Creating a random viral moment is as rare as getting struck by lightning, but Justine Ezarik has found a way to routinely bottle the juice and light up the Internet. With over 300 million YouTube views, the coal miner’s daughter and social media savant is a double-live platinum new media star. Operating under the nom de net iJustine, Ezarik has built a cyber empire with a remarkably loyal following of 13-24 year old girls–and, of course the boys who love them and her. It’s a fan base that is so engaged that with a casual tweet and a short YouTube video last Friday, Ezarik catapulted to the number two spot in The Influence Project.
As we discussed what site she thinks will be the next big thing, the translation of Internet celebrity in the real world and her larger ambitions, I quickly realized that underestimating her–and all her goofy, blonde, hotness–is an easy, and foolish mistake. Underneath the airy facade and easy breezy style is a master of connectivity.
Mark Borden: How many people do you work with to produce your content?
Justine Ezarik: It’s just me.
Which is really kind of hard for a lot of the Hollywood people to deal with. I produce some of my music videos on a $200 budget. But I produce most of my videos on zero budget. I have a studio in my apartment–which is actually just a green screen I have tacked on my wall and some lamps to light everything. I shoot and edit everything.
And with that I have almost 300 million YouTube views. For Hollywood to see a single individual get these numbers on a zero production budget, I think it’s scary for them.
It should be. What are your goals? Do you want an Oprah or Martha Stewart Omnimedia kind of empire?
My number one thing is finding more ways to connect with my audience and keep growing my channels on various social networks.
If someone would have said five years ago, what do you want to do in five years? This would not even have crossed my mind. Five years from now, who knows where it’s all going.
My focus is online, but I started doing a little more TV stuff. I had a small part in a Law & Order episode and that was really fun because I got to film all the behind the scenes stuff and interview some of the actors. It got people really excited to see my episode.
I would love to be on a really good show and share all the stuff that goes into creating a big TV show and get my audience into it. I think that makes it personal and makes the audience feel like they’re a part of it.
It’s a two-for really. Not only does the network and production company get you as an actor, but they also get the exposure to your huge–and demographically desirable 13-24 year old fan base.
It’s what I do everyday so that’s what my audience expects.
Have you had other offers?
I’ve had a few, but I don’t have an agent. As far as digital goes, I’m able to do most of it myself. But TV is such a different world. Most of the TV stuff I have gotten is just from people emailing me. For the Law & Order thing, I just tweeted their casting director … a few times … (laughs) … until he finally responded.
Something tells me you’ll be getting lots of agent offers soon. Do you want one?
I do. A few years ago I went around to meetings with people, but I feel like they didn’t necessarily understand it. As far as TV goes, they were like, “We’re sorry, you don’t have any TV experience.”
I said hold on, let me go get some TV projects and maybe we can talk then.
In many ways, I haven’t been actively looking for an agent because if there is something I want to do, if I want it bad enough, I can figure out a way to make it happen myself.
Did you have a moment where you found your online voice?
I think my online personality and my real life personality are very, very similar. But for me, whenever I see a camera–it doesn’t even have to be my own–I just get more excited and become more energetic and happy and try to connect with whoever is going to be watching the clip. It really doesn’t matter who is filming, I just get like, “Hey! Oh, hi!”, really excited.
When people think of social media, they think of the holy trinity that is YouTube, Twitter and Facebook and often see each as their own ecosystem. But the most innovative social media users move fluidly among platforms to expand the larger universe of their online life. How do you use the various outlets to further your brand?
For me it’s all just one big online world. Everyone has a favorite social network and some people like YouTube more than Facebook or Twitter. But I make sure that when I post a new YouTube video, I post it on Facebook and I tweet about it.
Probably the best example of using all these social networking sites is a show I do called Ask iJ. People ask me questions on Facebook, Twitter, DailyBooth, and YouTube, and I answer them on one show in a video that I then post back on YouTube.
I’m also a big DailyBooth.com user, which is a fairly new Web site where you post a photo everyday and people respond with comments. You get the same type of feedback as YouTube, but there’s less barrier to entry because you don’t have to make a video or be super creative and it’s so much fun because it’s so interactive.
I must say I never realized how huge this would become. I have a couple of YouTube channels. The main one is iJustine which is edited content and it’s kind of more polished. The other iJustine channel is where I’m more myself and I say whatever I want and I don’t worry about editing things perfectly. Then I have a review channel for people who are interested in product reviews and electronics and stuff like that.
For me, the biggest thing was learning to create these different channels so people can subscribe to what they want to watch.
It seems like you’ve traveled to the future and seen where media is heading, and now you’re back trying to explain that future. Do you feel like your talking to dinosaurs who can’t envision this?
Yes (laughing). Especially living in L.A. I go to meetings and people are like we want to give you a TV show right now. And I don’t necessarily want my own TV show because I have my own shows online.
For TV, I’d want to do a show that I couldn’t do myself–like a dramatic series, something that is highly produced.
It’s so hard to explain to them and then when I show them my numbers and the type of network I have, then they’re just more confused.
Your network is incredibly engaged. Last Friday you sent out a pretty casual tweet and posted a short video for The Influence Project. By Monday you were at number two. Why did you join?
My audience knows me so well and I get tons of emails of things they think I will think are cool. So a bunch of people sent me this and said you need to check this out and sign up for it. So I checked it out and I thought it was cool.
As much as I would love to be number one, I do hate to force people to do things they may not want to do or repeatedly spam people every day, like please sign up, please do this, please do this. So I wanted to make it really casual. Hey, Check this out, if you like it, do it. If you don’t, then that’s ok.
I think I just have an interesting relationship with my audience. They trust me so much and I don’t want to lead them astray by showing them something I don’t think is cool. It’s hard because I have to turn down a lot of big projects that might mean a lot of money, but if I don’t believe in the product, it’s not something I can endorse.
I think real influence is not a Svengali thing or Rasputin mind control. To me, true influence is when you turn people on to things that they’re going to like, but just haven’t experienced yet. Sort of fast tracking people to what turns them on. Do you think that way?
I definitely do. I was something like the 7000th person to join Twitter back in 2006. I’m always very early on a lot of Web sites, which I think helped me initially get a lot of followers.
I instantly thought Twitter was amazing and was going to be the next big thing and I forced all my friends to sign up. A lot of my friends didn’t use it at first, but years later they were like, thanks Justine for telling me about this. No one can believe I was on this so early.
It’s like that with a lot of Web sites. Like DailyBooth, the way I feel about DailyBooth now is how I felt about Twitter in 2006.
I love sharing cool things that I find. People want to be entertained and they come online to have fun. I get a lot of email from people saying they had a bad day, but watched my video and it made them feel better.
I like to make people happy and make people smile and if they hate my videos, well, that’s okay. I’m okay with that.
You grew up in coal country PA, is it strange living in LA?
Even though I live in L.A., my sisters and my family come to visit me often and I go home a lot. A lot of my friends out here are mostly other YouTubers. I don’t necessarily do the stereotypical L.A. things–like going to clubs or crazy movie premiers–I go to coffee shops, I go to the Apple store.
I’m doing what I’d be doing in Pittsburgh, but here it’s a lot easier to take meetings … and the weather is a lot nicer.
What advice would you give people who are trying to do what you do?
Anyone looking to do this sort of stuff should know you definitely learn from your mistakes, so just start creating content and find what your interested or passionate about and start talking about it.
You’re first videos might not be the best, but you definitely get better with time and it’s all just a learning process.
How much time do you spend doing this?
This is my full time job so I don’t do anything else. I have two Twitter accounts and use one to just reply to people all day long so I don’t clutter up my main channel. It really becomes a part of your life and I’m constantly thinking of video ideas or blogging or vlogging. I have some friends that don’t want to be on camera, so that’s a little awkward because it looks like I’m hanging out by myself.
Does your online celebrity translate into the particle world?
Surprisingly I do get recognized a lot when I’m out which can be good or bad because I’m usually in my sweatpants and look like a train wreck. But I love talking to people and connecting and if they say, “can I get a picture?” I say, “Sure as long as you don’t mind that I didn’t shower today?”
When I go into Apple stores I get recognized by at least one person. But that’s like my … haven.
It’s fascinating because I couldn’t imagine being a real celeb, I don’t know how they deal with all of the attention. Some people–and the paparazzi–can really be invasive. I don’t think I’d be cool with that.
One of the cool things for me is that my audience is mostly young girls, so for me to make them feel that technology isn’t scary is one of the big things I try to get across. I want them to know it’s okay to be a dork.
I think it’s hard for a lot of kids because who are they supposed to look up to? I’ve always been in love with technology. For example, I didn’t go to my junior prom. I went to a LAN Party where everyone brought computers to one person’s house and we played games like Quake 3. For me that was a lot more fun than going to a dance that everyone said I had to go to.
Why the iJustine? It’s not a reference to the novel I, Claudius by Robert Graves or the singer Jonathan Richman and his I, Jonathan album, right? It’s an Apple reference, yes?
Yes, it’s definitely an Apple reference.
Is it something you would ever want to change?
I don’t think so. For me it’s been pretty successful and everyone knows I’m such a huge Apple fan.
But I also feel like the I represents the Internet also.
It’s funny, iCarly, the Nickelodeon show, has pretty much been based on all of my videos and kind of my life. That’s been interesting because people will say I stole the conceit off iCarly, when actually I purchased my domain in 2002 and they got theirs in 2005, so … just to clarify.
Yeah, it’s great (laughing).
That’s the right answer Justine. Laughing. Because where do the other options get you?
You’re right. People are always like, “You should sue Nickelodeon.” Why would I do that? It doesn’t even matter. I’m still doing my thing and they’re doing their thing. I’m happy and it’s all good.
And Miranda is a very sweet girl. I’ve met her a few times.
What do you learn from your audience?
A lot of the kids growing up now are watching YouTube as their main entertainment source. They’ll see something on the main page, say a video of Miley Cyrus or a video for SNL or one of my videos, then check out another of a random kid falling in the street. For them, that’s content.
They don’t differentiate between something that is supposed to be on TV or online. For them, content is content. They’re entertained and they don’t care where it comes from. That’s what kids are thinking today.
There are people who have viral moments and it’s like lightning striking. Where you seem like that New Mexico art installation The Lightning field where rods are strategically assembled to catch lightning. 300 million views is just mind-boggling.
It’s pretty insane actually.
But the term viral is misused. I’m consistently getting 500,000 views per video and more. That’s not viral, that’s building a community. People are like, “Look at all these viral videos you have.” And I’m like, “No, it’s not viral, that’s just me building an audience for the past five years of my Internet life.”
Read more about The Influence Project.