Alex Epstein is wearing suit pants, a starched white shirt and a red striped tie. He is grabbing a midmorning coffee before he heads back to the Omaha commercial real estate company where he works. The 24-year-old Omaha Burke graduate is offering you a firm handshake, an adult handshake, the kind of handshake that built banks and skyscrapers and the 20th century.
And then his eyes stray to his laptop, which is sitting open on his table at the coffee shop.
His eyes stray to the uniquely 21st century thing he has created, and nurtured, and grown into something that is both wildly popular and also strangely disappointing.
His eyes stray to CollegeTownLife, the Twitter account he has anonymously built to more than a half-million followers, a popular website and the type of online presence that most Fortune 500 companies would kill for.
He looks at his business, or his not quite a business, and he clicks on a tweet that an unknown CollegeTownLife writer tweeted out the previous night. Said tweet praises Justin Timberlake's performance at the MTV Video Music Awards.
Exactly 900 of CollegeTownLife's 524,341 followers have retweeted that tweet.
Alex Epstein notices that on his laptop, and his face lights up.
“Now that's the type of thing I love!” he says. “Nine hundred retweets! How do you quit on that?”
As anyone who uses Twitter knows, 900 retweets is insane. Unheard of. It's an accomplishment.
But 900 retweets is normal for Alex. Nine-hundred retweets — getting excited about that, getting a little obsessed by that, and working round-the-clock to figure out how to make money off of that — has been Alex's life for the better part of two years.
Texting + Facebook = Textbook. So technically I'm studying.— CollegeTownLife (@CollegeTownLife) September 5, 2013
(For those not on Twitter: Think of a tweet as a short, written thought, 140 characters or fewer. A follower is a person who has decided to subject themselves to all your written thoughts. A retweet is a person deciding to share one of those thoughts with his or her followers. Like if you clipped out this column and mailed it to all your friends. Which you should.)
This online story began in a college apartment near the Indiana University campus in February 2011. It began, as so many wondrous things do, with a bet.
In 2011, Twitter was sweeping through the Indiana campus, and Alex and his roommate were fascinated by the new social networking site. (The company, which now has more than 200 million members, announced plans this month for an initial public offering stock sale.)
Here's the wager, Alex's roommate said. We both pick a Twitter persona. We can't be us, and we also can't tell any of our friends we're doing this.
Whoever has more Twitter followers in a month owes the other guy dinner. Deal, Alex said.
Alex's roommate decided his Twitter persona would be a dog. His didn't work out so well — Twitter locked the account, thinking it was spam, after the dog started following thousands of people every day in an underhanded gambit to see if they would follow him back.
Alex decided his Twitter persona would be College. He named the Twitter account @CollegeTownLife and tweeted out random thoughts meant to parody the things his fellow Indiana University students were talking about online. CollegeTownLife complained about classes on Monday, and joked about its hangover on Saturday, and poked fun at fraternity boys and sorority girls and chemistry majors and pretty much everyone else.
At the end of the month, CollegeTownLife had 7,000 followers.
By the time he graduated that May, CollegeTownLife had 20,000 followers and Alex was contemplating a payoff far more lucrative than a free dinner.
He had made it through Indiana's business school, one of the top business schools in the country, and he had a good sales job and an apartment lease lined up in Nashville, Tenn. He kept the lease. He turned down the job.
“I decided this thing was going viral,” Alex says. “I decided I was going to build a brand.”
And so he did. He started a website, billing it as a place that would “publish what your college paper won't.” He signed up college students around the country to write for free. He started letting users generate CollegeTownLife tweets.
Trying to figure out what direction to take my life in after Breaking Bad ends— CollegeTownLife (@CollegeTownLife) September 23, 2013
No one would confuse the resulting content with the New York Times. There are many, many blog posts about dating and sex and Lady Gaga. There are many, many grammatical errors.
“We might have their and they're wrong seven different times on any given day,” Alex says.
Not that anyone cared.
The numbers kept going up – 100,000, then 250,000, then a half-million. To put that in context: Hillary Clinton, who may be the next president of the United States, has 721,000 followers. Marco Rubio, who also might be the next president, has 420,000.
But every time CollegeTownLife's follower number crossed another milestone, Gary Epstein, Alex's father, would pose the thorniest of questions:
When is it going to make money?
Gary Epstein is no stranger to a balance sheet: He's a longtime executive at Nebraska Wine and Spirits, a successful family-run alcohol distributor until the Epsteins sold it in 2008.
Which is exactly why Alex's new venture baffled him a little.
Can't you just charge a dollar per every follower? They won't pay a dollar a year? That's $500,000 a year!
No, Dad. It doesn't work like that.
Well what about a quarter? A measly quarter a year?
No, Dad. It doesn't work like that, either.
Lord knows Alex was trying to answer that thorny question, the one about monetizing his Twitter popularity. This, of course, is a question faced by the people who run Twitter themselves, and almost everyone who has started something that relates to social networking.
How do we make money off what we're selling? And wait a second ... what, exactly, are we selling?
Alex sought advertisers, but the website wasn't quite big enough for national companies, plus the juvenile and alcohol-soaked content scared many away.
He partnered with a company that sells spring break vacation packages. He partnered with small music labels. He struck up a friendship with a Los Angeles Internet entrepreneur who mentored him. He considered selling merchandise, or raising capital, or writing a book — the founder of a similar Twitter account and website, called Total Frat Move and focused on fraternity life, penned a New York Times bestseller that's now being made into a movie.
He worked 16-hour days, most of it inside a Starbucks, making phone calls and staring at the Twitter account on his laptop. He went to his apartment building's pool and stared at his laptop. He hung out with his girlfriend and stared at the laptop.
“She would say, 'Can't we just eat dinner?' And I would say, 'But people are tweeting at me!' ”
His girlfriend continued on with her night. He continued to interact with complete strangers on Twitter. He stayed up until 2 or 3 a.m. He stared at his laptop.
As his frustration mounted, Alex went to Minneapolis, home of Target, and scored an interview. During the interview, he showed his interviewer that his Twitter following was better than Target's. Target hired him immediately. He lasted six months, hated it and quit.
He moved back to Omaha and met Kyle Peterson, the former Milwaukee Brewers pitcher now best known for serving as ESPN's TV analyst during the College World Series. But Peterson also runs Omaha's Collier's International, the local branch of one of the world's biggest commercial real estate companies.
That gave Alex an idea: Maybe he could join the old-school working world while still keeping a hand in the wildly popular Twitter account he started because of a bet. Maybe he could plant a sneaker in one world, and a dress shoe in the other.
Which is why, by day, Alex Epstein now looks like most successful 24-year-old business school graduates. He puts on his red tie, and he offers up a firm handshake, and he consults with local companies looking for office space. He loves it.
And then the 24-year-old comes home each night, and he stares at his website — a college junior now runs it day to day — and continues to scheme ways to turn it into something more.
By my count, Alex Epstein is the Omahan with the third-most followers on Twitter. Second is Tim Siedell, a writer, comic, advertising expert and early adopter of Twitter. He goes by the name @badbanana. First? That would be Warren Buffett, who knows a thing or two about buying and selling.
“It's weird, because there is value in this, but it's not cash flow,” Alex Epstein says. “In some way, you own a half-a-million followers, and these are college kids aged 18-25. An advertiser's dream!”
This is the excitement. This is the frustration. This in some way is a localized version of the great unanswered question of the Internet age: Can popularity be a product? What, exactly, are we buying and selling? And how much is that worth?
Alex Epstein isn't sure yet. But he says he's going to keep staring at his laptop late at night. He's going to keep trying to figure it out.
“I created this thing that didn't exist, and I'm proud of that,” he says. “I've learned so much.”
He peels his eyes away from his laptop. Coffee break is over. Time to go back to work.
“Maybe one day I will grow it and sell it for a lot of money,” he says as he stands up to leave. “Or maybe it will die tomorrow, and I won't make a cent.”