How a US blogger made tens of millions off clickbait and have become Minnesota’s TikTok star

MINNEAPOLIS: In the arts district of northeast Minneapolis, a tall, lanky man with slate-colored shoulder-length hair often walks past the railroad tracks with his phone at arm’s length and records himself.

Abraham Piper has published selfie videos, among other things, explaining, “How relationships are like a night at the casino,” “Why quitting is great,” and “Why it’s weird to get kids to shut up the Bible read “TikTokers with almost a million followers. His energetic, hyper-expressive persona resembles Wayne from Wayne’s world and becomes philosophical about linguistics and the meaning of life.

It’s exhilarating for a platform dominated by dance and lip-syncing routines for teenage girls who couldn’t have made it past a bedroom mirror before the internet.

“I’m an old guy compared to most of the people on TikTok,” said Piper, explaining his popularity with a young audience. “And I’ve already seen what you’re going through, and I’m talking about it in ways your parents may not be.”

Piper’s TikTok celebrity isn’t the first time the Twin Cities father won the internet.

A decade ago when he was a newly married young parent working on a nondescript warehouse gig, Piper started a personal blog called 22 Words. Within a few years, he turned it into a trendy news site that attracted millions with its mixture of shock and glee, funny and well-being.

One month in 2013, 22 words unlikely became the second most shared website on Facebook, beating giants like CNN and the Huffington Post. Back then, it was run solely by Piper, the low-key David of viral clickbait for Goliaths like Upworthy and BuzzFeed.

Today, with the help of Los Angeles-based tech geek friend and business partner Josh Sowin, Piper turned 22 Words into what they say has annual sales of $ 30 million ) achieved.

Still, Piper talks casually about his ability to get attention online: “I’m just a kind of channel for various interesting things,” he said.

While it may seem surreal to make a living on celebrity gossip and cat videos (“It’s amazing that you can get paid for nonsense,” as Sowin’s father recently said), getting people to click is an art and a science . And Piper has proven that he has a knack for it.

A human Rolodex

Piper, who grew up in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis, began pursuing his wide-ranging interests through post-secondary courses in high school, where he began a philosophy major at the University of Minnesota.

Over the next 11 years, he studied at five different schools, including Red Wing Tech, where he learned how to build and repair guitars.

It was a time of “fluttering,” Piper said, during which he followed his whims to a certain extent. “I decided that in the time it took me to walk up a flight of stairs in my dormitory, I would switch from a liberal arts degree to guitar making,” he said.

When he got his bachelor’s degree in English during the weekend program in Augsburg, he was a parent who worked full-time. In 2008 he started writing 22 words based on the restriction that each post had to be exactly 22 words long. “I’m a big fan of brevity and simplicity,” he explained. “I’m a huge fan of shooting my mouth off. And I’m a big fan of gadgets. “

Twitter wasn’t popular yet (Piper hadn’t even heard of it), but it used its website in a similar way. He shared personal thoughts about what he read or what his children were doing, such as a video of his twin babies wrestling.

In 2010 he expanded his repertoire to include all the fun things he could find on the internet. Soon the site was attracting a few thousand page views a day, and from ads linked to products on Amazon, he was making a few hundred dollars a month.

By early 2011, 22 words had their first month with millions of page views, and Piper had become something of a human rolodex of the Internet. He got up at 4:30 a.m. and checked the 500 blogs on his RSS feed to search the headings for items to aggregate. He looked for stories that “were the best of the internet – or at least things that I thought were funny,” he explained.

In endless scrolling – and scrolling and scrolling and scrolling – Piper picked up the principles of attracting attention online. “I’ve learned that nothing is more important than the headline,” he said. “And not even the heading, but the first five words of the heading. I didn’t pay much attention to other people and then I realized: That’s exactly how my audience is for me. I don’t have much opportunity here. I have to catch them quickly. “

Puzzles and painting

Piper estimates he wrote more than 10,000 posts over the course of several years before handing over the daily running of 22 words (plus several other partner entertainment sites) to a team of 30 people who “save the world from boredom,” like the site’s tagline is explained.

A typical 22 word review could bring the news of a burglar who fell asleep while robbing a house, a claim by ex-bodyguard of Donald Trump that the former president owed him $ 130 (RM 536) for McDonald’s food, pregnant identical twins he is married to identical twin brothers and a woman who makes $ 4,000 (RM 16,502) a month and sells videos of herself.

While only a few of the hundreds of stories released each month are real hits, those hits can be astronomical. One that Piper cites as an example is a post showing bread at 16 different degrees of toasting that forced 300,000 people to comment on which one they preferred.

Since the internet’s eyeballs can be fickle, Piper and Sowin wanted to expand their sales of physical products in the face of the whims of changing tastes and algorithms. In 2020, coincidentally coordinated with our global quarantine, they started a puzzle company called Blue Kazoo.

The company specializes in high quality images of everything from space to vintage travel posters. The biggest challenge is a series of three monochrome puzzles called “Black and White and Red Everywhere” that Piper Sowin suggested as a joke. The next thing Piper knew was that Sowin had designed and ordered the puzzles, and customers were soon spending up to 36 hours solving one.

In recent years, Piper has also focused on another screen-free occupation: painting from a studio in the Solar Arts Building in Minneapolis.

On his personal website (, Piper self-deprecatingly portrays his contemporary abstract works as “art for you to keep”, ideal for the back of a closet, crawl space or basement. While many works are suitable for the gallery, they are not exactly easy to acquire because Piper does not have contact information on their website.

This is partly due to Piper’s introverted nature. But also because he doesn’t make a living that way, he doesn’t worry about the logistics of the sale. “I’m not going to ship anything because it feels like putting a painting in the box and going to FedEx to pay my taxes,” he explained.

Piper is just as carefree about fashion. He’s the rare man who can take off a pair of red floral print clogs and owns a colorful collection of stocking caps. “The most popular, easy-to-find men’s clothing is so safe and it’s boring,” he explained. “The older I get, the more I want to have fun and be a little more interesting.”

The takeover of TikTokPiper also follows his muse on TikTok, although he joined the platform last November for professional reasons as the owner of a media company. He also joined because his eldest son seemed doubtful that Dad could gain 100,000 followers by the end of the year.

Piper’s children – a 16-year-old, a 12-year-old, and a 10-year-old twin – maintain what is perhaps a healthy separation between their father and his online personality. At least they don’t seem ashamed. “My oldest, I would say, is dissatisfied but amused,” said Piper. “He’s on TikTok, but he never mentions my videos.”

Piper’s videos often focus on trivia with water coolers (debunking the myth that women speak more than men; explaining “Norman Doors,” which seem to work differently from them). Or random advice (his hangover cure; how to keep his kids from swearing).

His most prominent TikToks – including coverage in the New York Times – share his critical perspective on the devout evangelical worldview he grew up with. (His father is John Piper, a former pastor of the Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis and the author of dozens of books on theology.)

Adam Schrag, a professor at the Carlson School of Management who studies the so-called “attention economy,” attributes Piper’s popularity on TikTok to his authenticity and ability to tell stories using digital media.

“He has a narrative sensitivity that maps well to the algorithmic side of these machines,” said Schrag. “He seems very adept at building this parasocial relationship with his audience.”

Schrag said that despite the differences between Piper’s TikTok material (“playful, engaging, direct and philosophical”) and that of 22 words (“tabloid shallowness”), knowing how to reward viewers underpins both success. “It’s interesting how he uses these two different forms of content, but the back-end architecture is still the same Skinner box,” said Schrag, referring to the way we click on the interesting, like Rats pushing food buttons.

Unlike other online celebrities who use their popularity in sports or social media entertainment, for example, and move their audience from one medium to another, Sowin notes that Piper’s TikTok following is recreating its viral news audience from scratch was suggesting more than luck behind his success.

By analyzing the feedback loop on thousands of posts – to determine why everyone did well or not – Piper has taken on the psychology of what attracts people’s attention in an almost instinctive way, Sowin said. “Though it seems very natural, he trained himself on these things for 20 years.”

With TikTok, Piper may have returned to the roots of his original blog by taking a more personal approach and talking about anything that piques his curiosity. Unlike 22 words, he avoids being strategic or posting just to get clicks.

“It ain’t” gonna hit that? “It’s more like,” Is something that I care about that I did in ways that I thought was funny get hit? “- Star Tribune (Minneapolis) / Tribune News Service

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