Jack and Jack: For senior Viners, Westside’s a place to be ‘normal’
March 12, 2014
A version of this story appeared in the February 28 issue of the Lance.
At Westside, seniors Jack Gilinsky and Jack Johnson are two pretty normal kids, but to their 2.6 million followers on Vine, they’re something else entirely.
They’re Internet celebrities, teen heartthrobs who get over 100,000 likes on each six-second video they post and have fanfiction written about them. They’ve attended conventions full of screaming teenage girls alongside other immensely popular Vine and Instagram users, and the first song they released on iTunes hit #7 on the hip-hop chart.
As much as they have going for them outside of school, though, Westside High School is still one of the places they feel most at home.
“Nobody’s ever going to come up to me here and ask for a picture,” Johnson said. “When I’m with my friends, I don’t really like it when people come up to me and ask for pictures. I just want to live a normal high school life, and so I love it here at Westside just because we can be ourselves and be with our friends like we’ve always been. We don’t really think about what’s going on with the whole Vine thing while we’re here at Westside.”
HOW IT WORKS
“The whole Vine thing” started in early July last year, when Gilinsky and Johnson were enjoying watching videos on the social media site Vine. Thinking of how their friends called them class clowns, they decided to try their hand at making Vines themselves. They made a joint account with the username Jack and Jack.
By the time Johnson had to leave for summer camp, they were at 1,000 followers.
Then, Gilinsky posted a Vine in which he drove up to a Dairy Queen drive-thru window shirtless, accepted an ice cream cone from the employee inside, and smeared the ice cream on his chest as the employee looked on. It was a hit.
By the time Johnson got back home, Jack and Jack were at 25,000 followers, and a few weeks into the school year, they were at 50,000. Once they posted a Vine called “Nerd Vandalism” and got 100,000 new followers in a week, posting regularly became more of a job than a hobby. They’ve continued with it ever since.
The subjects of their Vines vary, but the fast-paced, short videos usually feature several shots spliced together, and some type of “punch line” at the end. In some of them, one or both of the boys are dressed up; sometimes there’s a mom character, sometimes they’re girls, and sometimes they’re dressed as other characters. Often, a song is used in a creative way.
Johnson said coming up with topics for the Vines is a simple brainstorming process. He and Gilinsky try to make funny, relatable videos teenagers will appreciate. For example, a recent Vine features Gilinsky acting the part of a teacher and Johnson acting the part of a student. Gilinsky says, “Class, turn to page 453,” and Johnson opens his textbook. A close-up reveals he opened to the exact page, and the song “The Power” (“I’ve got the power…”) starts playing. Johnson starts dancing.
“If it’s something the masses can relate to, it’s pretty much set in stone that it’ll get a lot of likes,” Johnson said. “We’ve kind of figured out what is going to get likes and what isn’t going to get likes.”
However, for Gilinsky and Johnson, getting likes doesn’t always mean letting their own sense of humor show. Instead, they focus on making Vines they think will make their fan base laugh. Johnson said there are a few videos that have featured his and Gilinsky’s humor, but they’ve never been as popular.
“Like with any business — we consider it a business now — we’re kind of in it for the numbers,” Johnson said. “We want to get as many likes as possible, and get as many followers as possible, because we want to appeal to as many people as possible. So we kind of have to just figure out what our fan base likes and go from there.”
That fan base consists almost entirely of 12- to 17-year-old girls. Very conscious of their audience, Johnson and Gilinsky try to tailor not only their Vines, but also their tweets to that demographic.
“We used to be kind of vulgar with our tweets and curse a lot and stuff, but now we don’t do that because we have a lot of younger girls following us,” Johnson said. “We try to just have a clean image.”
For several months, Johnson and Gilinsky’s following was limited to Vine. Then, realizing Vine could easily lose its popularity, they started branching out, promoting their Twitter and Instagram accounts. It didn’t take long for followers to flock to them there too. The makers of clothing lines and apps sometimes pay them to promote products to their hundreds of thousands of followers.
Along with seven other popular Viners and Instagram users, Gilinsky and Johnson get paid to attend a convention called Magcon every other weekend. The “Mag” stands for “meet and greet.” The conventions, held in different cities across the country, are attended by hundreds of girls who want to meet the kids they follow and adore.
The fans take turns going through the line and meeting all the headliners. Gilinsky and Johnson give each girl a hug and ask where she comes from and if she’s having fun. They take a few pictures, and then the girls move on.
“Once you meet a fan, they become that much more of a fan, I think, once you become personable with them,” Johnson said. “It really keeps your fan base dedicated. We like to think that they’d be a fan for life after we meet them and have a good interaction with them.”
Having huge crowds of girls screaming for him and Gilinsky is “cool,” Johnson said, and both boys enjoy the attention, but seeing the sheer numbers and enthusiasm of their fans in real life is also rather surreal, especially considering it’s been less than nine months since they made their first Vine.
“When I get up on stage and there’s a couple thousand screaming girls, it’s weird to take in,” Gilinsky said. “Especially the first time I did it, I was like, ‘Wow, all these little girls are here to see me.’ It was crazy. I guess it’s kind of cool to know that all these girls love me and I mean so much to them.”
“It was kind of weird — like, really, girls are actually this crazy and this hardcore of fans?” Johnson said. “But it was awesome, after you got past the awkwardness stage. It was just kind of fun to meet them.”
Most of the comments Gilinsky and Johnson get on Vine, Twitter and Instagram are from female fans, many of whom genuinely feel like Gilinsky and Johnson are part of their lives.
“I think it’s cool that I can have that much impact on someone’s life,” Gilinsky said. “It makes me happy to make them happy. The only thing weird about it is when girls say really inappropriate things. I used to read my comments a lot more than I do now, but when I used to read them, they’d say some crazy things.”
This is the era of online fangirling, and some girls use Jack and Jack-themed Twitter names, or have made fan accounts specifically dedicated to the boys. Some of them have names like “Mrs. Gilinsky.”
Sometimes, though, obsession translates into serious comments. Some girls threaten to hurt themselves, but that’s not all the boys have to deal with.
“We definitely get some weird people that are kind of sketchy,” Johnson said. “We don’t really know how to respond to a lot of things. There will be people who will respond to every single one of our tweets and just say, ‘You’re ugly, you should all go die,’ and stuff.”
Probably the strangest aspect of the boys’ Internet fame, though, is the fanfiction. In this online genre, people write stories about characters or celebrities they’re obsessed with. One website, Wattpad, returns over 100 results for a search of either Jack’s name. In many of the stories — some of which have multiple chapters — a girl moves to Omaha and ends up with one of the boys. A few, though, are quite risqué.
“It’s really weird,” Johnson said. “I read one and it was about me and Jack being in a romantic relationship, and I was like, ‘I’m done with this.’ It’s just kind of creepy.”
Despite the bizarre aspects and downsides of Internet popularity, both Johnson and Gilinsky said they enjoy being popular. They like knowing that interacting with a fan could make her day, or that tweeting something like “Keep your head up” could actually help someone.
Several months ago, Gilinsky and Johnson met Turner and Travis Eakins, a sophomore at Millard North and a sophomore at UNL, who make beats for songs. The brothers reached out to Jack and Jack, and in the Eakins’ makeshift bedroom studio, the seniors recorded a song they co-wrote.
The Eakins brothers produced the instrumental beat for the song, and sent it off to someone who could mix the song. They knew how to get it on iTunes using a website called TuneCore.
Jack & Jack’s first song, “Distance,” features Gilinsky singing and Johnson rapping. The first day it was available on the iTunes store, it got 10,000 downloads, and it spent time in the top 100 singles, reaching #89. On the hip-hop chart, it was in the top 10 for about four days.
“We thought it might get 10,000 downloads total, so that was crazy for us,” Gilinsky said. “Then all these record labels started calling us, because they hate when individual artists get on the top-100 list. Record labels were really eager to get us signed. We’re obviously not going to do that anytime soon just because we have so much ahead of us, but it’s kind of crazy.”
Gilinsky and Johnson are planning to meet with record labels in New York and Los Angeles over spring break to feel out what kind of offers they might be able to get. They won’t do anything at this point unless they get an incredible offer, but Gilinsky said he’d like to sign with a label at some point in the future.
In the meantime, the duo is continuing to make music. They released their second single, “Flights,” on Feb. 24. Before it was released, Gilinsky described it as “kind of cheesy,” but thought the fangirls would love it. He was right — it did even better than “Distance,” spending four days in the top 100 singles and peaking at #68.
For now, Gilinsky and Johnson said, they don’t have any grand plans for the thousands of dollars they’ve been making from music and Magcon.
“It’s either going to go towards college, or we’re going to save it,” Johnson said. “We don’t need to spend money on anything right now. We’re just high school kids.”
Even though the boys don’t know exactly what they want to do with their newfound popularity in the future, they will most likely attend the same college next year, so they can keep working together and maintain their brand image.
Although their parents thought the whole thing was a joke at first, they’ve gotten enthusiastic about it too.
“My dad was like, ‘Hey, if you don’t start making money off of this, then you have to get a job after winter break,’” Johnson said. “So we’re like, ‘All right, we have to find ways to make money off of this,’ because neither of us wanted to work if we didn’t have to. Once we started making a good amount of money, our parents really started getting into it.”
In fact, Gilinsky said his parents have been serving as unofficial “managers” for the duo. They deal with business e-mails, set up interviews, and get sponsorships.
Although Johnson never foresaw the Jack and Jack Vine account leading to popularity of this magnitude, he said he doesn’t have any regrets about what’s happened.
“I’m really happy with what’s gone on, and how we’ve executed everything,” he said. “I try not to live my life with any regrets, I guess.”
For Gilinsky, though, it’s not always so easy.
“Sometimes I hate being under the microscope,” he said. “In Omaha, at least, it’s hard. I get a lot of crap from other people at other schools. Sometimes I wish I never did any of this, but in the long run, I know, it’s definitely going to help me be successful in life.”
The money is a plus, but Gilinsky said that’s not what he’s in this for — and he’s not in it for fame either. He personally likes watching the numbers grow — posting something, then refreshing it and watching the comments and likes add up — but the number-one reason he’s doing this is those 2.6 million followers.
“Pretty much the reason I do it is just my fans,” Gilinsky said. “They’re sweet. They keep me going. It’s awesome. I love responding to them because you get this huge response and everyone’s like, ‘Oh my god, he responded to you!’ It’s crazy. It’s like, ‘I’m just a normal 17-year-old kid who goes to high school in Omaha, Nebraska,’ but they think it’s really cool.”
In spite of everything Internet celebrity has brought him, though, Gilinsky, like Johnson, said Westside is a comfortable place for him, a sort of safe haven from what’s going on outside.
“You know, I think Westside stayed exactly the same for me,” he said. “That’s what I love the most about it. When I’m at Magcon and stuff, I can’t go anywhere without a security guard, because it’s a dense population of all our fans in one place, but here it’s nice because no one treats me differently. All my friends are still my friends, and my good friend group is really supportive, and they understand I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do. It’s nice to come back to Westside after a weekend at Magcon and be normal.”
Click here to see Jack and Jack’s Vine page.
Click here to see the lyric video for their latest song, “Flights.”