Facebook For The Famous

Backed by heavyweights in three disparate industries—Amazon, CAA, and Greylock Partners—WhoSay.com lets celebrities do something Twitter and Facebook don't: own their online content. Tom Hanks, Anderson Cooper, Lindsay Lohan, Paul Feig, and nearly 900 other stars have already signed up for the service.

When Paul Feig, the director of Bridesmaids, was invited to join WhoSay.com, a relatively new social network that describes itself as the source for "Photos and videos directly from Celebrities and Influencers," he was sure he was somehow being set up.

"They contacted me about four or five months ago and they made the offer to help me put up a page," Feig tells Fast Company. The page would bring together his tweets (a prolific tweeter, the director has over 1.2 million Twitter followers), Facebook page, and other social media odds and sods, in one easy-to-use platform built to his exact specifications. "They gave me the hard sell," he continues. "I kept looking for what the scam was, or if I had to pay. It was so easy and user-friendly for me, how could I not?"

That hard sell is actually quite simple: When Feig—or Tom Hanks, Anderson Cooper, Zooey Deschanel, or any other celebrity dabbling in social media—posts a picture to Twitter or Facebook, they risk losing their copyright and any possible revenue derived from their work, even if that work is, say, just a snapshot of their sashimi lunch.

Twitter's Terms of Service, (which are similar to Facebook's), state that "You agree that this license includes the right for Twitter to make such Content available to other companies, organizations or individuals who partner with Twitter for the syndication, broadcast, distribution or publication… Such additional uses by Twitter, or other companies, organizations or individuals who partner with Twitter, may be made with no compensation paid to you with respect to the Content that you submit…" When you are a living brand, that lack of compensation can rankle, especially if your work leads to someone else's compensation at your expense.

"They were so helpful," Feig says of the WhoSay representatives that worked with him to customize his page, which he calls (with obvious mock self-importance) Paul Feig's Media Lounge. "Do, please come in," his logo beckons beside a tongue-in-cheek photo of Feig wearing a suit and tie, holding a stiff drink as he's seated in a clubby-looking library. (In actuality, his house.)

The page features regularly updated photos taken by Feig, like one from England that shows a sign for Blue Ball Yard, with Feig mocking the cheapness of his own sight gag: "We've all been here. Am I right, fellas? Huh? Anybody? Am I right? Hello? Is this thing on? (Feig is booed off stage, banned from club)." The page also has a rather modest link to Feig's Amazon page that reads, "If you're in the mood, check out my books. They're not terrible. I swear." (Amazon, along with CAA and Greylock Partners, is an investor in WhoSay.)

Feig admits to being a little sheepish about turning his WhoSay page into an ad for his movies or for himself: "I'm very very guarded about how much self-promotion I do over the Internet," he says. "I haven't done any promotion [on WhoSay] because it feels like an ad. If I put up a picture of Bridesmaids, it feels kind of whorish." Feig notes that he did promote the movie on Twitter, but "felt like a whore doing it."

While Feig's outpost on WhoSay comes wrapped in characteristic humility (this is, after all, the creator of Freaks and Geeks, one of pop culture's greatest celebrations of the un-cool kids), Tower Heist director Brett Ratner's page has the feel of a fan site. ("Ben Stiller pops open the bubbly for the wrap party. Head out to theaters today to see "Tower Heist"!!!" reads a post from the film's opening day.) Ratner also includes two links to the iTunes store where you can purchase "It's a Tower Heist (Inspired by the Motion Picture)," the single by Nas and Rick Ro$$ (available in explicit and clean versions), the Amazon page for the Blu-ray and DVD version of his 2000 movie, The Family Man, and actor Scott Caan's book, Photographs Vol. 1, published in 2009 by Rat Press, the director's own imprint.

Other WhoSay users bypass commerce in favor of old-fashioned image rehabilitation. Just before Halloween, Lindsay Lohan, whose rotten-looking teeth have prompted much Internet speculation, posted photos of her new smile, with the caption, "Thanks Dr. Dorfman for the zoom... My gums are so sore though!"

Feig, Ratner, Lohan, and nearly 900 other artists and athletes paid nothing for WhoSay's help in setting up their pages. They also weren't asked to use the site in any particular way. Like the so-called celebrity gifting suites that lure bold faced names with high-end freebies at awards shows and film festivals, invitations to join WhoSay can be seen a freebie, another sweet perk of being famous.

WhoSay grew out of the talent agency CAA and has been operating in what the New York Times described as "stealth mode" since last year. Michael Yanover, CAA's business development head, is quick to point out that the site is not just a space reserved for his firm's clients, and is not just a new way for them to promote their new movies—and teeth. In fact, Yanover said, the site was "born out of a problem that we saw—and an opportunity."

"The problem that we were seeing was that our clients were losing control of their identities and having their content taken from them without consent," Yanover tells Fast Company. Stars' Twitpics were being used to promote products not endorsed by them and fans were creating fake celebrity social media accounts with celebrities' names and likenesses attached. "We saw this as a chipping away of the clients' digital identities and ability to monetize that content. They were actually losing their own identity." (This appears to be a growing market, with sites such as Reputation.com doing similar work for the non-famous among us.)

The solution, as CAA saw it, was the creation of a rights management system in the form of a social network, one that would, in Yanover's words, "allow artists and athletes to organize their content in one place, manage their persona, and do it on an international basis."

"International" is the key, according to Steve Ellis, WhoSay's CEO. While WhoSay is nowhere near as prominent as Twitter or Facebook, its creators hope to leverage the site's highly visible clients to grow overseas. "For our movie clients, China is an increasingly important audience," Ellis says. "We're connected to Chinese social media."

By way of example, Ellis points to Portuguese-born soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo, who has 1.5 million WhoSay followers in China, gained, according to stats provided by WhoSay's publicist, in less than a month. (For perspective, Ronaldo has over 5 million Twitter followers and 35,750,968 "likes" on his official Facebook page.)

What Ronaldo's 1.5 million Chinese fans will do for WhoSay as a business is not entirely certain. Ellis says that the core of WhoSay's business "is to make it as easy as possible for our clients to have direct access to their fans." That's a very nice thing to provide the world's celebrities, but how can WhoSay grow without throwing open its doors like other social media platforms? Yanover and Ellis both say that there are no plans to scale the site up to include you, me, and everyone we know, unless one of us knows Sarah Silverman or Jeremy Piven.

"Right now it's not being monetized," says Yanover. Without getting specific, he adds, "There are plans afoot to monetize the content. The hard part, as Facebook can tell you, is to grow that audience and cultivate that audience. It's another step to monetize. When you have the eyeballs the rest becomes easier." (Feig, for one, hopes the site won't become littered with ads like Facebook: "It's hard to avoid it, but at the same time I think it would be a little less special.")

For now, providing your eyeballs, not your own content, is all non-celebrities can bring to the WhoSay experience. "I think it's a club," Yanover says of the VIP content creators WhoSay showcases. "The membership to the club is 'You have premium content.'"

An example of that "premium content" is Lindsay Lohan's aforementioned pearly whites, "news" of which was picked up by outlets like the New York Daily News, CNN, and others, many of which credited WhoSay with the "scoop."

Even though it's unlikely that your own visit to the dentist will get the WhoSay treatment anytime soon, according to Yanover, there's still hope. "If someone rises from the wreckage of the Internet and has premium content"—Rebecca Black? Double Rainbow Guy? You?—"I suppose over time, if they're elevated, they can ask to join or be invited."

Feig says he was personally happy to have been invited, but was a little surprised to find himself among the famous—and famously infamous. "I'm sort of the opposite of that Groucho Marx joke: I like clubs that would have me as a member. To be in with that group I admire, it's an ego boost for me," he says. "But I have low self-esteem."

 

Follow Matt Haber on Twitter, and Fast Company, too.

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