Social media have made it easier than ever to catapult from obscurity to prominence. In recent years, the Web has blossomed into a more egalitarian version of "American Idol," where nobodies compete for attention alongside somebodies.
Today, a teenager posting webcam videos to YouTube can get a movie deal ("Fred: The Movie"). A 30-something posting one-liners on Twitter can land a TV show on CBS ("$#*! My Dad Says"). Bloggers creating Internet memes are being offered book deals at a dizzying pace.
However, alongside breakout Web celebs -- not to mention actual celebrities with huge online followings like Rihanna and Katy Perry -- there's a new class of microstars who are highly popular and viral, but have no aspirations of going Hollywood.
How they became Internet-famous -- and made comfortable incomes -- offers insights to those who are unsure of how to use Twitter, Instagram or Tumblr to promote themselves or their projects.
THE CELLPHONE QUIPSTER Like many teenagers, Joey Mueller, 19, spends much of his time texting on his iPhone. But when he taps out a 140-character message and presses send, he's talking to nearly 400,000 people.
Mr. Mueller created his Twitter account, @itisjoey, in 2010. as he was traveling to compete at the World Horseshoe Tournament in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He figured using Twitter to comment from a big event might help him draw an audience.
"I didn't get any followers or anything," he recalls, "I guess it wasn't interesting."
Now a sophomore majoring in graphic design at the University of Minnesota, he decided to avoid personal messages and focus on observational humor. A sample @itisjoey post: "Nancy Grace is the human equivalent of caps lock."
Mr. Mueller said his personal Tumblr Web site already had 75,000 followers. He added a link to his Twitter account. Immediately, his follower count jumped. Then a curious thing happened: the numbers kept climbing. In 2012, he hit 440,000.
"I'm not sure why," he said. "Sometimes I think I got lucky."
Mr. Mueller said he had never purchased followers. He said that posting from noon to 6 p.m., when people typically spend more time online, helps. He also routinely adopts popular hashtags, especially political ones, which he said helped get him retweeted by organizations including Move On. The fame hasn't gone to his head, he said, or at least his parents keep him down to earth. "They're like, 'You know, you're not really famous. Stay in school.' "
THE TATTOO CHRONICLES Kimber Turner was bored. In the spring of 2008, when she was a 22-year-old journalism major at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Ms. Turner completed all of her courses online. Which is to say, she spent a lot of time on her laptop.
Ms. Turner started killing time online by collecting found images of tattoos borrowed mostly from body modification Web sites. She decided to post the photos on a Tumblr account she hastily titled with an obscenity common among youthful creators of Tumblrs, personalized Web pages where ephemera is deposited. In a few months, Ms. Turner had 300 followers. Other Tumblr users began e-mailing pictures and explanations of their own tattoos to her.
"Everybody wanted their story out there," Ms. Turner says, "People just really liked how interactive it was."
In 2008, she said, she received 200 submissions a day. Four years later, she gets 350 a day, she said. Images are contributed by fans all over the globe.
Today, Ms. Turner has more than 695,000 followers. For comparison, when Texts from Hillary went viral on Tumblr earlier this year, it attracted 45,000 followers in a week.
Her secret? Volume. She publishes about 50 photos a day, one every 30 minutes, to keep fans coming back. She also follows Tumblr's other popular users.
"There's so many people on Tumblr who post all sorts of random things," Ms. Turner says, "Having a focus really lets people connect, and it's a great way to stand out."
Although she took various odd jobs after graduating in 2011, including one as a receptionist for a seamstress, ads on the site earn her $60,000 annually, she said.
"When I realized it could very well just be a full-time job, I nearly had a heart attack," she says, "Now I make more than my parents."
THE HYPERLOCAL RADIO D.J. Jaime Black, 29, says he has been a "huge radio nerd" since he was 15. He cut his teeth at an alternative rock station, Q101 in Chicago, where he graduated from an internship to a weekend producing job.
On the side, in 2005, he began podcasts about Chicago's underground music scene. Called Dynasty Podcasts, the episodes -- 10- to 15-minute interviews Mr. Black records with local artists and club owners -- were made available as MP3s on his Web site. The response was modest.
Five years later, when he created a SoundCloud account, he saw just how broad his reach could grow. He has amassed more than 43,000 followers on the audio-sharing Web site, which has been called the "YouTube of audio."
"I was very fortunate to get there early," Mr. Black says of SoundCloud, which claims to have 20 million users, "I might have beat some of the larger radio stations to SoundCloud. I didn't see that much nonmusic content when I started."
Today, Mr. Black posts two to 11 shows a week, which he records with a hand-held Olympus digital recorder. His philosophy is, "Make it easy for people to discover the content and know right away what it is."
"I'm sharing it on Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest," he says. "I don't just post things without putting some effort into the presentation. All the imaging is uniform. All the metadata is uniform."
In 2011, Mr. Black started running local event promotions, just like a radio station. He turned Dynasty Podcasts into a full-time job and said he earned $500 for one hour of work.
"A few years ago it was like, 'Oh, how cute, you have a pretend radio show,' " Mr. Black said. "And now, we just did a promotion with Supercuts."
THE METROPOLITAN PAPARAZZO Whenever a new digital service is started, there is a race to claim user names. In January 2011, Liz Eswein, then a senior at New York University, claimed one of the better Instagram user names: @newyorkcity.
"People have said, 'Oh, I thought the city of New York was running it.' " Ms. Eswein laughs, "It's like, nope, it's just me."
It is difficult to tell that the feed is not maintained by someone in the mayor's office. Ms. Eswein, 23, posts only photos taken in and around the city. Using her iPhone 4S, she sticks to snapshots of familiar landmarks like the Statue of Liberty and Central Park, and pictures taken at local events like the United States Open and New York Fashion Week. One of Ms. Eswein's recent snapshots of the Plaza Hotel earned 13,330 likes. She said she often saw comments from users across the United States and as distant as Australia, South America and Greece.
"Instagram is a great way to see different parts of the world through your phone," she said, "Everyone has a special place in their heart for New York City."
Soon after starting the account, Ms. Eswein began attending local Instawalks, where users gather to socialize and take photos. The gatherings publicized her account among the app's power users.
By April 2012, @newyorkcity had 195,000 followers. It jumped to 422,000 after the release of an Instagram app for Android phones. (For some perspective, Lady Gaga's account currently has about 440,000 followers.)
In March, Ms. Eswein founded a business with two Instagram users. They now consult with brands, including Evian and Samsung, that are looking to engage users on Instagram.
Does she also keep a personal account on Instagram? "Yeah, but I don't use it at all," she said.interact
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.