It might seem as if John Green, author of the hit young adult book-turned-movie “The Fault in Our Stars,” came out of nowhere. Already part of the cultural zeitgeist, the film is on track to break some records when it opens today: According to The Wrap, Fandango announced on Tuesday that it is “the biggest pre-selling love story in the company’s 14-year history, and is also the ticket service’s biggest pre-selling drama of the year.” The FTiOS trailer is the most-liked ever on YouTube.
But to the YouTube-savvy, Green’s “sudden” stardom makes a lot of sense — all of those “Likes” didn’t come from nowhere. Like most other early YouTubers, Green ended up building an authentic community by using YouTube intelligently.
Because the writer has put not only his work, but himself, on display, he has transcended author-dom and entered the ranks of cult-personality status, making Time Magazine’s list of 100 Most Influential People of 2014. Some fans even want him to run for president.
Meet the Vlogbrothers
Vlogbrothers is a channel started by brothers John and Hank Green in 2007 as an experiment in getting rid of textual communication from their relationship for one year — they called the project “Brotherhood 2.0.” In the beginning, they were using YouTube as a way to share videos with people they knew, mostly each other. When they started, John was, and still is, primarily, a novelist; Hank wrote for a blog called EcoGeek.org. Their experiment was slowly gaining traction, then Hank uploaded his song, “Accio Deathly Hallows” to YouTube. The video made it onto the front page of YouTube, which in 2007 was a really big deal.
Subscribers flocked to the Vlogbrothers at such scale that the Greens could not possibly know each subscriber personally, as they had in the early months of their channel. This new growth required the brothers to figure out a way for their subscribers to communicate with each other. They built forums and websites that their audience could then maintain. This was the foundation for the community we currently know as Nerdfighteria.
What you need to know about Nerdfighteria
Nerdfighteria is the comprehensive community of people that has rallied around the works and principles of John and Hank Green. The exponential growth in popularity of their channel, Vlogbrothers, on YouTube is indicative of the growth of the community.
Six months after launching their YouTube channel in 2007, the Vlogbrothers had 202 subscribers; John and Hank’s goal for the year had been 300 subscribers. After Hank’s first hit song, the site grew to 7,000 subscribers. By February of 2010, it hit 200,000 subscribers; in April 2011, 500,000 subscribers. Today, their original Vlogbrothers channel has two million subscribers, and has spun off dozens of additional channels.
Nerdfighter census and community growth
For the past two years, Hank Green has put together the Nerdfighter Census and a corresponding video detailing the data collected from the community that volunteered to take the survey. Judging from more than 100,000 responses, it appears that most Nerdfighters are female, especially the most active Nerdfighters (60 percent of the Vlogbrothers video watchers; 72 percent of survey responders). Some 85 percent of this year’s respondents are non-Hispanic white. Most Nerdfighters are American, and between the ages of 13 and 30. More than 87,000 respondents have read a John Green novel; 28,000 people have purchased something from DFTBA.com, the merchandising arm of Nerdfighteria.
Community growth through social action
The Vlogbrothers have directed their community to social action and supporting philanthropic causes through charity projects and micro-loans. To date, they have loaned more $4 million through KIVA.org; the most recent iteration of their signature charity event, the Project for Awesome, raised more than $800,000.
Not only does the community rally around projects that help the world, they also support the people they like — including John Green and his previous works.
Before joining YouTube, John Green published “Looking for Alaska” (2005) and “An Abundance of Katherines” (2006). Both were critical successes. All of John’s books have been showcased in one way or another through the Vlogbrothers channel on YouTube. For example, when John won a Printz Award for “An Abundance of Katherines,” he posted video of his reaction to the news on YouTube — the video has garnered more than 150,000 views.
During the preparation and publication of “Paper Towns,” Nerdfighters got to see inside so many steps of the usually hidden novel-writing process, as the writing, editing, publishing, marketing and sales process was chronicled in vlogs. A rough draft of the novel’s first chapter was read and posted in September 2007. Book-cover art was also revealed via the Vlogbrothers channel.
The somewhat improvised, learn-as-we-go rollout for “Paper Towns,” from touring to videos, became the blueprint for the launch of “The Fault in Our Stars.” By now, the Vlogbrothers were experts in fandom, and the data proves it.
The trajectory of “The Fault in Our Stars” on YouTube
Before the recent rise of the film, “The Fault in Our Stars” had a life on YouTube, with a community that enabled the book to thrive. On June 10, 2011, in the first video featuring the yet-untitled novel, John admits that the book’s central premise — it’s about two teens who meet at a cancer support group and fall in love — was directly inspired by Nerdfighters.
The title of “The Fault in Our Stars” was announced on YouTube by John Green on June 29, 2011; a day before that video, the book hit No. 1 in preorders on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, with no traditional publicity.
TFiOS by the numbers
Fan uploads for TFiOS range from Tour de Nerdfighting footage to songs inspired from the novel, fan-made movie trailers, and reactions to the official trailer solicited by the author himself. Combined, this fan-generated enthusiasm translated into massive advance buzz about the movie.
As the rest of the world has caught up with YouTube, and the Green brothers have mastered the art of engagement with fans, TFiOS has nearly nine times more videos about it than “Paper Towns.” Why are there so many more fan uploads for TFiOS? There were more opportunities to spike inspiration for fans to make videos for this title than any other.
The following visual breakdown is evidence of the loyalty and abundance of Nerdfighters to TFiOS, as well as the production capabilities of communities on YouTube:
What can be learned about building online community from John and Hank Green, the Vlogbrothers and Nerdfighteria?
First and foremost: Building a sustainable audience takes time. Second, it takes a shared belief system, which means that your values need to be clearly established and communicated. Third, it takes understanding what your audience wants from the relationship you are building with them.
Here are some questions that, when answered in depth and incorporated into identity, help to transcend commodity or product, and become culture:
- What is it that you are willing to put your money behind?
- What could you offer your audience if you actually met them in person?
- What causes, outside of yourself, can you and your audience rally around?
- What would you like your community to do?
- Creating culture doesn’t happen overnight. There is no astroturfing, only engagement. To use John Green’s favorite quotation, “The only way out is through.”
This is not a checklist. No one can build authenticity according to a set of rules. Audiences are smart.
And yes, if you see the movie, you will cry.
Meredith Levine is a fanthropologist at Zefr. She has her MA in Critical Media Studies from UCLA, where she focused on cultures of media production and consumption. She writes regularly at blog.zefr.com; reach her @meredithgene.