Making of a Meme: Interview with James Nielssen
January 25, 2017
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If you use Twitter, or any social media, the odds are considerably high that you have seen James Nielssen’s posts. Nielssen is an internet comedian and self-proclaimed “multimedia memester,” crafting witty tweets and editing videos based on popular memes such as Smash Mouth’s hit “All Star” and Bee Movie. He has over fifty thousand Twitter followers to date, 13.8 million Vine loops, and recognition from celebrities including The Chainsmokers.
James Nielssen belongs to a community of curators on Twitter that capitalize on viral trends. Being this popular and creative has its challenges: content curators often go unrecognized for their work, which gets plagiarized by moneymakers with more followers. These larger accounts remove the watermarks, etc. and repost stolen on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. They use their increased profile traffic to rake in advertising revenue.
The Charger Bulletin talked to Nielssen about his social media success and the struggles that come with it:
Q: For those who don’t know you, how would you describe the content that you create?
A: I would say weird, but trying to further what comedy is, and what is weird, and how those worlds collide. It’s only come into being like two years ago. People are trying to figure out what the best new form of comedy is across all media and asking how we can integrate comedy with the rest of the world.
Q: Why did you create a Twitter account? Did you sign up for Twitter with the intention of going viral?
A: It kind of happened naturally, I guess. I had been following all these [relatable comedy] accounts for years and wanted to contribute, but I never tried. I didn’t know how to get into that “weird” community… I just wanted to try out comedy writing. I was doing music production and video stuff and it never went anywhere. Once [the account] started to gain traction after a big account retweeted me, it was validation to keep going.
Q: How would you define a “meme”? I think that people in different age groups have varying ideas of what a meme might be.
A: Well, the classic Facebook meme with rage comics—that’s the first inception of the real meme. People think that pictures with words over it are memes. My tattoo artist thought that they were motivational posters or pictures with cats sitting on wires. It depends on a certain culture… to me, it’s anything that becomes popular. It really is a specific niche to create free internet humor.
Q: It seems like the world just constantly hands you things to make fun of. Where does your inspiration come from? Is there a creative process for composing a tweet?
A: Yeah, that’s what comedy is great for. With the election—I can post a joke about Trump and [before seeing it], people won’t know how many times he’s said “China”. You can emphasize how a person or culture is fixated on one thing. Somehow, there’s something [the viewer is] learning whether you realize it or not.
Q: Is Twitter your favorite creative platform, or is it just your most active? You have over 13.8 million Vine loops and a Youtube channel…
A: There’s really subtle differences between the big four [Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Youtube]—with Instagram, if you go to look at the really popular pages, they have a certain type of humor. If you want a professional career as a comedian, Instagram will not be taken seriously. Youtube is a whole different animal… If you’re a writer or editor, Twitter is your place. Kanye West doesn’t go on an Instagram rant.
Q: Do you get paid for your tweets?
A: I don’t make money directly from my tweets, but I’ve been getting money for YouTube advertising and I occasionally do ghost writing. Funny story: I made [a video of Donald Trump singing “All Star” by Smash Mouth] because a popular parody account wanted to pay me for it, but when they only offered $20 I said f*ck it, I’ll post it myself. A lot of those parody accounts try to exploit people. When they pay people, they want bottom dollar.
Q: I’ve seen people say ironically that memes are a lifestyle, but they really are for you. What networking have you done via Twitter? Could this be considered an occupation?
A: It’s just a lot of learning… You reach out to other people who do stuff like you are. Starting out in the beginning, you have all these mini networks (group chats with other content creators) and they tell you to change words, etc., but before that, there’s no handbook on how to write a good tweet– you have to do it in your own style. There’s some tweets that I’ve annoyed my girlfriend over a couple of days to look at over and over again. It’s hard to tell if something is funny or sounds right when you’re trapped inside your own echo chamber reading your own stuff.
Q: Plagiarism and “tweet stealing” are big with popular accounts like @dory, @tweetlikeagirl, etc. Memes are truly becoming mainstream– have you been a victim?
A: It happens daily. People send me stuff every day. At least now that I have an audience, I can make things popular before other people make my stuff popular. There’s this one about Ratatouille and I saw it on facebook with a hundred thousand likes. And then it gets on Instagram , another hundred thousand on there and on Twitter—if they would just credit or not crop my name out, that’s not hard. That’s why I’m transitioning more to videos—I can put my watermarks on them.
Q: Do you think that there is a solution to this problem with a vast internet that is constantly growing?
A: So like, Youtube handles copyrights so well, and that’s why they’re so successful. If they upload a song and it belongs to someone else, it gets taken down right away. If a user gets 3 violations, their account gets taken down… On Twitter, if you get stuff taken down every day, your account can still exist. It can be years before a post gets taken down from parody accounts. You can file a copyright complaint, but only about half of mine work. Maybe it isn’t easy, but there’s steps that can be implemented to keep the ball rolling.
Be sure to follow James on Twitter @cool_as_heck.
**Edit made Jan. 25, 11:43 p.m.: James does not actually get paid for his Tweets.