There is a new ubiquitous media brand on Twitter.
No, I'm not talking about Pierre Omidyar's First Look Media or BuzzFeed or The Verge, or any other investor-backed startup.
I'm talking about @HistoryInPics, which, as I discovered, is run by two teenagers: Xavier Di Petta, 17, who lives in a small Australian town two hours north of Melbourne, and Kyle Cameron, 19, a student in Hawaii.
They met hustling on YouTube when they were 13 and 15, respectively, and they've been doing social media things together (off and on) since. They've built YouTube accounts, making money off advertising. They created Facebook pages such as "Long romantic walks to the fridge," which garnered more than 10 million Likes, and sold them off. More recently, Di Petta's company, Swift Fox Labs, has hired a dozen employees, and can bring in, according to an Australian news story, 50,000 Australian dollars a month (or roughly 43,800 USD at current exchange rates).
But @HistoryInPics may be the duo's biggest creation. In the last three months, this account, which tweets photographs of the past with one-line descriptions, has added more than 500,000 followers to bring their total to 890,000 followers. (The account was only established in July of 2013.) If the trend line continues, they'll hit a million followers next month.
The new account has gained this massive following without the official help of Twitter, which often sticks celebrity and media accounts on its recommended-follow list, inflating their numbers.
As impressively, my analysis of 100 tweets from the account this week found that, on average, a @HistoryInPics tweet gets retweeted more than 1,600 times and favorited 1,800 times.
For comparison, Vanity Fair's Twitter account—with 1.3 million followers—tends to get a dozen or two retweets and favorites on any given tweet.
I've got about 140,000 followers and I've tweeted more than 30,000 times. I can't remember ever having a single tweet get retweeted or favorited as much as the average @HistoryInPics tweet.
Actual people seem to follow these accounts. A quick check on a tool that scans Twitter accounts for bot followers says that only five percent of @HistoryInPics' followers are bots. That's an incredible low number for such a large follower base. (For comparison, the tool found that 34 percent of my followers were bots.)
Qualitatively, looking through who follows @HistoryInPics, I don't see the telltale signs of bots. Famous people follow the accounts, too. Jack Dorsey famous. Kim Kardashian famous. (From his personal twitter account, @GirlsGoneKyle, Cameron recently posted a screenshot of a direct message that Kardashian sent to them.)
Even other media people—who, as we'll soon see, have big issues with the brand—just can't help themselves sometimes from sharing photos from the account, when the perfect image from the past crosses their feed at just the right moment. Who can resist Tupac Shakur on a stretcher, right after being shot, with a middle finger in the air? Or a World War I train taking soldiers through Flanders? Or Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelley backstage at the Oscars?
In other words, @HistoryInPics is a genuine phenomenon built entirely on Twitter.
But strangely, in a world where every social media user seems to be trying to drive attention to some website or project or media brand, @HistoryInPics doesn't list its creators nor does it even have a link in its bio. There are no attempts at making money off the obvious popularity of the account. On initial inspection, the account looks created, perhaps, by anonymous lovers of history.
But no, @HistoryInPics is the creation of two teenagers whose closest physical connection is that they both live near the Pacific Ocean.
It's not just @HistoryInPics, either. They're also behind @EarthPix, which has similarly staggering stats, and several comedy accounts that they're in the process of selling that I agreed not to disclose. They've got at least five accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers and engagement metrics that any media company would kill for right now.
How do they do it? Once they had one account with some followers, they used it to promote other ones that could capitalize on trends they saw in social-media sharing. "We normally identify trends (or create them haha). We then turn them into a Twitter account," Di Petta said in an IM conversation. "Share them on established pages, and after 50,000 - 100,000 followers they've gained enough momentum to become 'viral' without further promotion."
But I've seen many, many people try to do similar things, and very few people have had this level of success. They're like great DJs playing exactly the songs people want, but for photographs on Twitter.
To put it bluntly: Their work in building audiences from nothing might be unparalleled in media today.
No less a curator than Xeni Jardin, a co-founder of BoingBoing, recently tweeted, "I love @HistoryInPics’ taste in material, but" she continued, "would it kill them to include credit for the great photographers who shot these iconic images?"
Which brings us to the problems.
The audiences that Di Petta and Cameron have built are created with the work of photographers who they don't pay or even credit. They don't provide sources for the photographs or the captions that accompany them. Sometimes they get stuff wrong and/or post copyrighted photographs.
They are playing by rules that "old media" and most new media do not. To one way of thinking, they are cheating at the media game, and that's why they're winning. (Which they are.)
I interviewed Di Petta on Skype and got him to walk me through the details of building this little empire of Twitter accounts. As he openly talked through how he and Cameron had built the accounts, I asked him how he felt about criticism that they didn't source or pay for images.
"The majority of the images are public domain haha," he responded.
So I said, great, let's look through the last five together. And not all of them were in the public domain. So, I said, "How do you think about the use of these images?"
"Photographers are welcome to file a complaint with Twitter, as long as they provide proof. Twitter contacts me and I'd be happy to remove it," he said. "I'm sure the majority of photographers would be glad to have their work seen by the massives."
I pressed him on this point. Shouldn't the onus be on him and Cameron to get those rights from the photographers they assume would be grateful?
"It would not be practical," he said. "The majority of the photographers are deceased. Or hard to find who took the images."
Then he said, "Look at Buzzfeed. Their business model is more or less using copyright images."
I said most people in the media don't appreciate Buzzfeed's interpretation of the fair use exemption from copyright law. "The photographers I know would want me to ask you if you see anything wrong with profiting from their work?" I asked him.
"That's an interesting point," Di Petta responded. "I feel like we're monetizing our traffic, but they would see it as we're monetizing their images."
"They would say, 'Without our images, you have no traffic,'" I said.
"They do have a point," he conceded. "But whether we use images X or Y, there will be traffic to the site. But I can see their point of view."
In this logic, Di Petta echoes the logic of all social media networks.
Facebook, Twitter, and (especially) Pinterest all benefit from people sharing copyrighted images. Visual content—none of which the companies create themselves—drive almost all social media sites. And they pay for none of it.
It might be easy to get mad at Di Petta and Cameron over how they're using Twitter to build such huge, dedicated audiences, but the people who are really profiting from the profusion of copyrighted image sharing are the big social networks, two of which are now publicly traded companies, and another with a private multi-billion dollar valuation. Who really deserves the scorn—the two best players in the game or the people who own the stadium?
When @EarthPix and @HistoryInPics hit a million followers on Twitter, Di Petta and Cameron are likely to launch a website, which would be the beginning of monetizing their traffic.