By Tim Higgins
Detroit Free Press
Text messages about wild nights have turned into Internet gold for two recent Michigan State University graduates. And no one is in trouble.
Ben Bator, 23, of Royal Oak and Lauren Leto, 22, of Grosse Pointe Woods often found their friends' messages so funny that they started a Web site where people could share texts with the world.
The site is a runaway hit that's launched a book deal, T-shirt sales and mobile-phone applications.
It's so successful that it has interrupted law school plans for Bator and Leto, who now sift through 10,000 to 15,000 messages a day, deciding which ones to post. Contributors are identified by area code.
The site marries the raunchy humor of youth movies such as "The Hangover" with the hyper-sharing of Web sites such as Twitter.
Many of the messages are a bit on the wild side for a family newspaper -- but here are a couple tamer ones:
• (714): OMG I just tried to text you something dirty but accidentally texted the Obama campaign.
• (678): I read the police report. You asked the cop if you could use his in-car computer to update your Facebook.
Leto acknowledged the site's explicit content has caused some awkward encounters -- her mother, for example, asks her to try to post cleaner jokes. "Is this the first thing that we say to someone we're sitting next to on a plane with a Bible in hand? No," Leto said. "But we're really proud of it."
• About the Web site: Some of the material published on Ben Bator's and Lauren Leto's Web site is very raw in nature. Click here for information on accessing the Web site.
Fresh out of MSU, Bator and Leto were like a lot of recent college grads struggling to find their place.
They wanted to stay in the Detroit area but also wanted to be more than just law students at Wayne State University. They wanted to create something, too.
Ideas started brewing during weekly visits to a Caribou Coffee shop in Grosse Pointe. But the best idea arrived in Leto’s text message in-box.
“I’m forwarding an e-mail to my girlfriends with all of this stuff that so-and-so texted me and I’m thinking, ‘This would be a really good Web site,” Leto said.
The idea was born for a site that has turned wildly popular, with about 3.5 million page views a day, a sophisticated look and a deep reserve of content. It is interactive, allowing users to essentially brag about a wild night out or, perhaps, invent an experience they wish had occurred. Without names, submissions are only identified by area codes. Posted messages run the gamut from obscene to existential.
The new gold rush
Leto and Bator began the venture earlier this year with the hopes of generating spending money while they were in law school. Now, the site, which has led to a book deal and drawn national advertising, could very well pay for their advanced educations.
The quirky business idea is an example of a Web site that explodes onto popular culture after spreading among friends and networking sites. Some find commercial success, but even some of the biggest, most popular sites don’t. Leto and Bator appear to be on track to be in the money-making group.
“The gold rush is a good metaphor,” said Robert Thompson, an expert on pop culture at Syracuse University.
During the gold rush, he noted, most people didn’t find any gold, a few found a lot and others found just enough to get excited for a short while.
“Once these things start going they are kind of like nuclear reactions,” Thompson said. It’s really hard to get them started, but once you do, it can happen really quickly.”
In February, Bator and Leto started their venture on Blogger.com, a free Web site, and solicited texts from people they knew.
Traffic quickly grew from 500 visitors a day to 15,000. They decided to launch their own site April 16, using less than $10,000 in savings and money from investors.
Within a week, traffic reached 240,000 page views and crashed their server, Bator said. A few days later, it reached 460,000 page views.
“It was finals week for a lot of colleges,” Leto said.
Students, who should have been studying, apparently were looking for a diversion. A spark was ignited, and news of the site spread through social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter.
On May 12, daily page views jumped to 1.1 million.
By June 11, traffic went to 2 million; four days later it was at 3 million.
These days, they said, the site averages 3.5 million page views a day, with 400,000 unique visitors.
Going coast to coast
Soon, the duo began selling advertising and fielding book offers. They’ve even printed T-shirts with some of their popular messages on them and expect to sell out of the first batch by the end of the month.
While Bator and Leto declined to discuss financial details about their book deal with Gotham, part of the Penguin Group, they said the Web site is generating revenue.
Websiteoutlook.com, which calculates site value, estimates the site generates about $887 per day in advertising revenue.
The site gets traffic from around the nation, and a lot of hits from major markets in New York and California.
“In the beginning, it was always Detroit,” Bator said. He acknowledged the pair took some inspiration from former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s salacious text messages.
“That played a part in the Detroit part of the site,” Bator said, noting the site’s “about” page makes reference to the former mayor.
Jennifer Rohde, 22, of Scottsdale, Ariz., said she visits the Web site several times a week and has submitted messages. “You can really imagine the scenarios that go along with the text message,” Rohde said by e-mail.
Thompson, the pop culture expert, said readers’ ability to contribute connects with people’s desire to perceive themselves at the center of the universe. “This has got the appeal because most of this is based on bragging,” he said.
Misgivings at home
That bravado doesn’t sit well with educators trying to teach responsible alcohol consumption among college students.
To Leto and Bator, the success comes from simply connecting with others.
“It’s about friendship at the end of the day,” Leto said. “It’s a view of what friendship is like right now for kids our age. I communicate solely with most of my friends through text message.”
Sample text messages
A sampling of messages posted on Ben Bator’s and Lauren Leto’s Web site (senders are only identified by area code only on the site):
(314): So I went on a date with this girl … ...and who’s our waitress? My girlfriend got a second job she didn’t tell me about to afford my bday present.
(334): I told a kindergarten student that candy canes are bones of reject elves.
(818): I hate you but I’m not in hate with you.
(774): I just walked into a room at this party and someone
(203): Just met our mailman at a party, he asked me out. I said yes, but only if he picks me up in the mail truck. How jealous are you?
(630): Dipping chips in queso and thinking of your beautiful face.