Twitter’s teen influencer

The story of @VinayakSharma19, 17 years and 6 months old, is also the story of a get paid-to-tweet cottage industry which has sprung up on Twitter


Vinayak Sharma (third from right) with Alia Bhatt and Ranbir Kapoor at the Hero MotoCorp party in Mumbai.
Vinayak Sharma (third from right) with Alia Bhatt and Ranbir Kapoor at the Hero MotoCorp party in Mumbai.

Vinayak Sharma pushed open the door to his room. It was dark inside, except for a little, muddled light filtering through, from window panes, covered with newspapers which had begun to fray. A cooler had been inserted, none too professionally, in the bottom half of the window. Vinayak lunged towards his bed, hurriedly plugging his Apple iPhone 5S to a power bank. It needed charging. Urgently. But there was no electricity—power had been out since early morning. No light in the room. No fan. No cooler. Outside, the temperature in Jodhpur, Rajasthan’s scorching, dry sun, was already uncomfortable at 27°C and climbing—and it was not even 11 in the morning. Inside, it was all quiet. Except for the deep breathing of Vinayak’s roommate, still sleeping on another bed, two steps from him.

But Vinayak’s mind was elsewhere. Nothing bothered him—the heat, the stuffiness. He was in a hurry. Already running late, by 30 minutes, he was worried and irritated—how could a new iPhone hang in just one month of use? Anyway, it was working now. Vinayak tapped on the Twitter application on his phone, the light from the screen making his sharp, bespectacled face glow in the darkness and began typing:

Tap. Typing again…

10: 54 AM

Tap.

He then retweeted BlaBlaCar’s tweet: 10:55 AM

Next, he replied to the same tweet: 10:55 AM

Typing once again…

10: 55 AM

10: 56 AM

He stopped, for a few seconds.

Next, he searched for @Saavn on the Twitter search box and went to the company’s official Twitter page.

He retweeted @Saavn’s tweet:

Immediately, at 10:57, he replied to the same tweet:

He then noticed that his Twitter friend, Ms. Kapoor or @chocolatygirl25, had just tweeted:

He replied to her:

@chocolatygirl25 replied:

He stopped. Job done. Like always, he had followed instructions to the T.

He began scrolling through his timeline to check what his friends were saying. Well, pretty much the same thing. Everyone was super excited about Saavn and BlaBlaCar. With so much excitement flying around, #SaavnOG was the No.1 trending topic on Twitter in India. #BlaBlaWithGul was No.2. Vinayak was happy with the outcome.

It was 6 April 2016. Three minutes past 11 in the morning.

A little bird told me...

Vinayak joined Twitter in December 2011. Ever since, he has tweeted more than 69,000 times. The first few years he rarely said anything because he didn’t own a smartphone and because he was busy with school. He became super-active only after September 2014. Today, he follows 517 people and has 22,900 followers. He loves the micro-blogging network and spends close to five hours on it every day. Some days, more. Some days tweeting till late in the night. Tweeting stuff out into the world. Between 1 April and 11 April, he participated in several trending conversations happening in our world.

The following conversations: #LoDoKhatamKaro (Freecharge), #Airtel4GDrive, #Cowism, #FarmersVsIPL, #PulseKaTwist (Pulse candy), #ForeverFasterInDelhi (Puma), #NutraliteHealthgram (Nutralite), #DriveMeinJunoon (Hyundai), #ChallengeForBadshah (Badshah, the singer), Anant Ambani (Mukesh Ambani’s son losing 108 kg), #SelfieExpert (Oppo Mobiles), ElTweeto (80 tweets. Sony SIX contest to win a ticket to Spain), #ForTheLoveOfPrints (Wills Lifestyle), #FasterThanFaster (Vivo India mobiles), #TrendsAtLFW (Reliance Trends), #Confessions (A show), #DoubtisOut (Ajio Fashion), #DonateBloodOnline (Laal Rang movie), #LufthansaSALE and #VIVOIPLatKolkata (Vivo India mobiles) among several others.

For almost every tweet, a two-digit sum got credited to Vinayak’s State Bank of India account. This is his story. Of how he got here.

It’s the story of @VinayakSharma19, who is just a kid. Not even 18 yet. 17 years and 6 months old, to be precise. But a kid who believes he is an influencer in the online world.

This is also the story of a surreptitious, thriving, get-paid-to-tweet, cottage industry which has sprung up on the micro-blogging network. A world where companies pay money to a whole host of individuals to generate conversation, engagement and hopefully, trends, all without the “promoted tweets” disclaimer.

‘Hi Vinayak…’

The email had come the previous night. On 5 April. From TeraReach, an Internet marketing service firm in Gurgaon. It had a simple question for Vinayak. Are you in for a thing tomorrow on BlaBlaCar? Vinayak didn’t know what BlaBlaCar was. So he headed to Twitter, and there to the company’s official handle. As he read, he figured, a car-pooling company. Okay. In, he emailed back.

Vinayak woke up at 9:30am the next day to a power cut and an email in his inbox. From TeraReach. It read:

Hi Vinayak,

You have been finalized for the activity on April 6 2016. #BlaBlaWithGul. Brand: BlaBlaCarIn. No of tweets: 07. Rs.70 per tweet.

Activity start time: 10:30. End time: 3:30. Tweet speed: 4 tweets in first hour. 3 in second hour.

Gul Panag and her brother Sharbir will be traveling from Mumbai to Pune today and they have offered seats on BlaBlaCar. @jokeSingh who is a contest winner will share the ride with Gul Panag today. Influencers have to tweet about this fun ride with Gul Panag and generate conversation about this ride. Also promote the convenience of using BlaBlaCar which offers inter-city travel. Convenience, cost saving, freedom and peace of mind. Talk about how ride sharing helps to meet new people while traveling and makes the time fly while traveling.

Do’s and Don’ts: Tag the brand in 50% of your tweets. Follow the brand. Also tag Gul Panag in 3 of your tweets.

Sample Tweets:

-The most convenient city to city travel option is here now. @BlaBlaCar #BlaBlaWithGul

-@BlaBlaCarIN now sit back and plan your city to city travel comfortably. #BlaBlaWithGul

…As Vinayak was reading the email, his iPhone hung. He shook it, once, twice, thrice but nothing. The screen was stuck. He tried restarting it but nothing. Stuck. It was already 9:45. He got up. Took a quick shower, grabbed a little breakfast from the hostel mess downstairs, got hold of a friend and rushed to Space Electronics, the shop from where he had bought the phone. At any other time, he would have preferred his own motorcycle but now he took an auto rickshaw—his bike was locked up at a police station.

Just last week, he was riding it without a helmet when a cop stopped him. Vinayak didn’t have the registration papers with him, so it got impounded. Vinayak pleaded with the cop.

“Let me go. I have the papers at home.”

The cop was in no mood to relent: “First you bring the papers, pay the fine and then take the motorcycle.”

The two boys reached Space Electronics in just under ten minutes. The shop was open and the sales guy knew a thing or two about phones and why they hang. He took Vinayak’s phone inside a small room and returned in flat fifteen minutes. Done, here you go.

Vinayak: What happened?

Shop guy: Software update.

Vinayak: All okay now? It won’t hang again, no?

Shop guy: No, no.

Vinayak: Thanks.

With the phone now back in his hand, Vinayak realised there was another email urgently waiting for his attention. Again, from TeraReach.

Hi Vinayak…You have been finalized… Saavn has launched Saavn OG, Saavn original programming…Saavn also introduced its Artist-in-Residence program, a creative platform highlighting the best new musicians and bands. The first Artist-in-Residence is Nucleya… 3 tweets in first hour, 3 tweets in second hour, maintain tweet split…Don’t push out all tweets together… Rs.70 per tweet.

Vinayak dashed out of Space Electronics. Hailed an auto rickshaw and rushed back to his room. He was running late. Very late.

‘I became an addict’

Vinayak Sharma was born in Rani. A small town in Rajasthan, 130km south of the city of Jodhpur. For generations, his family has stayed in Rani—his dad maintains books and finances for small business folk and his mother teaches biology in a senior secondary public school for girls. Growing up in this small town, Vinayak had a quiet, no-fuss upbringing. He went to school at the K.S. Lodha Public School in Falna district, which is about 18km from his house. As he grew up, so did his dreams. He didn’t want to study accounts or finance. Those subjects didn’t interest him. He wanted to be an engineer, a software engineer and study at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) or any other good engineering college in India. To be able to do that, Rani offered very little.

For his age, 17 1/2, Vinayak is tall, 5’8 almost. Lanky and fair. He has a long, angular face, thick eyebrows, neatly parted black hair and wears thick, large black spectacles. He admits his eyes went bad after he spent too much time on his phone. When he speaks, Vinayak doesn’t say much, his eyes drift, and his gaze almost always shifts to the floor; he speaks in short sentences. But he likes to explain himself, to make sure he is understood.

“Rani is a nice place,” he says. “But it didn’t have any coaching institutes and I wanted to study for engineering entrance exams so I came to Jodhpur.”

Vinayak arrived in Jodhpur in April 2014 and immediately joined a coaching institute and moved into a boys hostel. The first few months were tough. He had no friends and kept pretty much to himself. Unlike in Rani, there was no school to look forward to. The way coaching classes work in Rajasthan is that students only need to attend classes at the institute and study for the entrance exams—10+2 is a dummy, so no school. It is a routine, which is drilled—coaching classes, hostel, study and repeat.

Even as Vinayak was settling down in this routine, he started noticing advertisements of companies such as Flipkart or other start-ups in the daily papers. “They would say follow us, tweet with this hashtag and you will win a prize,” he says. “So I started doing that. Slowly, I became an addict. I was playing almost every contest. I started winning prizes also.”

“In fact my addiction started when I had typhoid. This was in December 2014. This was around the time of my winter break; I had to leave the hostel and stayed at home for two-and-a-half months. I wasn’t studying, lying in bed all day, suffering from fever, so this is what I used to do. Just participate in contests.”

Once Vinayak got better and back at the hostel, he continued playing. It helped that he had the whole day to himself. Coaching classes were from 4-7.30 in the evening. He would study late into the night, wake up late and participate in contests during the day. “Like right now it is summer, so Flipkart can do a contest like ‘Which air conditioner will you like to put in your house?’ ” he says. “The instructions will say, ‘Go to the application, select the product you like, click picture and upload with the hashtag’. So, contests like these. Or someone would ask a question. Or a dubsmash contest.”

He remembers some of his prized wins—a t-shirt and a pen drive from Viber, a t-shirt from BookMyShow of a movie called Alone, a pen drive of another Hollywood movie called Chappie (It was like an ATM debit card) and many gift vouchers from Flipkart, Amazon and BookMyShow.

Even as all this was happening, Vinayak started making friends online. It helped that he adopted a unique strategy to get more followers, a strategy he uses even today. So he would follow everyone, every person, every brand which Twitter’s algorithm suggested and once they followed him back, he would unfollow them. Not surprisingly, at one point in 2015, the number of people he was following reached almost 15,000. Today it is 500 odd.

“Through these friends, I got to know that you can also make money from tweeting for brands,” he says. “Someone sent me a link to register, so I registered with my name, Twitter account, phone number and bank account details. Once my profile got verified, I started receiving emails of activities and began participating.”

‘Nobody knows when the email will come’

The money is good. Vinayak says he makes a handsome Rs.20,000-25,000 a month. It can be more, depending on the number of trends and the rate per tweet. “The money can be as low as Rs.10 or as high as Rs.150,” he says. “Tata Motors has been my highest. The Messi #MadeOfGreat activity was Rs.150 per tweet. I don’t remember the number of tweets but it was good. Nobody knows when the email will come, so you just have to wait. Also, the money does not come immediately. It takes at least three months.”

What does he do with the money? Simple. Pocket money. For eating out and shopping. “I don’t take any pocket money from home, except when I go home and whatever my mom has to give, she will give,” he says. “So I use this money for my expenses. This iPhone, I bought from my savings.”

Are there a fixed, daily number of trends that one must participate in? Vinayak says that’s not how it works. “The process is simple,” he explains. “The first email comes a day before, checking if you will be available for the activity at a particular time. If you say yes, then you will get another email, an hour before the activity starts. This has the material which you are supposed to talk about. Sometimes there are suggested tweets, pictures or videos you have to upload with the tweet. You can make your own conversation but it has to follow the rules. I follow the rules.”

He continues: “I have participated in many trends. Brands are looking for engagement. They want excitement. I give them that. There is no fixed thing that these many trends will happen. During festivals, sale or cricket, around big events, a lot of activities come up. So I have not kept a count but I must have participated in more than 100-150 trends. I have signed up with a few agencies and also an individual who does this but I can’t tell you that. It is confidential.”

Needless to say, the world of fake excitement has caught Vinayak’s fancy. His interest in playing contests has dwindled. If he does participate in one, he wants it to be worth it. Like the time in December 2015 when he participated in an Oyo Rooms contest (#OneForEveryone—shoot a video or a picture of your fun and quirky habits in a hotel room) and won a Xiaomi Mi 4 phone. He sold the phone in February for Rs.10,000 and bought the Apple iPhone 5S. But there’s one memory he cherishes the most. In early January this year, he won an all-expense paid trip to Mumbai. To meet his favourite movie star Alia Bhatt.

“I like Alia,” says Vinayak. “So this was a Hero MotoCorp. contest where they asked, ‘How will you impress Alia and Ranbir (Kapoor), so tweet a picture or a video to win’. I said I will dance and sing. I also made a video where I sang a song. And won. I was among the two lucky winners from Twitter. It was my first trip to Mumbai. First time on a flight.”

He continues talking: “From Jodhpur, our flight got delayed. So we reached there at 5pm. The party started at 6. We stayed in Trident, Bandra Kurla complex hotel. I shared the room with my aunt. I told them that I am not 18 years old. So they said they will check and get back. They said no problem; you can get someone to come with you, we will pay for it. So my aunt came. But they said that she can’t meet Ranbir or Alia but can come only as a guest. My dad had said no, but then I told him that someone can come with me. He allowed me to go.”

“The party was good. There was song, dance. We asked questions to the stars. The anchor had prepared a set of questions which we had to pick from randomly. So I got this question to ask Ranbir: “Ranbir, you have done many positive roles. I would like to ask you, if you were to do villainous role from let’s say 80s or 90s, which one would that be and why?” So he answered Mogambo (from a popular 1980s movie, Mr. India). There was also a fashion show. After that there was dinner. We took a round around the hotel and got back to our room. Next day, I got a pen drive and a framed group photograph. Then, we had a flight back to Jodhpur at 9:45am.

The piece of paper that was given to Vinayak to ask a question to Ranbir Kapoor.
The piece of paper that was given to Vinayak to ask a question to Ranbir Kapoor.

“2016 has been really good. Last year was mostly about vouchers, pen drives and t-shirts. This year has been good.”

‘I like the money’

Vivek Vihar is an inexpensive, quiet, two-storey hostel in Sardarpura, Jodhpur. There’s a mess on the ground floor, the warden’s office and a recreation room next to it, which has the hostel’s only source of entertainment, a television. The hostel attracts both school and college students—Class X students who come from far-away towns in Rajasthan to take coaching classes and prepare for IIT or other engineering entrance exams and students who come to Jodhpur for higher education after completing their 10+2.

Up a flight of long, narrow stairs, on the 1st floor, there are rooms on either side of the corridor, at the end of which is a small changing/bathing/toilet area. Room No. 15, Vinayak’s room, is right next to it—he’s occupied the room for more than a year. He’ll be vacating it in just a couple of days. His 10+2 (CBSE) exams and engineering entrance tests are over. It is time to move on. Wait for a month, till results in May and see where life will take him.

Room No. 15 is a small, homely room. As you enter, there are two beds, on the left, on either side of the wall, a table in between them and two plastic chairs. Straight ahead is another table, Vinayak’s table, which has a lot of books and papers on it—books on mathematics and chemistry, his laminated CBSE admission card and a notebook which he received in the post after participating in a Twitter contest run by Truecaller. The beds are painted yellow, so are the metal trunks attached to it, at one end. Vinayak’s bed is against the wall, on the left, next to three shelves which have been carved out of the wall. There are several things on the shelves—a big stack of medicines, a reminder of his trouble with constant headache and typhoid, which he suffered from in December 2014, two bottles of Vaseline body moisturizer, a small jar of almonds, a steel glass, face wash, a few cosmetics and knick-knacks, a steel thermos and a blue 4GB pen drive, and a wrist band from Viber—Vinayak’s first win from a Twitter contest in 2014.

It is past 4:30 in the evening. The chirping of birds can be heard distinctly in the room. Power has returned. And despite the heat outside, the room is much cooler, thanks to the cooler, which is making a constant humming noise. Vinayak and I have been chatting for a few hours. About his life on Twitter, friends, the hostel, whether he is going to miss his hostel days and everything else.

Not many people around?

Vinayak: Some friends have already left. 17th March was the last paper so they left. Some friends were studying commerce. Their last paper was also on 31st so they have also left.

You?

I stayed back because I am sitting for the VIT entrance exam, which is tomorrow (7 April).

(VIT University or VIT, formerly called Vellore Engineering College, is an engineering institute in Tamil Nadu)

Studied well?

I have studied. I know I will get selected. But I don’t want to go to VIT. I want to go to Bengaluru and study engineering there. Only Bengaluru. I want to do B.Tech in computer science.

You’ll miss the hostel?

Obviously, I will. I will miss the hostel, my friends, warden sir, everyone. They have all been nice to me and I have learnt a lot, made a lot of friends. Every Sunday we go out. I will miss that. My earlier hostel, when I came to Jodhpur was not very good. I had some friends but because they were all doing science, they were studying every time. This place is not like that. There are people from several fields; someone is doing B.Com, articleship, commerce, 11th, 12th and they are all very nice and helpful.

So, what now?

I’m going home. To Rani. My parents are coming here day after tomorrow to help with the shifting. Then, I will go to my relatives’ place. 7th I will come back to Jodhpur. COMEDK is happening on 8th May. (COMEDK stands for Consortium of Medical, Engineering and Dental Colleges of Karnataka. It is an entrance examination). After that I will go back to Rani and wait for the exam results. If the results are good, I will go to Bengaluru. If not, then I will join somewhere. I’m not going to drop a year.

Then, will you continue to tweet like this?

It depends. On which college I go to. See, till 10th, I had school so I had no time. In Jodhpur, I had nothing to do in the morning, that’s why I was doing this.

It will be tough…

Not that tough. I can schedule tweets. If I am sleeping late, and I need to send something, I schedule a tweet for 7am. So, content is provided in advance. So I schedule the tweet and it is done. Many applications are there like Hootsuite, TweetDeck. Plus I can do limited tweets. In college, it is not like I have to do all of them.

I am guessing you like the money…

Yes. I like the money. Tell me, who doesn’t want to make money. Everyone does.

Tell me something, earlier you mentioned the term influencer, what did you mean?

So influencer is someone who can talk about something, like any brand’s commercial. Someone who has a very large network.

Do you consider yourself an influencer?

Yes. In the online world, I think so. I don’t know about real life. See, brands before they launch something, they want excitement. So we give them excitement and more people notice it. Once something starts trending, people start talking about it. My role is only to provide the spark and then more people do it. It is like promotion. Companies pay for promotion, like an advertisement in a newspaper. So we do the same thing, do promotion. I am excited about technology, phones and applications. I don’t do political activities. So sometime back, there was an activity called #Jumlababa, I did not participate in it. (#Jumlababa trended as conversations making fun of Prime Minister Narendra Modi). The word, which roughly translates as an empty promise or marketing spiel, seems to have become popular among politicians.

Never participated in a political tweet activity?

Once. This was about Akhilesh Yadav, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, who was planting trees. It was for a good cause. Tree plantation is a good thing. We got the content, pictures and videos, which I tweeted. Otherwise, I don’t take part in political activities.

Vinayak, I am sure you know this already, but Twitter is a lot more than just tweeting for brands. It is also about getting to know the world, what’s happening, sharing how you feel about things…

I do that. I read news. I go to the official handle, like I read about Panama Papers yesterday. Sometimes I talk about phones, but I don’t feel like talking about it much because different people have different opinion on things…

So, what does Twitter mean for you?

It is about money.

For an addendum to this story, click here .

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