In internet years, WeRateDogs may be older than its college-aged creator—it’s exceedingly rare for a joke Twitter account to continue growing exponentially more popular after a year and a half. The next question, to borrow the marketing framework Pierce outlined, is when does WeRateDogs’ life cycle hit its peak and begin to decline? When Nelson graduates in two years, will he still be making a living as the CEO of WeRateDogs LLC? “Initially, the way I thought of it was like a pathway to a job in writing or a job in comedy,” he tells me over lunch in the on-campus Chick-fil-A. “Now the goal is to make this the job. I thought this was going to lead to opportunities, which it has, but now this is the opportunity.”
In Principles of Marketing, “innovator” means buying someone else’s creation earlier than other people. In Nelson’s world, it’s no fun if you’re not the one doing the creating. And while his creation may not strike a middle-aged marketing executive as particularly innovative, Nelson’s next-level understanding of internet escapism has turned WeRateDogs into a burgeoning empire before his twenty-first birthday. Now he just has to figure out how to keep expanding it past his twenty-second.
Stories about social-media fame are generally told as stories about happy accidents—an unknown user posts something intended for a few friends, but through some act of providence or alchemy it “goes viral” and turns its creator into a star overnight. That is not the story of WeRateDogs. To Matt Nelson, Twitter has always been a game to be won.
Of course, to Nelson, everything has always been a game to be won. His sister, Amanda, now twenty-two, was the academic star; she graduated this year from the University of Michigan. His brother, Mitchell, now seventeen, was the laid-back one; he just finished his junior year in Charleston, West Virginia, where the Nelsons moved when Matt was eight. Matt, his mother Barbra said, was “the intense one.”
“As a kid, he was very competitive no matter what was going on,” she said. “It could be as simple as Easter-egg hunting, and he wanted to win at all costs. Not every event in your family can be a competition; it doesn’t always go over well with your siblings.”
“If breathing was a competitive sport, it would be his goal to out-breathe everyone,” his dad, Mark, added.
Three days after Matt was born, in northern Virginia in October 1996, he underwent open-heart surgery to repair a life-threatening congenital defect; a few years later, his cardiologist recommended he take up swimming, thinking it’d help keep him healthy. Nelson took to the sport quickly, and he spent his high school years competing in national swim meets and helping his team to four straight West Virginia state championships despite the fact that he was almost always the smallest guy in the pool.
“If breathing was a competitive sport, it would be his goal to out-breathe everyone.”