Jack Johnson: the internet star who hacked his own fans’ accounts

Last week, Jack Johnson told his nearly four million Twitter followers to send him their passwords - and they did

Jack Johnson’s six-second bursts of comedy on Vine have propelled him to a fledgling pop-rap career. Now he 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 personalised video from Johnson pop up inside their accounts.

At first glance, this stunt, which Johnson called “#HackedByJohnson,” looks like another case of teenagers traipsing through a social-media minefield, oblivious to the real-world consequences. But Johnson’s fans are not naive. 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.

Like Eminem's sweeter younger brother
Johnson, 20, part of the duo Jack & Jack, is 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," Johnson thrives on serving his fans.

To charm millions of strangers simultaneously, 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.

With #HackedByJohnson, Johnson has digitised and super-sized that feeling. The skill on display lands somewhere between improv and pick-up artistry. For each “hacking” video, 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.”

Mysterious new video
One fan Tee Bradshaw sent her Twitter password to Johnson "at least 50" times, she said, until a mysterious new video popped up in her account: 16 seconds of 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." Bradshaw knows she didn't inspire the song; she had seen 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.

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 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.

Faves, likes, follows
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 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. Johnson accompanied his call for passwords with the disclaimer, “only me tho, don’t ever give out ur passwords to strangers.”

- NYT wire

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