"my daughter is dying. Help"— wint (@dril) September 18, 2014
no. i wil never sellout
"kfc's making a burrito out of pigeon turds. hit us up with that signal boost"
Last week, the mysterious and beloved Twitter account Dril tweeted to his 1.4 million followers a commercial for his upcoming Adult Swim show Truthpoint. The tweet read with his typical halting elocution: “the News, as you know it, has died... and from its ashes rises ‘TRUTHPOINT’ streaming LIVE, wednesday at midnight (EST) , on http://adultswim.com .”
In the ad, a man who may or may not be Dril, wears a nondescript beige plastic mask next to a young man who appears equally featureless. The show looks like a parody of Infowars: Adult Swim’s description of it goes, “Independent Journalists Dril and Derek Estevez-Olsen plunge the foulest reaches of the Dark Web to pulverize society’s most pressing issues with reasoned debate.”
Had Dril, an icon of the absurdity of popular discourse whose voice seems to be mimicked — intentionally or not — even by the president, sold out? Regardless of whether the backlash to his announcement happened, the backlash to the hypothetical backlash definitely did, thus we must talk about how Dril’s jump from one part of the internet to another highlights the entanglements between crowdsourced online entertainment (posts) and well-paid, regulated entertainment industry products (shows).
Corporate attempts to monetize individual social media accounts are difficult to speak about precisely. There are no regulations, no accountability measures, no statistics, no unions. What we do know is this: when companies try to harness a user’s organic internet fame for profit, that user typically gets screwed. Dril’s jump to Adult Swim is a rare, and hopefully lucrative, breakthrough for him. But his rise to infamy, and subsequent mainstream creative validation, brings up a thorny question that is unique to the internet age: how the hell can someone who’s good at Twitter make money? Not only must these creatives joust with corporations to survive, they must reckon with their fans, who often, if nonsensically, want their favorite Twitter accounts to remain free and unsullied by capitalistic forces.
Dril started tweeting in 2008. It is thought that Twitter is not his full-time job, but he has attempted to monetize his account. Like many online creators, he started a Patreon in 2017, asking supporters to donate at the levels of “why not” ($1/month), “good” ($2/month), “darknet Risen” ($3/month), and “god” ($999/month); this was received by some fans with grief and confusion. Why, they seemed to ask, would an online poster want to benefit financially from their influence online? Most seemed to view it as a sign that the era Dril represented, of anonymous message boards and their raucous, chaotic energy, had truly ended.
Currently, Dril’s Patreon collects $2,463 from 1,036 patrons each month, averaging out to $2.38 per person. He says he uses the money to “make shit people enjoy... without having to rely on advertisers or millionaire perverts.” While not nothing, Dril’s earnings pale in comparison to the podcast Chapo Trap House, which shares a similar audience and makes roughly $141,000 per month. But the mere idea that creators like Dril have to outsource their monetization to a separate platform is indicative of the financial precarity experienced by those who got their start posting for free. The obvious paradox here is that creators can’t rely on their fans to pay them to make content, but they also can’t create content if they aren’t paid in some way, and that money usually comes from some sort of corporate relationships, and those relationships typically, well, suck.
When considering where Dril’s Adult Swim show sits in the garden of good-and-evil content creation, it’s important to ask how different social-media entertainment and more traditional forms of entertainment actually are. The cost of production between the two is phenomenally disparate, of course, but that’s only when you think about it on the level of one idiot scrolling and posting from their phone in bed, on the subway, in their office elevator, or in the bathroom. When you factor in an online platform’s development, design, hosting, and upkeep costs, there’s a multi-million dollar operation running beneath each user; however, in exchange for free usage, none of the profits companies make off a user’s content go back to that user.
Twitter and Hollywood are obviously vastly different ecosystems, but as the time we spend staring into a screen becomes split between traditional entertainment products and crowdsourced online content presented by tech platforms, their value becomes intertwined. But only one of these industries pays its writers.
Our intimate moments and daily musings inform the ways [tech platforms] make money, and the money flows only in their direction.
This is all informed by my own attempts to benefit professionally and financially from social media use. While the cult of Dril dwarfs my own (my editor is making me say sizable) following, I’ve had numerous job opportunities and connections sprout from my Twitter and Instagram accounts. These are usually writing or social-media management jobs that require quantifiable labor — a much different ball game than the unpaid, unregulated posting that might catch the eye of someone who wants to pay me to work for them. It’s the digital equivalent of casting a model or actor on the street — being on Twitter alone doesn’t pay the bills, but it could lead to the work that does, although this “work,” also kind of like modeling or acting, is somewhat ephemeral, and only a miniscule number of people can become rich from it. As my time doing social-media work went on, the boundaries between my own personal social-media use and work I was doing for the companies would blur. In these jobs, it’s not uncommon to have employees be reminded they are “brand ambassadors” representing the company when they’re both on the clock and off.
If social-media success is rarely parlayed into a lucrative career, what is its function in the more sacred task of making art? I published an experimental novel, literally show me a healthy person, in 2017. I watched as it was quickly lumped into the “social media as art” category. Some of the lines in the book had come from tweets dating back as far as five years before the publication date. I felt like some of the specificity and precision was lost in the coverage of it: I was not saying writing on a Twitter account was art, but that it exercised the same muscles and could be used as a sort of scrapbook for my thoughts.
When the final product was printed and bound, I felt accomplished, but also defensive. My conversations about it began with an explanation of the differences between writing and literature, of intentionally constructing something made from seemingly flippant social media use. How would my book have been different if I had kept my thoughts in a notebook instead of sharing them on the platform? Would it have been better received?
Ultimately, the opportunities that come from keeping my accounts active — working, making art, writing this article — outweigh any potential benefits of leaving them. Barring some sweeping career change, I’m bound.
This brings me back to the question of whether Dril — whether any of us have found some commercial success from posting — sold out. That the concept of selling out is a controversial topic on platforms where contributors are typically only compensated with attention is inherently bizarre. We can only “sell out” inasmuch as we sell our data and time, and we do this, again and again, minute by minute. Selling out is no longer about giving your art over to a conglomerate: The more we ignore platforms' terms of service and devalue the importance of our metadata, the more the companies who obtain our data overtake their competitors. Our intimate moments and daily musings inform the ways they make money, and the money flows only in their direction.
We are born sold out, and we spend our lives searching for lost and mythological authenticity. Since his account’s creation, Dril has been a cog in the machine of Twitter, promoting the company through his posts, but also as an account that promotes engagement among its followers, generating more data, and in turn influencing the minds and tastes of large swaths of the platform’s users.
Perhaps we are all disgruntled suckers who fell for the tech industry’s addictive free services, only to find ourselves at a loss when we try to escape them; we hate it here yet refuse to leave. Our jobs and relationships have come to depend on platforms, and we worry that people will forget we exist if we delete our accounts. Especially for users with higher following counts, deleting an account or letting it lay fallow is similar to wasting a resource, throwing away an opportunity. We are hostages of the platforms that are everywhere: on our computers, living in our phones, sleeping beside us. The products that have designed themselves to foster addiction and potentially rewire our brains entirely.
We will all continue to post and generate revenue for ethically dubious corporations, money that we will never see. Artists will continue to use Instagram to publicize and sell their work, writers will write jokes and premises for Netflix writers to rip off, and we will all retweet promo for our latest projects in hopes that it makes a difference. We will continue to try to make the cost/benefit ratio worth it. The art we make on these proprietary platforms can sometimes transcend them, but will always be tinged by where it originated.
The irony that Dril has remained anonymous on a platform that campaigns for the abolition of privacy itself isn’t lost on me. Maybe this is where the outcry over the account — this ostensibly authentic and pure entity — signing a deal with Adult Swim comes from. But here we are, mired in the gut of capitalism: The person behind Dril has bills to pay, and asking him to not pay them is to buy into the dream of an internet that never existed. Simply, we never had a chance.