Creating a super-fun social media summer camp, 140 characters at a time
There are heroes on the Internet. They are hard to find sometimes amidst the trolls and the click bait and all the news about Donald Trump, but if you dive deep enough into the dumpster there are treasures to be found that will redeem your faith in this whole experiment of constant global connectivity. There are people who make you believe in the beauty of community among strangers.
Shea Serrano is one of those people, and his Empire of Personality—built on tweet storming and life logging and culture critiquing—is beckoning you to join the celebration.
If you’re heretofore unacquainted with Serrano and want to experience a concentrated shot of his anti-brand brand yourself, our best advice would be to subscribe to his newly minted newsletter, Basketball (And Other Things). It melds together the most popular cultural touchstones in Serrano’s writing and life (which are basically the same thing): the NBA, hip-hop and action movies of the 1990s.
New editions are sent out every Tuesday at 9 am, and each one has custom illustrations by Serrano’s friend and frequent collaborator, the artist Arturo Torres. He will not accept payment for subscriptions, and the official company policy on marketing is “Ads can S a D.” And what began as a casual endeavor just one month ago meant to keep Serrano sharp and test out material for his upcoming book on basketball has exploded into a near-viral sensation with 27,000 subscribers as of this writing.
“I wasn’t planning on anything big happening,” Serrano says of B(AOT)’s massive popularity (he’s gained 1,000 more subscribers since this interview one week ago). “[Me and Arturo] were working on the basketball book and I wasn’t writing anywhere at the time, so it was just a place for us to put some stuff down and start feeling creative again. It’s basically just a playground and it sort of took off bigger than we had anticipated it.”
The preposterous vertical trajectory of Serrano’s latest venture looks ridiculous in isolation, but within the context of his career it makes almost too much sense. “Bigger than we had anticipated” could be the tagline on his business card. All Serrano ever wanted to do was teach, and the whole writing thing was meant to be a side gig for extra cash. But it became a full-time job when he realized, “Oh, people are going to give me a lot of money to do this, so I’m going to do it while I can.”
This cartoon of Chance The Rapper giving Satan a swirly is from Issue #8 of B(AOT). Image by Arturo Torres.
Serrano started out freelancing for a local Houston paper, then graduated to a position with LA Weekly, where his ebullience and personality driven style got noticed by editors at the journalist utopia known as Grantland. He contributed frequent stories to the ESPN offshoot for more than a year before signing on as a full time contract writer in July of 2015. Three months later, ESPN shuttered Grantland and flung its cadre of ultra-talented, ultra-popular writers out into the internet where they would become star recruits at publications like New York Magazine, MTV News and The Fader.
But while many former Grantlanders have taken new staff jobs elsewhere, Serrano has built up the business of, well, being Shea Serrano. Right before the site closed he was overseeing the launch of his second book, The Rap Year Book: The Most Important Rap Song From Every Year Since 1979, Discussed, Debated, and Deconstructed, which he turned into a New York Times best seller through sheer force of will.
Serrano is popular, to be sure, but it’s still a niche kind of popularity. At the time The Rap Year Book came out he had 43,000 Twitter followers (a number he has since doubled), and got each and every one of them on board to help usher in his tiny revolution. He announced giveaways on Twitter, promising trinkets like t-shirts, stickers and packets of Yo! MTV Raps trading cards if followers sent him proof they’d purchased his book.
He even got into a fake feud with the retailer Books-a-Million on Twitter, which he told Wired about in an interview last year, to turn the whole product schilling gig into a kind of game that everyone could participate in. “I was trying to get the writer of Harry Potter to fight with me or whatever, but Books-a-Million was the first time somebody had played back at me,” Serrano said last October. “That’s all I needed to turn this into a real war.” The retailer slashed prices of The Year Book and dared Serrano’s followers to buy them out, which they did. And not just at one outlet either. Serrano’s fans snapped up all 20,000 copies of The Year Book’s first print run before it even came out, some purchasing handfuls at a time to give away to strangers.
This cartoon of two Arnold Schwarzenegger characters fighting each other is from Issue #6 of B(AOT). Image by Arturo Torres.
And when you follow him on Twitter you realize quickly why this community of tens of thousands felt personally invested in helping Serrano become a success. When you see him interact with followers dozens of times every day it’s like being on a massive text thread with a bunch of friends—that you don’t even hate! Months after its release he still does giveaways for people who buy The Rap Year Book, except now he sends swanky bookmarks with original illustrations by Torres. They arrive in envelopes with a return address listed simply as “Shea” and a note of appreciation inside with your gift.
But most of the time it’s not about commerce at all. It’s just about hanging out. Serrano dispenses life advice, takes his followers with him on “shame-food” runs to Taco Bell, posts pictures of his wife and calls her his “favorite super hero,” provides the absolute best basketball commentary available today and shares his family follies (joined by Boy A, Boy B, Baby, Wife, and the dog, Younger Jeezy) with his 80,000-strong community of followers.
He’s also a fount of support for people who see him as an example of a dream achieved, exhorting those who reach out for advice to keep pursuing their passion. In the screaming maw of the internet, Serrano is like that cool teacher in high school who just gets you, and characterizes his generosity with people as a “moral obligation” to help where he can, because he’s been there. Or maybe he’s more like your cool older brother. Or is he your chill friend who always has the best music and casually sage wisdom to dispense? No matter what version of familiar he feels like, the bottom line is that Serrano just seems like someone you want to have around, which might be the best possible currency on the internet.
“It was not a dream of mine to be a writer. I only ever wanted to be a teacher. It was the only job I ever wanted to do. So I want to try and be as helpful to other people as possible,” Serrano explains. “I got an e-mail not that long ago from a guy who told me that he had tried to be a writer X amount of years ago, and after reading through some of the stuff I had written or talking to me for a little bit, he felt, ‘Okay. I’m going to do this. I feel inspired to do this again.’ That’s always the biggest compliment I can get from anybody, is if they feel like inspired to do something new, to try a thing. That makes me feel really good.”
Serrano’s lingering ESPN contract runs out this summer, at which time he hopes “someone will show up with a job offer somewhere.” And whoever is lucky enough to secure him will be inheriting a tribe of somewhere around 100,000 people willing to throw money at him, buy his books and probably do whatever else he asks them to, because when the tide of Shea rises it’s clear he wants all the boats to rise with him.
But until that mystery job comes calling, thank goodness we’ve got Twitter, a little bit of basketball, and a whole lot of other things to keep Shea talking.