I’ve been doing it wrong

Xavier Di Petta and Kyle Cameron are 17 and 19 years old, and they’re making very good money out of Twitter. $44,000 a month? On Twitter? Tell me your one weird tip for doing this, please.

They met hustling on YouTube when they were 13 and 15, respectively, and they’ve been doing social media things together (off and on) since. They’ve built YouTube accounts, making money off advertising. They created Facebook pages such as "Long romantic walks to the fridge," which garnered more than 10 million Likes, and sold them off. More recently, Di Petta’s company, Swift Fox Labs, has hired a dozen employees, and can bring in, according to an Australian news story, 50,000 Australian dollars a month (or roughly 43,800 USD at current exchange rates). 

But @HistoryInPics may be the duo’s biggest creation. In the last three months, this account, which tweets photographs of the past with one-line descriptions, has added more than 500,000 followers to bring their total to 890,000 followers. (The account was only established in July of 2013.) If the trend line continues, they’ll hit a million followers next month.

OK, but how? They’ve got several twitter accounts that regularly post popular material, and they build up the stats and then sell them off. I don’t even understand the business of selling twitter accounts — doesn’t it mean that the personal nature of the account is completely missing?

It’s not just @HistoryInPics, either. They’re also behind @EarthPix, which has similarly staggering stats, and several comedy accounts that they’re in the process of selling that I agreed not to disclose. They’ve got at least five accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers and engagement metrics that any media company would kill for right now.

How do they do it? Once they had one account with some followers, they used it to promote other ones that could capitalize on trends they saw in social-media sharing. “We normally identify trends (or create them haha). We then turn them into a Twitter account,” Di Petta said in an IM conversation. “Share them on established pages, and after 50,000 – 100,000 followers they’ve gained enough momentum to become ‘viral’ without further promotion.”

Huh? I have 140,000 followers on twitter right now! Time to take over the world!

Except…as the story goes on, it becomes quite clear that the secret of their success is parasitism. They don’t actually create any content: they just monetize this abstract entity called ‘traffic’, and yes, they do create traffic. But the way they do it is to steal photographs taken by talented photographers and dump them at regular intervals on twitter without attribution, and most importantly, without paying their content creators. If they actually had to make micropayments to the people who provide the material that drives interest and builds the traffic they’re selling, their profits would take a nosedive.

They can’t even be bothered to acknowledge who created the images.

“It would not be practical,” he said. “The majority of the photographers are deceased. Or hard to find who took the images.”

One writer took the time to track down the names of the photographers for a couple of the images they used: it took four minutes. I don’t think their profit margins are so thin that they can’t do that.

I can sort of see the temptation. Use Google’s image search, and it dumps thousands of images on any topic right into your lap, and some of them are so ubiquitous, have so many sources, that it’s hard to trace them back to the one original source. I’ve used ‘generic’ images myself, but I’ve been trying hard to include source information for most of them nowadays — all the Friday Cephalopods, for instance, get a link to the photographer or online source.

I guess I’m going to have to give up my idea of getting rich off my twitter account. All it contains are my words, rather than the art and information at high density produced by swarms of unsourced, talented people around the world. Darn it.


  1. says

    We know nothing about the religion of the two entrepreneurs behind those accounts. They could be atheists, or baptists.

    They probably aren’t humanists, though.

    By the way, I checked my twitter account to see if I had been following either of their accounts. Nope, fortunately. I would have unfollowed if I were.

  2. says

    Sadly lots of people seem to think that when something is found on the internet, it’s free and theirs to use, be it for profit or otherwise. I’m the sort of person who is more than willing to prove them wrong. :)

    Let’s just say I’ve had several websites taken down due to copyright infringements. And that I didn’t consider excuses like “I’m promoting your work!” or “I don’t have to know how copyright stuff works.” to be even remotely valid.

  3. says

    I stopped following I Fucking Love Science for basically the same reason. As someone who occasionally makes things and has lots of friends who are artists both on and off the internet, it drove me batty how little accreditation is given. Anyone know if IFLS has gotten any better since?

  4. stevem says

    My bad! I thought PZ was going to expose the ubiquitous scam I see at SLATE and IO9 and JALOPNIK where some random will comment: “My mother is unemployed and now makes $55,567 a month, at home, on her PC, with only 5 hours of online time each week…<babble, yada, yada>” This is just a paraphrase, sometimes it’s “I’m unemployed…”, sometimes “My girlfriend…”, etc. and the dollar amount is always a little different each time. I was hoping PZ was going to reveal that they [FBI] finally caught the spambot behind this scam (or, he knows *who* is behind it), or saying how he just noticed these scams all over. My bad, thinking PZ will always be addressing what I think is a problem on the internet. Back to my corner now…

  5. says

    We get those same spam comments here sometimes, too. I’m up by 6, usually, cleaning up the spam, so I get rid of it before most of you are awake.

  6. stevem says

    re magistramarla @9:

    How is this not plagiarism and why are these two not being prosecuted for it?

    I think (IANAL), that it only becomes plagierism if they take credit for someone else’s IP. Posting it with no attribution is unethical; but, I doubt, not illegal. Here’s a grain of salt, for you; remember: IANAL. [any lawyers around? Please inform us if I am mistaken. I hope I am mistaken.]

  7. says

    Strictly speaking, all it would take, technically, is to tell twitter that these people are in breach of the DMCA, and they would be forced to kill the threads, until an investigation was conducted – poof profits. Its kind of ironic, since there are legit cases where you can use content, such as parodies, and similar, which get things taken down, for no cause, all the damn time (and, this includes, ironically, fan sites, where the very existence of the site is an acknowledgement of the original sources), often, without then being able to recover. Then, some egregious violator comes along, like this, and seems to go completely unnoticed.

    But, yeah, it takes next to nothing to nail people doing this to the wall, if/when someone bothers to do so. A fact that is both, in some cases, completely bloody stupid (such as every time a take down happens with some place like youtube, without one single scrap of evidence they violated anything), and very useful (when you actually have legitimate cause to question what is going on). The law is a two edged sword, which cuts everyone equally, every time someone draws it. The only time it isn’t causing chaos is, ironically, when no one is using it.

    Still, if this isn’t a case where maybe it should be drawn…

  8. says

    A lot of the big media companies have bots that trawl the web for keywords associated with their properties and file automatic DMCA notices against any site that has too many of them. This is also technically illegal, but no one does anything about it because they’re the ones who paid for the DMCA in the first place.

  9. says

    Well, I’ve gotten flagged for fair use before: Posting a student project from college that utilized a couple of seconds of audio (that the teacher required I use) for portfolio purposes, posted as non-monetized, private and unsearchable so I could make sure it was only accessible in the context of my portfolio website, AND with proper credits for the material I used. I KNOW that is fair-use (otherwise how could college students make their projects available for view to find work, as they are often at the mercy of what a teacher chooses for them to use in a project?) and yet Photobucket called it “copyright abuse”. I don’t see how these people get away with this, because I’m damn sure that using someone’s work without even crediting them is illegal, and making money out of it and not cutting the creator in on the payout (unless they explicitly state they don’t want it for whatever reason) is also illegal.

    I guess all things become legal and okay once you’ve made enough millions doing it. If you’re stealing work, not crediting the source, and making millions of dollars doing it, you’re fine. On the other hand, a poor cash-strapped student trying to find work with his/her college projects that utilize a couple of seconds of professional audio that the student was required for the grade to use, who is crediting the source and making no money off it, is expected to scrape together a royalty check every month for the privilege of having a portfolio. (Although, to be fair, it’s Photobucket, a subsidiary of Fox, that is calling it “abuse” regardless of status and refuses to let me upload it at all, while Youtube is fine with it so long as it’s private status and non-monetized).

    Since getting out of school I’ve used copyright/royalty free audio and such, but it’s a bit unfair to expect me to not use my best piece just because my teacher required I use a certain clip of audio for it. I thought fair use was intended to protect people like me in that situation. I’ve had some people say “how would you feel if someone used your work and didn’t pay you?” I said I wouldn’t care so long as 1) I receive credit for my work and 2) the person is not using it to make a profit (although if it was a legitimate charity and I was reasonably sure the money was going to a good cause and not too much overhead, and if I was credited, I might not care then either). The main thing is, I want credit for the work and if it’s making money I want some of what I helped to earn. If I caught some college student ‘s project using one of my images on a non-monetized portfolio piece while crediting me, I wouldn’t care. If it didn’t credit me, I’d ask the student to add that in and it would be fine.

    That said, on one project I had a teacher warn against one student’s idea of using googled images of famous places for outside a window in a scene. The kid didn’t want to spend time actually creating original drawings for the purpose. She said you can never be sure if you’ll screw yourself out of a job because the person checking out the portfolio recognizes their vacation pics. Of course, she’s one of the teachers who required that I use some of the audio that’s giving me the problems now, so make of it what you will.

    I just don’t see how I keep getting flagged for posting a college portfolio piece with proper credits and zero profit, yet people like this get to make millions while effectively stealing the work of others. It’s like going to jail for twenty years for jaywalking while some obvious stab-happy murderer is studiously ignored by the police as he walks down the street, randomly killing people as he pleases.

  10. carlie says

    I followed the History pics twitter feed for a couple of weeks – until they posted a crime scene shot of dead Kurt Cobain. On Christmas. The Christmas part didn’t bother me as much, but it was just the last little whipped cream on the exploitation sundae. I hadn’t been paying a lot of attention to their feed, but then realized how it wasn’t really “historical” so much as “clickbait”.

  11. carlie says

    (Lest I sound too much like “yes, I saw through their little charade”, I did not at all realize that earth pics was doing the same thing.)

  12. inquisitiveraven says

    Magistrarla@9: AFAIK, plagiarism is not illegal although it can (and should) wreck your academic career. Copyright infringement is illegal, but they are not the same thing.

    Plagiarism is claiming someone else’s work as your own, but it may not be copyright infringement if the source is old enough or explicitly placed in the public domain by the creator. Copyright infringement is using a copyrighted work without permission from the copyright holder, and it doesn’t matter if the source is acknowledged; this is how fan sites get in trouble.

  13. inquisitiveraven says

    I should add that what these guys are doing is copyright infringement, so yes, they should be prosecuted.

  14. Trebuchet says

    Now that PZ has called them out, they’ll probably respond with a threatening letter from a Charles Carreon type lawyer. Fortunately Ken White is well aware of FTB.

  15. Porsupah says

    It’s regrettably rife. If you’re a photographer, you can look forward to such accounts merrily reposting your work, presumably entirely automatically.

    Yet, the costs involved are far from minor.

    Take, for instance, the Twitter account “AmazingTiming”, which posted my photograph “Momentary” recently. If they’d linked to me, I wouldn’t have minded so much – but as was, anybody simply subscribing to their feed has no idea who’s actually responsible for the wonderful shots they’re seeing. And those photographs are the result of a tremendous investment of time and money – years of persisting, and at least low thousands in DSLR bodies and lenses.

    Please: if you’re ever tempted to retweet a photograph, ask yourself first – is it credited?

  16. chigau (違う) says

    That is a great photo.
    I’m old and I was imprinted early to credit everything that isn’t mine.
    For me, the internet is more of the same.

  17. Porsupah says

    chigau (違う): thank you. ^_^ It was a special day when I knew I’d caught such a fantastic moment.

  18. Drolfe says

    Demonhype (and anyone else interested),

    I KNOW that is fair-use (otherwise how could college students make their projects available for view to find work, as they are often at the mercy of what a teacher chooses for them to use in a project?) and yet Photobucket called it “copyright abuse”.

    IANAL: The copyright holder always gets the initiative, the first strike, because Fair Use is an affirmative defense. It’s like a plea bargain. Until a court grants you Fair Use any use of copyrighted material is infringing. (And since everything is copyright by default since the 1976 act, it’s pretty difficult to avoid.)

    So, in order to be using something Fairly, you first must get sued, or in the DMCA era you must first challenge the DMCA notice and subsequently get sued. Then you and/or your lawyers tell a judge why your use is for parody, education, sufficiently transformative, or a sufficiently small fraction of a larger work, does or doesn’t make some amount of money, etc — you go before a court and say, ‘yeah, I’m infringing their copyright, I’m guilty of that, but it’s for a good reason, a fair use under the copyright law.’ (That’s what an affirmative defense is, it’s a cop to guilt with mitigating circumstances.) Their lawyers then describe why you should be paying the creator and how much (since you’ve admitted you’re infringing to the court). And only then does the court grant or not Fair Use based on a four factor test.

    A good way to think about it is: With expression monopolies (copyright) you are guilty (infringing) until proven innocent (fair use). Any use of copyrighted material is opening yourself up to suit (and pretty much everything is copyrighted by default under the current regime), so you really can get sued at any time if you use the Internet and someone rich enough wants you to suffer.

    So bringing it back to the OP, the reason these hacks are getting away with it is because each individual copyright holder is relatively powerless against their scheme. As long as none or few actually make a claim beyond a DMCA take-down notice, single settlements or removal is not hurting the bottom line. This is why kids using Napster were getting nailed to the wall (rich music labels), but Historyinpics or any of the myriad photo/meme aggregators just keep “getting away with it” (poor photographers).

    Shorter: we need copyright reform.

  19. Drolfe says

    I probably shouldn’t have left out the the dynamic of aggregation was opposite in the fail-sharers vs. internet aggregators example. On the one hand, it’s the powerless party aggregating and distrubuting copyrighted works (so of course they get screwed), but in the other case it’s the powerless party getting aggregated and distributed, so their power to do any screwing is fractured, leaving the aggregator largely unscathed.

  20. Pierce R. Butler says

    Porsupah @ # 20 – Fantastic photo – congrats on having such well-honed reflexes that you could catch it so well.

    Is that really what it looks like, or did the airborne bunny get that way on its own?

  21. says

    Shorter: we need copyright reform.

    And yet, the only “reform” we see is in the form of, “Oh, right.. sure, its public domain, but if some huge assed rich corporation wants it, they can rob the public, and re-copyright it.”