In the late nineties, Evan Gregory ’01 created an SCCS website. The interface of the site is simple: the top of the page reads “Movies” and below are default-blue hyperlinks, all in Times New Roman, to fourteen videos with names like “Poop Movie” and “Pants Movie.” The website appears to be a primitive version of YouTube, minus the search feature and abundant Vevo ads. It seems prophetic that Gregory was responsible for creating a Swarthmore video website so strangely similar to YouTube because about ten years later, YouTube would be the platform on which he and his brother, Andrew Gregory ‘04, came to internet fame.
The Gregory Brothers came to be some of the first Swarthmore internet celebrities, given that they graduated as the internet was first surfacing as a space for networking and sharing media. True, “social media hotbed” is not the first descriptor that comes to mind when one thinks of Swarthmore. But even the seemingly impermeable Swarthmore Bubble has become entangled in internet culture, and with that entanglement has come Swarthmore’s own slew of internet celebrities.
Internet culture on campus revolves largely around Facebook. As one Instagram famous student, Moises Polanco ’17, noted, “When I hear about social media on campus, it’s usually on Facebook … I kind of unsubscribe from the whole ‘you can see everything that I’m doing’ that comes from Facebook. [With Instagram] there are two different personas.” Polanco’s ambivalence about Facebook reflects a thought trend amongst students on campus who are internet famous: social networks are for art, not for personal life.
The most popular sharing websites like VSCO, Instagram and Tumblr have a dual purpose as places to both create and disseminate that art. In this way, the internet has indeed become a place to define and promote “art,” cyclically and simultaneously. For the social media stars of Swarthmore, the internet serves the aforementioned purpose. As many of them were quick to mention, however, their fame defines neither their work nor their “real life” identity. Undeniably, though, their “real life,” artistic and internet identities give life to one another and are complexly related.
Photographer Molly Lichten ’15, who has generated masses of followers on image-sharing sites like Tumblr and Flickr, became internet famous by accident. For Lichten, social media was the most convenient way to store and organize her photographs, but due to the social nature of the websites she was using, she quickly rose to internet prominence.
Lichten remarked on the role fame plays in work popularized by social media, saying, “I think it is easy to get caught up in the ever-elusive search for ‘fame,’ to find yourself compromising your art, vision, or aesthetic for whatever target audience you’re trying to reach, impress, or please. And while I think it is important to be humble, I think it is just as important to remember why you do what you do, why you take photographs or create art.” Polanco shared a similar sentiment, commenting, “I don’t have objections to fame, as long as it doesn’t infiltrate my work.”
There are other internet famous Swatties for whom artistic promotion via social networks was a more deliberate venture and less of an accident. The Gregory Brothers of the aforementioned SCCS website “Movies” are also the musicians behind the viral auto-tuned gem the “Bed Intruder Song” and several popular YouTube video series including “Auto-Tune the News” and “Songify This!”
The brothers were intent on having careers as musicians after graduating from Swarthmore, and the explosion of social networking sites in the early 2000’s was vital to their pursuit of musical careers. “Artists work in the media that are available, and our work was only made possible by tools and platforms that were developed very recently. We feel very lucky that developments like YouTube and accessible filmmaking software have allowed us to sustain careers as artists. Otherwise, we would be trying our hand at writing books about orphans,” said the brothers. For the brothers, YouTube and the videos that they produced via the website “were just an extension of us being musicians.”
The social media component of their work was essential to their success, but a love for music and performance underscored the importance of the medium and the fame that such a medium generated. For them, like many other internet famous artists, artistic drive triumphed over fame.
For others, like model Kyle Pierce ’14, internet celebrity was a corollary to a more traditional kind of celebrity. Pierce’s work as a model developed into internet fame more inadvertently. “I guess people who tried to keep their hands in men’s fashion would see an editorial I was a part of and then re-blog it. Oftentimes if a photographer released a shoot, then others would try and pick it up as a story,” said Pierce of his development into a social media sensation. Because of social media, art that is meant for a specific population of readers or consumers is now available to a multitude of audiences to whom it’d previously been inaccessible. Social media made art globally available, and in Pierce’s case, made his image famous.
Internet fame, naturally, generates a kind of localized Swarthmore fame. Lichten again emphasized the importance of art over fame, especially when managing fame at Swarthmore, remarking, “I don’t know whether or not people know about my internet ‘fame,’ but they certainly seem to know about my photography, and to me, that is what this is all about.” Even on a small campus, our peers’ artistic pursuits are relevant, hopefully not only for the fame that such pursuits has spawned, but for the art itself.
In the post-Swarthmore “real world,” the Gregory Brothers have continued to encounter Swarthmore in the context — or not — of their internet fame. “One time I walked by Al Bloom (president of Swarthmore while the Gregory Brothers were Swarthmore students) on the street in the East Village and he was kind enough to pretend not to recognize me as being an internet-famous Swattie. Thank goodness, since if he had, I would’ve honestly been really embarrassed, and that’s not even taking into account the economic losses the city of New York would’ve incurred from traffic jams and having to send the police force and fire squad, etc. to escort me out of the neighborhood.”
There is a certain quality of humor and bashfulness that imbues conversations about internet fame. Perhaps this exists because the way one acquires internet fame is still unfamiliar, or maybe because of the precarious nature of the networks on which this fame is dependent, but either way, Swatties who are internet famous experience their art, fame and world in a way that we, the masses — the “followers” — cannot fully comprehend.