played the babysitter managed to steer us back on track. The whole ridiculous episode made me appreciate how much control I had over acting in, directing, and editing my own videos on YouTube.