New Media Phenom
Pittsburgh's iJustine entertains millions worldwide with her self-produced, humorous, tech-savvy, online videos.
iJustine is a star. It can be a bit challenging at first to define exactly what she is a star of. But to her hundreds of thousands of followers and fans around the world, and to the tens of millions of people who watch and laugh at her immensely popular videos, she is a star indeed.
iJustine, or as she is known in real life, Justine Ezarik, 25, born and raised in Scenery Hill, Washington County, is a star of "new media," which is Internet-based as opposed to "traditional media," such as movies, television and print. So, yes, Justine is an online star, an Internet celebrity of the first order, and here is where it may be necessary to disavow you of a pre-judgment: Justine Ezarik is not a "webcam chick."
In other words, don’t judge this book by its beautiful blonde cover. Ezarik’s beauty and talent in front of the camera are matched by her considerable knowledge and skills behind the camera and at the computer. She writes, stars in, lights, shoots and edits each of her comic videos. She designs her own Web sites using her experience as an accomplished freelance Web designer. She has comprehensive knowledge of every bit (and byte) of the technology that goes into her Internet presence. And, as her videos show, she loves every minute of it.
Three Hundred Pages to Internet Stardom
In December 2006 Ezarik was named one of five finalists in the "Yahoo! Talent Show" for best online videos, eventually coming in second place and just missing the top prize of $50,000. But the next year her big break came in the form of a big bill.
Ezarik’s breakout video, the one that shot her to immediate acclaim, was "300-Page iPhone Bill." At the end of June 2007, Ezarik’s beloved Apple (more on that love affair later) had released its first iPhone. Ezarik is a formidable texter, and watching her type her frequent text messages is an impressive blur of nimble dexterity. But to Ezarik’s shock, her first iPhone bill from AT&T Wireless arrived in a box. Nearly 300 pages long, the bill itemized every call and text she had made or had received that month.
Ezarik responded in the way she usually does – she made a video. Ezarik sat down at her favorite Pittsburgh coffee shop, Crazy Mocha at SouthSide Works, and recorded a one-minute, six-second video, which "went viral" in a big, big way. The video, which can still be seen on YouTube and at ijustine.com, was viewed millions of times within days, and Justine was interviewed not only by traditional media here in the United States including CNN, ABC, USA Today and NPR’s "All Things Considered," but also by news organizations around the globe, including Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald.
The result? Within a week AT&T sent a text message to all of its wireless customers saying it was changing its billing procedures to a default "summary" option. Suddenly, trees everywhere became Ezarik’s biggest fans.
"That experience was insane," Ezarik remembers. "It showed the power of viral videos. When I recorded the video at Crazy Mocha, I had the camera propped up on a book bag. In the process I knocked over the book bag, knocked over some chairs. It was embarrassing because everyone was looking at this crazy girl filming herself talking about her phone bill. I released it on a Monday morning at 8:30, when I figured people would be getting to work, and within a couple of hours it just exploded."
Despite the less-than-stellar attention AT&T received as a result of Ezarik’s video, the company saw her power and appeal and hired her for video projects.
Talent Spotted by Those in the Know
Ezarik’s talent with video editing and technology is respected throughout the industry, and she has displayed and has earned true "geek cred." Alex Lindsay, originally from Freeport and now based in the San Francisco area, is well-known in film circles and is a leader in computer graphics, computer animation and digital production. His expertise includes working on Star Wars: Episode 1 at George Lucas Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), the Academy Award-winning visual- effects company founded by Lucas and owned by Lucasfilm. Lindsay first met Ezarik in 2006 when he spoke at Pittsburgh PodCamp, a conference for those involved in social media, including podcasting, blogging and video blogging.
"There was one girl in the class who was by far the most focused, asked the most questions. I immediately knew that she had a lot of skills," Lindsay remembers. He and Ezarik have gone on to work together frequently on his "MacBreak" video series, and he continues to be impressed by what Ezarik accomplishes. "She’s very attractive, obviously, but she’s also authentic, and her energy just draws people in. Right now we are in the golden age of online video production, and Justine is at the forefront," Lindsay says.
Back here in Pittsburgh, Ezarik’s talent was obvious to those who taught her at Pittsburgh Technical Institute (PTI). After graduating with honors from Bentworth High School in Washington County, she knew she would pursue her passion for technology. One of her favorite PTI instructors was Josh Sager.
"Justine was a great student who was ambitious, hard-working, fun, a prankster, and her passion was infectious," Sager says. "Justine embraced geekiness in a way that made it enviable, and because of that, along with her knowledge and her curiosity, she was an innovator at the school."
Sager said that Ezarik got the campus involved in social media "before social media really happened." Students loved her for a fun, popular site she created, "Daily Random Picture," and a message board she developed, "Whiteboard." As Sager notes, "Justine can program, edit, design, and she’s a terrific photographer. She is definitely not just a face."
Growing Up Justine
Ezarik’s biggest fans are right at home – her mom, Mickie, a teacher at Margaret Bell Miller Middle School in Waynesburg; dad Steve, a retired coal-mine inspector; younger sisters Breanne and Jenna; grandfather Steve and grandmother Grayce, who Justine says is her biggest fan. Mickie remembers Justine as an active, creative child who insisted her sisters join her in performing plays and dances at home, and who always loved technology. "From the time she was 3 or 4 she only wanted to play Nintendo or work on the computer. I remember asking her once how she managed to sit still in class, and she said, ‘Well, sometimes I just take apart my watch or calculator and put it back together.’"
Ezarik also remembers taking apart electronics in class, and the first Web site she created – when she was in sixth grade. "We had just gotten the Internet; it was so slow, but I would view the source code, copying and pasting the HTML, trying to figure out how it all worked. I had no idea, but I wanted to teach myself," she says. "The funny thing is, I made the site about a kid I didn’t like because he kicked me, so the site was actually retaliation."
At Bentworth High School her love of tech continued to the point where she didn’t want to live the "normal" high school social life. "She wasn’t really interested in football games or dances," Mickie says, then adds with a laugh, "She didn’t even want to go to homecoming, even though she was voted homecoming queen!" For her junior prom, Ezarik decided instead to go to a LAN-ti Prom, a sort of anti-prom that was a LAN (local area network) party where kids who didn’t want to go to prom would bring computers, network them together and play video games.
West Coast Living
After years of making popular videos here in Pittsburgh, Ezarik started getting more work in California. In 2008 she decided that to do the level of work she wanted – and spend less time flying – she had to move to the epicenters of media and technology, Los Angeles and San Francisco, respectively.
Having easier access to San Francisco allows her to work with fellow digerati (the elite of the computer or Internet worlds), and living in L.A. has enabled her to pursue some commercial work (including a very successful, continuing campaign for Mozy, an online computer-backup service) and to meet and to interview celebrities including Ashton Kutcher, Jack Black, Jay Leno, Levar Burton, the cast of "Mad Men" and Drew Carey.
But being in L.A. has not changed her lifestyle, Ezarik says. "I’m in L.A., but I don’t do L.A. things except go to meetings. As far as technology, back in Pittsburgh they really are at the forefront of so much that is going on in tech."
"Apple" of Her Eye
Working in San Francisco, though, allows her to be close to the Mothership – Apple Inc. headquarters. The thing Ezarik is best known for is her undying devotion to all things Apple (iPod, iPhone, iJustine). For her high school senior portrait, Ezarik insisted on being photographed with her beloved Mac G4 computer. "I had to carry this heavy computer and monitor to the portrait studio," her father remembers, "and I said, ‘Can’t you just take a normal picture?’ She said, ‘But that’s who I am!’"
Why Apple? "It’s the ease of use, the design, everything works better together. I’ve tried to convert all my friends." One well-known photo from Ezarik’s site shows her clutching a framed photo of the man who IS Apple – CEO Steve Jobs.
The biggest demographic in Ezarik’s fan base is female, particularly young teen girls. Many of Ezarik’s most ardent fans follow not only her iJustine videos but also her videos under the name "otheriJustine," where she posts more casual content.
On a recent trip to California to visit Ezarik, Breanne and Jenna got their first real hint at how popular their sister has become. "It never hit me till we were at Universal Studios [theme park]," says Jenna, a sophomore at West Virginia University. "All these young girls kept coming up to her, asking for pictures and autographs, yelling, ‘iJustine, iJustine, I love you!’ Just freaking out. And she was great with them."
Breanne, a pharmacy major at Duquesne University, says Justine still insists they join their sister in videos (the evidence of this is plentiful on Justine’s site) and that the online Justine is the same as the real-life version. "Justine is not acting. That’s her, 24/7. Very genuine and spur-of-the-moment."
Ezarik gets fan mail, too. "I get e-mails daily from people asking me what major I chose in college, how I got started, what equipment I use, etc.," she says. "Most of the e-mails are from young kids who are trying to figure out what they want to do when they grow up. Some of them tell me they want to be a video blogger like I am, and it’s very surprising that that is now a possible career choice.
"I never expected to make the videos a full-time job," Ezarik says. "I thought I would continue to work as a freelance Web designer and just do the videos for fun. But the audience built so quickly that it became full-time."
For many of her international fans, Ezarik’s love of her hometown, the videos she shot here, and her references to Pittsburgh and her visits back home are their only association with Pittsburgh. "I refer to Pittsburgh a lot because I love it!" Ezarik says. "It’s where I came from and definitely where I’m most comfortable." Her favorite hometown commodity, as her fans can attest, is Heinz Ketchup, which has had a starring role in many of her videos.
What’s next for Justine? In addition to her increasing work in commercials and traditional media, including projects for MTV, Justine is always looking for the newest breakthrough technology or Web service. "I always keep my options open, but I want to stay focused online," she said. "I love the Internet because it’s immediate and it’s all about connecting with people."