Way More Than 1,000 True Fans: The Vlogbrothers Story

When reading Kevin Kelly’s “1,000 True Fans” piece, one pair of creators immediately  came to mind: John and Hank Green. Kelly discusses how, with the power of the Internet, creators only need 1,000 “true fans” to sustain themselves. If 1,000 true fans spend $100 per year on merchandise, then a creator would be able to earn a comfortable living. Almost by accident, John Green was able to do this and far more; by way of his Internet celebrity matched with his traditional book publishing, he reached mainstream appeal.

John Green is a young adult author who published his first book, “Looking for Alaska,” ten years ago in March 2005. It didn’t go unnoticed; it won the Michael L. Printz award in 2006, one of the highest awards in YA publication. Yet Green was simultaneously beginning another endeavor: Brotherhood 2.0, a daily video blog correspondence with his younger brother, Hank, that they started in 2007. They took turns, each day one of them producing a short vlog for the other. Although they were intended to be a simple correspondence between two faraway brothers (at the time, John was in New York City and Hank was in Montana), thousands of people watched, most of whom found the site through the author blurb on John’s books. (Hank was working in independent media for an environmental blog he started in college, EcoGeek, still going strong today.)
But Brotherhood 2.0 soon developed a culture. By 2009, it evolved into the YouTube channel Vlogbrothers, and the brothers’ fans got a name: Nerdfighters, fighting for nerds, not against them. Nerdfighters began to form Facebook groups and have informal meet-ups.
The brothers were slightly different from the creators that Kelly spoke of in that they already had separate fan bases and had monetized their work. However, they used the power of the Internet to escalate this to a whole new level.
They kept their audiences engaged with Q&As and challenges. They went on tour. Hank sang on camera for the first time in a Vlogbrothers video, and in 2008 co-founded an independent record label for YouTube artists like himself, DFTBA Records: “DFTBA produces and distributes for creative, independent personalities,” its description reads. (DFTBA is an initialism for the central philosophy of Nerdighters, “Don’t Forget to Be Awesome.”) This was paired with DFTBA’s merchandise store in 2010, which works with many of the most popular YouTube bloggers, including Hannah Hart and Rhett & Link. “We felt like people wanted merchandise from YouTube creators, but we were unsatisfied with the quality of products and support other companies were offering,” their site explains. “We wanted to help creators create full time, and we wanted to make sure that fans and communities could get high quality, cool stuff without any hassle or confusion.” At the same time as their culture was expanding, taking up more and more of their time, they were maintaining their old work, and growing as people as well. The audience felt emotional ties, for example, as they were “there” for the birth of both of John’s children. And the brothers are always quick to defend what Vlogbrothers is actually about: a way for two brothers to keep in touch. 
These brothers have done so much with Internet culture that it’s a struggle to sum it all up concisely. (Hank links to it all on his website, if you want a full list.) Hank has interviewed President Obama with some of his YouTube colleagues. John wrote “The Fault in our Stars,” released as a major motion picture last year. The movie grossed $48 million its opening weekend. But the night before the film’s release, theaters around the country hosted a premium-filled event (complete with a poster and bracelet for every attendee) where, after the film, there would be a live cast of interviews with Green and the movie’s stars, including questions from their studio audience and tweeted from audiences around the country. I attended one of these screenings with my friends from high school, and although some people in the theater were confused by Green’s presence, moat audience members remembered when he signed the entire first printing of the book for his fans— and livecast the experience of the signing for hours on end on the Vlogbrothers channel. We were there with him not only as he wrote the book, but also as he signed each with his hand. (Because if we were at The Night Before our Stars, we probably pre-order a first-printing signed copy as well.) The movie led people to read the book and the book brought a lot of people back around to Nerdfighteria; for others, being a part of the Nerdfighter community was what led them to read John’s book in the first place. 
Like myself, librarian Mita Williams also connected John’s work to the 1,000 fans effect in a 2014 library conference presentation. She states: “I bring attention to their work because I can find no better example of artists who understand how to use the internet as platform for engagement for their fans to connect to each other. They have seem to have taken the lessons of the long tail to heart.”
The strength of John and Hank Green isn’t just that they’ve taken the long-tail model to heart; the brothers are all heart, all the time. And for them, that “heart” includes remaining fiercely independent in their Nerdfighting endeavor. They’ve spawned a whole group of channels, and have been offered many a TV deal, but continue to reject them for the freedom and integrity of their work.
Creators of all kinds have much to learn from these men about the value of staying independent. When you see the bright shining Nerdfighter community, it’s hard to refute.
(Disclaimer: I’ve been a self-proclaimed Nerdfighter since 2010.)
PS: If you’re now intrigued by Nerdfighter culture, check out the Nerdfighter FAQ video!

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