Going Viral

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This article was originally published in 2015.

The 21-year-old sitting across a Café Eclectic booth laughs softly and speaks with tenacity. He could talk about videos all day, he says, and soon, he might. He’s moving to Los Angeles later this month, going the way of many popular YouTubers and Internet content creators that seem to find their way to the Pacific coast.

Darius Benson, at first glance, wouldn’t strike you as an Internet celebrity.

The social media sensation is well-dressed and taller than expected, even though his profile states clearly that he’s 6’4”. Before meeting, he offers any time in the afternoon. He doesn’t wake up before 11 a.m. Lucky him. He sometimes laughs nervously, but when we get to talking about Vine, and what he hopes to do professionally, he becomes more confident and collected. Knowledgeable. He knows what he’s talking about — he’s been here before. He’s talked about Vine a million times.

To his nearly 2.4 million followers on Vine, Benson is better known on the social media app as MrLegenDarius, a comedian who specializes in what he calls “silly, short skits.” To put it in certain terms, Vine is the Twitter version of YouTube, where users can post six-second videos that automatically loop called, aptly, Vines; others can then “revine,” or repost, the video to their own followers. Each video also notes the number of loops of the Vine — and it’s not uncommon to see Benson’s videos looped in the millions. (In total, he has over a billion loops across his videos.)

“For a while, basically all I could watch was Vines,” Benson says. “If I tried to watch a YouTube video that was three [or] four minutes, I’d be like, ‘I just don’t have the time.’”

Vine’s platform has forced the creative hand for some content creators, squeezing every millisecond of video. Some users post impromptu rants in the car. Others have elaborate short films utilizing special effects. Artists have also taken to the medium as a new form of expression for their art, particularly stop-motion artists like that users have widely accepted on the platform. More recently, corporations have taken to getting content creators like Benson to advertise for them, using the style they’re known for to push products.

Some keep attributing the success of such platforms like Vine to the digital generation’s shrinking attention span. One frequent statistic often thrown out, particularly in the case of Vine, is that the average American attention span has decreased since 2000, when it sat at 12 seconds, to a measly 8.25 seconds today — less than a goldfish. It’s been shared on Facebook, printed in books, and published in news articles, but research into the specific report quoted found no such study. Only one published in 2008 by the University of Hamburg detailing Internet usage by 25 participants, which showed that 52 percent of all website visits by their participants were shorter than 10 seconds.

Ten seconds is where Vine founders worked backwards from. From the inception of the platform, founders experimented with various lengths of video to see what felt right. When five seconds felt too short, and six seconds alone felt like something was missing, the looping feature added another dimension to the service. And in January 2013, Vine launched, six months before Instagram’s 15-second video feature was introduced.

Shortly thereafter, Benson started posting Vines during his spring semester at the University of Memphis, majoring in engineering. That summer, when he was working at Target, he was posting Vines more than ever before. He saw what others were doing, posting funny content, and wanted to contribute. His videos were and are often spur-of-the-moment, finding inspiration in the smallest things, hanging out with friends, or sitting alone in his bedroom.

His first Vine, titled “got jokes,” featured a talking head version of Benson.

“How do trees get on the Internet?” he asks in the video. “Wait for it, wait for it. It’s good. They log on. You feel me?”

Now his videos range in comedy style. It could be topical, parodies of viral content, Vine-focused memes, or just a totally made-up skit with Benson playing all the parts. He particularly gained popularity quickly when he released a parody series called “Hip Hop Disney,” where Benson covered popular hip hop songs as if they were performed by Disney characters. The first video in that series — now over 26 parts — went viral.

“It got 300,000 likes,” Benson says. “It was on the top of the ‘popular Vines’ page all day. That was my breakout moment, like, ‘Wow, I really made something.’”

It wasn’t just that series alone. The first time Benson was featured in a WorldStarHipHop Vine compilation, people also started to take notice. The website’s compilations (sometimes shortened to “comps”) garner millions of views each week. Nowadays, he isn’t as surprised when his videos make it onto weekly or monthly compilations of popular Vines. He says if he gets around 150,000 likes on a video, he will usually see that video on such a compilation.

Benson is driven and focused on content creating as a business opportunity, and he seems to be doing well. Since he blew up, he’s landed sponsorships with Pringles, Microsoft, and even joined other popular Vine stars in promoting the movie Unfriended, a horror film with a pretty aggressive social media marketing team, centering on a group of teens in a video chat together.

He’s able to get these promotional gigs through a liaison company that manages offers from marketing teams, kind of middlemen between online content creators and brands. Luckily for Benson, he’s able to take a lot of creative control over his content so his sponsored posts aren’t just blanket ads for brands; they’re still what fans of MrLegenDarius can expect.

On top of his viral content, Benson has also had the chance to visit with followers in attendance at Playlist Live, a convention in Orlando, Florida, and Washington, D.C., dedicated to online content creators and their fans. Vine meetups with other content creators in New York City — where he invited followers to come meet him — drew crowds when he had half a million followers.

“For the first time, I saw that many people showing up just for Vine,” he says, holding up his smartphone. “It’s really cool to see the power of [this]. Everything on Vine came from my phone.”

If he’s in a place with Vine’s demographic — 18 to 20 years old, 57 percent female — he’s more likely to be recognized: bowling alleys, skating rinks. One of his most popular videos, featuring him acting as James Doakes from TV’s Dexter, often gets one of his lines thrown at him in public or when he’s posing for a video with fans.

For the most part, Benson prefers to keep his comedy cleaner, able to reach a wider audience and have something to show his conservative parents.

“I also think there’s more respect for comedy that’s generally clean,” he says. “It helps you with opportunities. Like if Pringles wants a promo, they’re going to choose somebody whose content is [cleaner], not someone who’s cussing all the time.”

Homeschooled until he was 14, Benson says he’s used to “making his own fun,” as he finds himself to be more productive with Vine when he’s alone. As a child, he says learning skills like juggling was a “really long training program” for Vine.

When it comes to his parents, he says they aren’t “that psyched” about having an Internet celeb in the family, especially when it came to his education.

“My parents are just like, ‘Eh, that’s funny,’” he says. “But when I was talking about not going to school anymore, they were kind of worried about me.”

Benson’s father, Alvin Benson, the director of the Shelby County Fire Department, told him he needed to have a backup plan. His father was the driving force behind him attending the University of Memphis for engineering, something he wasn’t very passionate about but would make a living. When the program became difficult for Benson, and he was also working on Vines, he decided to drop out and pursue content creating full-time.

“I’ve always been stubborn when it comes to things,” he says. “When I decide I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it. They saw that decision and they were like, ‘I don’t know. College is a thing you gotta knock out.’”

His parents make sure he’s talking to the right people in the entertainment industry and check in from time to time, making sure Benson’s not being taken advantage of or making the wrong choices. Despite their concerns, both parents are proud. Alvin Benson is actually in one of his son’s Vines, celebrating his two million followers.

“Oh, that’s cool. Check out those pictures over there,” he says in the video, pointing to a wall of photos, posing with Bill Clinton, President Barack Obama, and the Dalai Lama, among other famous figures.

That Vine received over 330,000 likes and looped over 13 million times.

“A couple of months before I posted that, he kind of hinted like, ‘Maybe I could get on a video sometime,’” he says. “Before, he was like, ‘Yeah, I don’t know about that Vine thing,’ but now he’s kind of warmed up to it after I started gaining followers and getting opportunities.”

Benson is now looking to diversify into YouTube, creating unique videos specifically for that platform, rather than only compilations or extensions of his Vines. He says many YouTubers who have tried to transition into Vine end up having a harder time transferring due to the time constraints.

“They’re used to slowing things down,” Benson says. “One thing that I like about transitioning to YouTube from Vine is that I still have that quick, get-to-the-point mentality when it comes to my videos. I think that helps me a lot.”

When it comes to YouTube, the opportunities there aren’t just based on promotional material that Benson has to create on his own, like Vine. He can make money through actual views, something he’s good at getting. And with consistent viewership, he can end up with a viable, reliable source of income.

Benson’s also seeking a challenge. When it comes to Vine, he feels like he’s done well. On YouTube, longer videos will allow his creativity to flourish. He’ll be able to not only expand upon ideas he’s initially released on Vine, like the “Hip Hop Disney Infomercial” he uploaded last month, but also create more all-original content with more structure, like guides to teaching white people how to dance and elaborate skits. On top of his comedy, he’s uploaded vlogs, or video blogs, question-and-answer sessions, and other videos to really network with his fans and increase the flow of interactivity between him and his viewers.

“[YouTube] is where things are happening,” Benson says. “I mean, eventually, I could make my own movie. There’s a lot of steps to that, it takes more experience, but that’s kind of what I’m looking toward.”

For most of us, posting funny videos in your spare time into moving to Los Angeles seems like a big leap. But it was the gradual change that Benson fell into: initially uploading Vines for fun, turning into a hobby, then eventually, becoming his job.

“It takes a little bit of the fun out of it when you have to do it, but I think I’ve done a pretty good job in balancing the two,” he says. “It’s like work and play combined. That’s why I’m moving to Los Angeles to try and branch out so I have a good following across multiple platforms.”

He’s been to L.A. about six times over the past year, and in L.A., they take Vine seriously. Collaborators will meet up — six or seven people, Benson says — and just knock out videos, making multiple at a time to publish throughout the week. Despite that, he prefers his spontaneous, natural style. But hanging out with other content creators breeds friendships, a bond within a lifestyle that is focused on the ability to share and entertain.

“We’re all kind of weird,” Benson says. “Vines are a weird thing to have in common with somebody. To a person who doesn’t make Vines, they can’t understand.”