A Cute Internet Star Flirts. All He Wants Is Your Password.


Jack Johnson, of Jack & Jack, has become an internet star.

Jack Johnson, of Jack & Jack, has become an internet star.

Jack Johnson — whose six-second bursts of comedy on Vine have propelled him to a fledgling pop-rap career — is one of the internet’s biggest stars.

Last week he told his nearly four million Twitter followers to send him their passwords. And in an hour, tens of thousands of fans complied — all for the slim chance to see a personalized video from Mr. Johnson pop up inside their accounts.

At first glance, this stunt, which Mr. Johnson called “#HackedByJohnson,” looks like another case of teenagers traipsing through a social media minefield, oblivious to the real-world consequences.

But Mr. Johnson’s fans are not naïve. Handing over their passwords to some strange, cute boy actually constitutes a minor act of youthful rebellion. The whole encounter delivers a heady mix of intimacy and transgression — the closest digital simulation yet to a teenage crush.

Mr. Johnson, 20, is not your traditional teenage heartthrob. While his partner in the duo Jack & Jack, the 19-year-old Jack Gilinsky, looks like a standard-issue junior American hunk — square jaw, pillowy lips, visible abs — Mr. Johnson seems more sidekick material, a scrappy runt with the charm of a man twice his size. He raps like Eminem’s sweeter younger brother and carries himself with a Bieberesque swagger. But unlike Justin Bieber, who canceled his concert meet-and-greets earlier this year because they left him “drained and unhappy,” Mr. Johnson thrives on serving his fans.

And fan interaction has become a starmaking talent in and of itself.

To charm millions of strangers simultaneously, Mr. Johnson hops among Vine, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram, tailoring his persona to fit each platform. On Vine, he’s a sketch comic dealing in nerdy situational humor. On Youtube, he performs pop-rap about his chill California lifestyle. And in person, he acts as a hype man for his legions of fans.

When Tee Bradshaw, 20, first met Mr. Johnson at a Minneapolis concert in February, he flirtatiously took note of her cotton-candy-pink hair. “It looks almost edible,” Ms. Bradshaw recalled Mr. Johnson’s telling her. Mr. Johnson and Mr. Gilinsky each took a braid in one hand and held it in front of their faces like a novelty mustache, posed for the cameras, and posted the photo to their official Instagram account. The caption : “FRESHEST HAIR IN THE GAME.”

“It made me feel really special,” Ms. Bradshaw said, “to know that he thought that moment was worthy of being seen by literally everyone.”

With #HackedByJohnson, Mr. Johnson has digitized — and supersized — that feeling.

The skill on display lands somewhere between improv and pickup artistry. For each “hacking” video, Mr. Johnson studied the lucky user’s social-media profile, twisted his finger around a personal detail, held a cellphone camera within kissing distance and hit record. “Our picture in your icon is cute as hell,” he tells one fan. “Where was that, was that Cleveland? I dunno. But anyways, we look good. Damn, we could be a couple maybe. But seriously: I hope your summer is going great.”

Ms. Bradshaw sent her Twitter password to Mr. Johnson “at least 50” times, she said, until a mysterious new video popped up in her account: 16 seconds of Mr. Johnson sitting at a keyboard, playing a little melody and staring soulfully into the lens. “What’s good, Tee?” he says. “I just wrote this one for you.”

Ms. Bradshaw knows she didn’t inspire the song; she had seen Mr. Johnson play a piece of the tune on Instagram just the night before. Such “personal” messages may not actually be particularly personal, but fans don’t seem to mind. The message’s emotional spark lies in its provocative delivery.

Social media encourages connections, but its highly public and slickly commodified landscape resists moments of real intimacy. Celebrity-fan interactions can easily take on the contours of spam: A fan tweets “I love you” 35 times; the star (or, more likely, a hired handler) indiscriminately taps “like,” “like,” “like.”

The #HackedByJohnson tactic breaks through the surface of social media and reaches that rare private space, the inside of the fan’s personal account. It’s the virtual equivalent of a boy climbing in through a girl’s bedroom window.

That a social media star like Mr. Johnson tinkers with the idea of privacy in his public performances seems fitting. Fandom has come to play a starring role in how teenagers and young adults manage their identities online. Modern fans show their devotion to their idols by ceding slices of their digital identities: Hard-core Jack Johnson fans use his face as their Twitter avatars and borrow his name for their handles — @jacksmeup, @johnsonskhakis, @ovaryjacks.

Look closer, though, and these badges of fandom also cleverly shield young internet users from snooping by parents, teachers or employers. An online identity centered on Mr. Johnson doubles as personal defense: It helps mitigate the reputational risk of posting under their real faces and names, and gives them the freedom to experiment without the weight of a lasting digital trail.

But as stars of social media compete to create more intimate and personal fan interactions, the fans themselves have been coaxed into giving up more of their private lives. Mr. Johnson started #HackedByJohnson last year after feeling that typical online fan engagement — faves, likes, follows — had started to feel rote.

Other stars are innovating, too. The social media sweetheart Nash Grier auctions off opportunities for a personal FaceTime call to fans who direct-message him their phone numbers. Crawford Collins, a Vine comedian, recently started a hashtag, #SelfieforCrawford, asking fans to post their pictures publicly to signal their support for him.

But #HackedByJohnson is the ultimate submission: He’s inside her account, posting as her.

This new wave of fan interaction nods to the importance of online security, then asks fans to break the rules. Mr. Johnson accompanied his call for passwords with the disclaimer, “only me tho, don’t ever give out ur passwords to strangers.”

The heart of Mr. Johnson’s appeal lies in that apparent contradiction. He has built his online empire as hackers, spammers and marketers crawl the social web looking to mine and exploit personal data. A typical hacker wrests a user’s account out of her control and infects her timeline with vulgar or dangerous messages. Mr. Johnson puts his fans in the same vulnerable position, but then offers the user the reassurance that she is unique, beautiful and loved.

“I’m not a stranger to my fans,” Mr. Johnson said. He’s a friend, maybe even something more.

The only wrinkle is that, in a rush to experience a personal moment, his young fans have inadvertently turned his account into a password database — and a tantalizing target for real hackers. But who starts a love affair worrying how it might end?

[By: Amanda Hess] [New York Times] [Read More]

 

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