Teens Are Making Thousands on Tumblr Using This One Weird Trick

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This month’s cover story in The New Republic focuses on “the secret lives of Tumblr teens,” the self-aware, surrealist powerhouse that encompasses a smaller but far more active section of adolescent web users.

In many ways, Tumblr is one of the last holdouts of the old, anonymous internet, where people’s online lives were entirely separable from their offline ones. Tumblr’s active population of minors, who understand that search engines have a long memory, are better than most adults at maintaining that boundary. It’s what allowed an anonymous Australian teenager named “Pizza” to gain a million followers and a rabid fanbase.

And of course, though it’s not as obvious as it might be on other social networks, people try to monetize it. And much like your favorite Twitter accounts, it’s two dudes (in this case, Zach Lilley and Jeremy Greenfield) pretending to be girls. They basically applied Sabermetrics to Tumblr.

I didn’t relate to a lot of the things I was posting about, but like, you read online that a lot of people were going through that, so I was like ‘Oh I guess that’s a relatable thing,’ ” Greenfield said. He didn’t understand why someone might be nervous in front of the police for no reason. He didn’t understand complaints about substitute teachers — those were “jokes that I blatantly wouldn’t get.” But if an unfamiliar feeling was mentioned often enough online, Greenfield would write about it.

And then they starting selling fad diet pills through affiliate links and raking in money hand over fist, building up a network of link-swaps and click fraud that for a brief time brought in tens of thousands of dollars a month. Pizza was occasionally earning more than her mother, a real-estate agent. Eventually, it also got the million-follower Pizza Tumblr shut down for violating Tumblr’s terms of use.

The piece is a microcosm of a hard truth that older people might struggle to understand: “Making money on the internet” is now simply “making money.” Joining ad networks and farming clicks isn’t really the digital equivalent of a lemonade stand, but for a growing number of teenagers today, it’s just as easy to set up.