The rise and fall of the meme-empire: the story of a 15-year-old schoolboy who earned tens of thousands of dollars on Instagram memes

4 min

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Because of social networks, the teenager earned money and gained authority that most peers cannot reach. Because of the same social networks, he almost lost everything.

Rowan Winch / Photo The New York Times

15-year-old American Rowan Winch — not an ordinary student from the suburbs in the state of Pennsylvania. He leads several large accounts with memes on social networks, the largest of which — @Zuccccccccccccc — has more than a million followers. Every day, Rowan filled the pages with new pictures from the Internet, earning on this much more than many peers.

The business built by the teenager on Instagram brought him tens of thousands of dollars, but at one point everything collapsed — the social network arranged a “great purge” of meme accounts, which also affected Winch pages. Now the student is trying to start all over again. His story was told by The New York Times.

School online business

For several years, Rowan practically lives on the Internet. Previously, every day he woke up on an alarm clock at 6 a.m., and the first thing he took in his hands was an iPhone, starting a search for new memes. Photos, videos — any viral content that the student liked, then appeared on the Instagram accounts that he led. Only after a few reposts did Winch go into the shower. Then he again searched for memes, published them — and now it’s time to get on the bus to school.

The teenager continued to fill the pages on the bus, during classes and breaks. The essence of Rowan’s work, rather, not in quality, but in the amount of content — he had to constantly maintain his “meme empire.” At that time, he could do 100 posts a day. If the publications were good and quality, then his groups grew. If the guy was distracted, then the statistics immediately sagged.

At one point, Rowan’s main account @Zuccccccccccccc, named after Zuckerberg, reached an audience of 1.2 million subscribers. The teenager earned money through advertising posts.

This brought the teenager a good income: according to Winch, in a month he earned more than 10 thousand dollars. But the 15-year-old student did not want money, but influence.

At the same time, Rowan distinguishes between influence and fame. “I want to achieve sufficient authority to be accepted as I am, but I do not want to be famous. Rather, I want to have connections, financial protection and the ability to monetize what I like,” a high school student in his bedroom in Pennsylvania muses.

Despite his age, this is not Winch’s first online business. Before that, he already sold stickers to classmates: he ordered them on Amazon, made an extra charge and advertised on Snapchat. Then he was engaged in the resale of rare clothes and shoes, buying it at online auctions. Also, the guy for money recorded personalized video messages in the Fiverr application. And only then Rowan came to memes on Instagram.

As his pages grew like @Zucccccccccccc, Winch became more influential in the online community. He had his own Discord server with 33 thousand followers, most of them from 14 to 18 years old. Famous bloggers and musicians subscribed to the student’s accounts. Popular rapper Ski Mask The Slump God invited him behind the scenes of his concert. Rowan also met his girlfriend thanks to Instagram.

With the money from publishing memes, the student bought himself Saint Laurent sneakers, an iPhone XR and a Gucci wallet. He plans to buy Tesla in 2020 because under US law, he can get a driving license only after being 16 years old. “If I do not post anything all day, then I will feel bad. I could get more followers. I could make more money,” says Winch. But at one point, the “meme empire” collapsed.

The collapse of the empire and a new beginning

On July 26, 2019, the guy was already in bed when he received the message: “@Zuccccccccccccc account has been deleted.” The page with a million followers was the victim of a mass purge of meme groups on Instagram, along with 140 more profiles. At that time, Rowan did not yet know about the decision of the social network and thought that some kind of error had occurred, and the page would soon be returned. Four months later, @Zuccccccccccccc is still not available.

Many of my friends believe that I then became depressed. Probably it is. I began to feel insecure, for example, in how I speak and how I look. I get into conversation much less often. All this after that purge.

With @Zuccccccccccccc, I felt that I had a goal, that I benefit people. And now I feel lost.

Rowan Winch

Parents of the student agree that the loss of the page has changed him. But his mother, Naomi Winch, took a different path: she persuaded her son to get a job in a hot dog shop so that he would do something, but at the same time he would not “sell something on the Internet.” She also tried to limit Rowan’s use of the smartphone, but subscribers came to his aid.

“I received a lot of messages from other children in the style:“ You cannot protect him from the Internet — because of him I did not commit suicide last week, he gives me every day to laugh.” I thought it was a little scary, such a responsibility. But I’m glad that he even communicates with other children,” said Naomi.

Subscribers did not leave Rowan, and he began to look for ways to regain influence on the Internet. He launched a podcast, a YouTube channel, revived activity on his personal Instagram with 60 thousand subscribers. Two of his new meme pages have already gained in total more than 300 thousand subscribers. “The more subscribers you have, the more opportunities you have. The more subscribers you have, the more power you have,” the 15-year-old thinks.

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