How to be internet famous—for real this time

Fame can begin with a blog about a subway line that hasn’t even opened yet.
Fame can begin with a blog about a subway line that hasn’t even opened yet.
Image: AP Photo/Mary Altaffer
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To paraphrase a character on Seinfeld, I’m real and I’m spectacular.

Unlike Santiago Swallow, the alter ego of a Quartz contributor, I didn’t need to spend $68 or even $50 or one cent to become internet famous. Instead, it took a few years of building up an audience, some strong opinions, a creative concept and a legal dispute. In the intervening years, I’ve created long-lasting friendships, impacting New York City’s transit policy, gained the ear of a whole slew of journalists and made some money along the way. It’s all more rewarding than writing a check or punching in my credit card number while ordering a bunch of bot-created Twitter followers.

My rise to internet fame started as many climbs to prominence do: I had something to say, and I thought enough people on some small corner of the Internet would be interested in my views. In 2006, as I surveyed the New York City blogging scene and noticed a glaring absence of transit coverage, I started Second Ave. Sagas. At first, I viewed the site as my own personal outlet. I wanted to keep writing creatively in a job that wasn’t in journalism, and construction on a long-awaited subway along New York City’s east side finally kicked off. I followed along.

Tracking a subway line as it’s built won’t bring you fame or fortune, let alone much recognition, but in New York City, everyone has opinions about the subways and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, its controversial and much-maligned operators. Over the years, my site turned into a space for those strident views.

But man cannot grow famous on subways alone. It’s a niche field still, and my internet fame grew as I branched out. Along with two friends who also happened to be baseball fans, we launched River Ave. Blues, now a partner of the YES Network and an internet voice on all things Yankees. We had been part of a now-defunct blogging syndicate, and we thought we could do better on our own. As with the subways, we had things to say and opinions to share, and we thought people would want to read them.

I do share one thing with Santiago. My greatest claim to internet fame comes from Twitter followers, too. And it grew out of a joke. For years—decades even—anyone reading the New York Times has grown accustomed to a certain level of obvious reporting. Of course, Brooklyn is hip, hashtags have taken over and Internet commenters are rude. That’s hardly news, but the Times, with its tongue firmly out of its cheek, reports on these trends so seriously it’s hard not to laugh.

In May of 2011, amid studying for the bar exam, I launched @NYTOnIt, a one-joke pony laughing at and maybe laughing with the Times for its trend reporting. After a few months, Mashable picked up on it, followed by a bunch of year-end Twitter lists, and Times editors and reporters seemed to enjoy when I highlighted their stories. But the big spoiler came when the Times filed a complaint with Twitter over my stylized use of the newspaper’s font.

The day after Twitter suspended my account and I made the changes to reinstate it, my follower count shot up by nearly 5,000 in a day. Media pundit Jeff Jarvis picked up my cause, and various other local media outlets tackled the story. It was my shining moment in the internet sun, and it came about not because I was willing to pen my wallet but because I was willing to open my mouth.

As of this writing, Santiago Swallow’s 63,811 Twitter followers more than double mine. But I have a feeling I have a far more rewarding sort of internet fame.