When Kerry Washington was flying to the Toronto International Film Festival to support her film American Son in September, she had a problem. She was on a red-eye, and to help her make it through an entire day of promotion, press, and other festival hoopla, she really wanted to know where she could get a great green juice when she landed.
So she hopped in her group DMs and texted her friends in the city to ask.
She got a bunch of suggestions, ultimately choosing Calii Love because Leyah texted to say it was the best spot. Washington wouldn’t usually snap a photo of every juice order, but she wanted to send the receipt on this one to all her friends who had chimed in with suggestions in her hour of need. After the film screening, she hopped back on the text chain to see if anyone had also seen the movie and was available to come backstage to say hi.
Okay, time to ‘fess up: I’m not actually friends with the actress and producer who’s starring in the forthcoming Little Fires Everywhere on Hulu.
Nor is anyone else in the group chat.
But I do have a phone number for Washington—and she has mine—and she did ask her Toronto fans where to get juice and invited a few to meet her face to face after the American Son screening.
I’m connected with Washington via Community, which is essentially a text-based management and communication tool for celebrities and artists to know more about their own fans and interact with them more directly than what social media usually allows.
Community is also increasingly the future of how celebrities will interact with their fans online.
The world first got a hint of Community’s existence in January 2019, when Ashton Kutcher, whose Sound Ventures is an investor in the startup, originally tweeted out a hint, in what the company now calls an “alpha test” with its telecom carrier partners. Community officially launched six months later, when Kutcher once again tweeted out his phone number.
Just text me it’s easier. +1 (319) 519-0576
— ashton kutcher (@aplusk) July 23, 2019
Not his real phone number, mind you. Call it and you’ll get a friendly message from Kutcher saying that he prefers texting. But it was a clear call to move his most meaningful interactions with fans off broadcast social media like Twitter (where he has almost 18 million followers) and Instagram (almost four million) and into the more intimate and certainly less public space of texting.
Paul McCartney signed up in May, ahead of the official July kickoff; Jake Paul and Marshmello got their numbers in July. Washington and The Jonas Brothers made the leap in August, and Jennifer Lopez signed up in September. Diddy and Mark Cuban joined in October. Amy Schumer came on board in November. The Pod Save America guys asked their fans to join them in December. Kutcher, who helped define Twitter as a place for celebrities to connect with fans a decade ago and who has sent more than 10,000 tweets, has posted just seven in the past two months. As he told fans in October, “Not every conversation is for public consumption.”
“It’s something that feels more direct,” Washington says when we speak by phone. “I’m not reliant on advertisers or algorithms. Nobody’s navigating this communication or filtering it. That feels really important. That transparency is what’s so attractive.”
— kerry washington (@kerrywashington) August 29, 2019
The appeal, as Washington hinted at, is control. After a decade of being at the mercy of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat—which own the data, the algorithm, and ultimately that direct line of communication to the audience—stars finally aren’t willing to suffer having these apps restrict access to their fans. “We’re seeing pages get as little as 1% of their audiences seeing individual posts,” says Brendan Gahan, a social-media marketing expert who’s a partner at the digital agency Mekanism. “All that time and effort can go into building an audience, and a platform can just whittle down how much of your own audience you actually reach, or kick you off entirely. Artists and celebs are becoming much more digitally savvy and are looking to make their businesses platform agnostic.”
The original sales pitch of social media was that it was a level playing field. I’m on Twitter. Amy Schumer’s on Twitter. You’re on Instagram. The Rock’s on Instagram. We’re all equals, mixing it up in the marketplace of ideas. It was the first time a two-way conversation was even possible between movie stars, artists, pro athletes, and their audiences.
But it’s not really a conversation, is it? More often than not, the major social platforms have become broadcast media. Sure, we can comment all we want, but many celebrities don’t read their mentions for reasons ranging from the sheer volume to it largely becoming a cesspit of abusive trolls. “The point is now we don’t have to rely on platforms that share all of our information that don’t give [artists] the information directly,” says Guy Oseary, the star music manager and Kutcher’s investment partner in Sound Ventures. “They’re all great platforms for broadcast. We all need them. We all use them. They’re awesome. But if I want to have a more meaningful, more direct connection, [Community] is the platform of the future.”
Trolls need the oxygen of an audience, but the only eyes that see these texts are the celebs themselves, and bad apples are easily eliminated with the click of a block button. What Community offers celebrities is a walled garden of their own. A line of communication that bypasses media, haters, and all the randoms in between, and connects them straight to fans and supporters. Why deal with the trolls when plebe interaction can be limited to Stans Only? This is the celebrity splinternet, and the celebrities are flocking to it.
The company says it’s got about 500 artists and celebrities—or as the company calls them, “Community leaders”—on board so far. It boasts a waiting list of tens of thousands more. The number of users or fans texting these stars totals in the millions, with more than 200 million Community texts having been sent so far, about 25% of recipients engaging with those messages, and about 10% of users texting with multiple celebrities.
For two decades, we’ve been told that stars are just like us. But celebrities are taking back their power. And the internet may never be the same.
A shimmer of an idea
Matthew Peltier does not have the profile one would immediately associate with becoming a celebrity power player. The 29-year-old grew up in upstate New York, about half an hour east of Buffalo, and he went to college at nearby Rochester Institute of Technology where he got a computer science degree, specializing in new media interactive development. When he graduated RIT in 2012, the startup scene in California was heating up as the country was coming out of recession, and hot companies like Facebook inspired a lot of young men like Peltier to head west, start a company, and try to become the next Mark Zuckerberg or Evan Spiegel.
Peltier’s idea, which he launched in 2014 with two cofounders, was called Shimmur, and it aimed to connect fans with celebrities and influencers through “tribes” or groups in which your posts could be upvoted Reddit-style. The company altered its focus to musicians heading into 2017, and it entered the inaugural class of the Techstars Music incubator.
Around that time, Peltier realized a couple of things. One, it made more sense to tap into existing user behavior rather than trying to create a new means of interaction, and two, his idea could be bigger than just serving musical artists. “We really recognized that, why are we trying to engineer this experience? Why are we trying to build our own app and build behavior when people already have this relationship with text messaging?” says Peltier. “Everything that you care about personally, everyone you interact with in your real life, you have a very intimate relationship with them on text message, right? Like, when you see an article you love or a song or a meme you find really funny, you’re going to very deliberately and intentionally share that with the few people that you feel would really resonate with it.”
While Peltier was trying to find the appropriate product-market fit, Guy Oseary, the music manager and investor, was on a years-long hunt for something that would allow the artists he and his company Maverick represents—which include U2 and Madonna—not only to communicate with their fans but also know more about them. “We were looking for a technology that would allow us to speak directly to our audience,” says Oseary. Over five years, he says that he met with every company that even came close to solving these challenges, and he considered investing in or acquiring a few of them but ultimately never did. “There was none. We couldn’t really unless we DM people, and then we don’t really know who is at the other end. We don’t know if they’re real. We don’t know where they live. We don’t know how to tell them we’re coming to their town. Then you could have 50,000 people at your stadium, 3,000 people in your theater, or 200 people in your club, and yet not know who’s in the audience or be able to reach them again.”
One day last year, Molly DeWolf Swenson in Maverick’s impact department, the division of the firm devoted to “advocacy, philanthropy, and investment strategies that elevate the legacies of artists and managers,” told Oseary about something that G-Eazy, one of their clients, was trying out at his shows. “They told me he got all these people from the audience to fill out this form, so now he knows where they are. And I’m like, ‘Wait, wait, wait, what?!'” says Oseary. “After five years of trying to find someone who was working to solve these things, I went from zero to a hundred in like 24 hours.”
Oseary got in touch with Peltier immediately. Soon, Shimmur went dark, and the work on building Community began. One of the biggest steps was getting exclusive operating deals with all four major U.S. telecoms to handle the expected text volumes.
Then, Oseary and Kutcher set to work pitching the platform to their clients and friends.
The celebrity sell
For Washington, who used to live-tweet with fans during Scandal episodes, it was the direct line of communication that convinced her to join Community. For the Jonas Brothers, it was about getting local everywhere their tour bus stopped. “Having a database of fans we can access directly is the best reason,” Kevin Jonas tells me. “We need that for everything from releasing new projects, to selling tickets, to any call to action that will engage our fanbase. We have the number up as people are coming into our shows, and on screens after the opening act, and our fans can text us questions, and we can reply, or use it for when we want to give away an upgraded seat, or ask people to come meet us before or after the shows.”
In the middle of the Jonas Brothers concert at Chicago’s 23,500-capacity United Center in September, Jonas texted a few thousand of their fans inviting them to a secret show at a small club in the city later that night.
This is arguably the most powerful sales pitch to artists, particularly those who are touring and rely on live events as a meaningful aspect of their revenue. When you text a Community celeb, you get a quick message back instantly. “hey it’s Kerry! Real quick—click this link & sign up so I can add you to my contacts and respond to you directly. Can’t wait to hear from you!” is the message I received after signing up. The link takes you to Community, where you fill out a short form about who and, notably, where you are. After your first time, every subsequent celebrity number you text is a one-click sign-up.
Through that form, your favorite artists learn more about their audience and can now do everything from one-on-one texting to targeting specific groups by metrics like age and geographic location. Ask any touring performer about how annoyed they get about how hard it is to marshal fans via social to come see them live and you’ll immediately see the appeal of geotargeting audiences. “My all-time favorite artist is Ani DiFranco,” says Schumer, “but whenever I’d go to check her tour dates, she often would’ve just been in New York, and I’d be like, ‘Fuuuuck.’ So Guy put it to me like, the people who are your fans like that would appreciate these types of updates and information.” When Washington was looking for green juice in Toronto, she sent that message only to her fans in Toronto, as opposed to an Instagram post that would’ve been irrelevant to 95% of her followers who aren’t in that city.
That said, the concerns about giving fans direct access can still give celebrities pause after a decade of abuse on social media, which has seemingly only grown more intense even as the major platforms purport to work on it. “I was reticent to put the number up and start this, as someone who’s been as trolled online as I have,” Schumer says. “I just thought, ‘Oh god, is this another thing where I’m going to be getting hurtful messages and stuff like that?’ So I took my time.”
Once she started in November, though, Schumer says it’s become a digital extension of her daily life. “I’m not promoting anything. I’m not on the road, there’s nothing going on that I need to be engaging with people about, so I’ve just been using it to really connect with people,” she says. “I live in Manhattan. I take the subway everyday. I go to comedy clubs. I’m around people. I stay out in the world. I talk to people. I don’t live in LA where you can go from your house, to your car, to somewhere where it’s really guarded. This felt like a natural extension of my life, where I’m not too precious to connect with people, while also protecting my boundaries.”
So far, it’s been a troll-free number. Schumer says out of the thousands of texts she’s got so far, she’s responded to at least a few hundred, with conversations ranging from comedy, to TV shows, to sharing stories about her battle with hyperemesis gravidarum during her pregnancy. “It’s not something I feel like I have to do, but when I’m caught up on my work, or the baby’s sleeping, and I have a few spare minutes, I’ll check in there and see what’s happening,” she says. “At first I felt really weird about it, but it turns out, it’s not. It’s felt really intimate and special. I never thought I would’ve been able to do this, but it’s been great.”
Everyone’s famous to someone
For fans who sign up to interact with their favorite celebs, Community’s pitch is that—unlike every other social platform—it’s not an advertising-based business model. The only brands on it are the celebrities and artists themselves. Because it’s not ad-supported, Oseary says that the information you give Community at sign-up will never be sold or used to target you with ads, nor will the platform use it to pitch you other artists to follow. “We want a platform we trust,” he says. “We want a platform that’s transparent. We don’t want our artists’ data shared. We don’t want our audience marketed to.”
“That is not a marketing channel,” adds Peltier. “We don’t advertise as Community, and we never sell personal information.”
While Community may never accept Wendy’s as a member or interrupt a text chain with a Flat Tummy tea sponsored post, it absolutely is a marketing channel, just not one in the classic social-media sense. What’s being marketed here isn’t cookies, cars, or wellness shakes—it’s people. The more personally connected to Kerry Washington you are, the more invested you are in the success of her next film or TV show. If you get a text from the Jonas Brothers asking you to come see them in your city, it’s more likely you will.
Community launched as a vehicle for stars to come back down to earth and talk to the rest of us, but Oseary and Peltier are already broadening its reach not only to smaller artists but also writers, churches, community organizations—anyone with an audience they need to reach. “We wanted to really start with culture because I think it’s something that really moves people, that they care about, that they’re motivated by,” says Peltier. “It’s easier to understand what the relationship could be. When it’s an individual, that helps us to actually understand how we can build the right tools and technology to facilitate human connection in that medium.”
This is why Community is a venture-backed business rather than just an internal tool for Oseary to help his artists and friends. The scale opportunity is in reaching anyone building a fan base and trying to make them loyal enough to help them grow. Community could well become a meaningful component to the modern creative’s toolkit of podcast, newsletter, Patreon premium tiers, merchandise sales, and so forth. The company says that only 25% of its Community Leader customers are big names with large audiences, and the rest are athletes, creators, entertainers, authors, activists, business leaders, and other public figures. Community’s business model is based on fees paid by these customers, with pricing based on their audience size, ranging anywhere from under $100 to thousands per month—meaning that it could pay for itself with one sold-out club appearance in Buffalo or successful church fundraiser.
Oseary says that even after just a few months, the data shows that it’s working. “There’s no question that anyone on this platform is selling more tickets, and selling more merch, it’s not even close,” he says. Community cites Summer Walker and K-pop band SuperM for how they have used Community to sell merch bundles as their work hit the charts and how artist DDG has leveraged his text chain to help his videos start trending on YouTube.
Oseary also points to DJ Wax Motif, who uses Community to rally his EDM fanbase. “He’s got 600 users, and for one show, he put up tickets for sale in one text, and 300 out of 600 people bought tickets,” says Oseary. “We’re very blessed to have those massive, incredible big talents, but we’re equally as excited to have a lot of artists that have a smaller base, and this is the way that they can go city to city, playing in front of 500 people and getting a hundred people to fill out that form, and text them so that they have a way to contact them again.”
At its best, artists could leverage Community not only to send out tour notices but also fund and promote other projects. Take how Rob Thomas used Kickstarter to fund a new Veronica Mars film back in 2013, and extend that type of direct fan-funded relationship to an author’s new book, a band’s next album, or expanding a comedian’s tour to a new city.
Intimacy at scale
As the popularity of the Community platform grows, one of its most significant challenges is maintaining the very thing that makes it attractive to both stars and fans in the first place: How do you create a personalized experience for 50,000 text contacts? Or five million?
“I foresee this having some of the same challenges as other platforms,” says Con Williamson, president and chief creative officer at social creative agency EP+Co, which has worked with such brands as Puma, Denny’s, and Lowes, as well as the 20th Century Fox films Deadpool, Ad Astra, and Bohemian Rhapsody. “The bigger a community gets, the less a community leader will be able to keep up with one-to-one communication, and scale will continue to be an issue,” he says. “Users are heading here expecting more personal, private interactions, but ultimately I think this platform runs the risk of being nothing more than just a text-based notification app.”
Oseary and Peltier say that they’re working with users to make those notifications feel more personal. But even if it is for some just a notification app, they’d argue at least they’re notifications the fans actually want. “A real fan actually wants to know when a new single or album is coming out, or when they’re coming back to their town, but the only way for you to find that out is through social media,” Oseary says. “Maybe you saw that post, maybe you didn’t.”
One month in, Schumer remains optimistic. “I’m just having fun with it,” she says. “And if it winds up being the death of me . . . is that dark? I mean if it winds up not being good anymore, then I’ll re-evaluate. But for now it’s a lot of fun.”