The 2 Teenagers Who Run the Wildly Popular Twitter Feed @HistoryInPics

Meet Xavier Di Petta and Kyle Cameron, ages 17 and 19, whose ability to build a massive audience from nothing may be unparalleled in media today.
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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."

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Presented by

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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