Shea Serrano Can’t Lose
The author of "Movies (And Other Things)" explains how he became general of the FOH Army
Although it might not be as beloved as the original, there’s something about Ghostbusters 2 that feels very 2019: mainly the battle between positivity and negativity that we all face on a daily basis.
In the 1989 sequel, the Ghostbusters find a river of pink slime flowing beneath New York City, and realize the slime reacts differently to positive and negative energy. When people are angry, bad things happen; when spirits are uplifted, well, Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd can get the Statue of Liberty to move around and help them defeat Vigo the Carpathian.
The point is, three decades after the film’s release, social media is sort of like the slime in Ghostbusters 2. For the most part, the energy that gets dumped into it is negative as is the ensuing reaction, but sometimes, rarely, there are good bits. On a daily basis, you can count on Shea Serrano and his FOH (Fuck Outta Here) Army to create a couple of those positive moments and make you remember the entire world is not that GIF of the flaming dumpster fire everybody likes to post.
A staff writer at The Ringer, Serrano taught science to eighth graders at a school in south Houston for nine years before he was able to leave the classroom to focus on writing full-time less than five years ago.
The author of the forthcoming book Movies (And Other Things), the 38-year-old had a Twitter account while he worked at the school but, since he was only writing as a freelancer at the time, he mostly just used it as a means to contact individuals he was interested in writing about.
“If I couldn’t get in contact with a rapper, if I was writing about rap, I’d use it,” Serrano tells InsideHook. “It was impossible to email Bun B, but you could hit him up on Twitter and he would almost always respond. I had it for stuff like that and then it just became a bigger part of my existence when I left teaching. That was when I really was like ‘All right I guess I’m going to spend more time on this thing since I’m not in a classroom for eight, nine hours a day.’ Once the snowball starts to pick up a little more snow as it goes down the hill, it grows faster and faster.”
At the time, Serrano only had about 40,000 followers — which, to be fair, is a ton of followers — but saw that number grow exponentially after his first book, The Rap Year Book, came out in 2015 and troops began enlisting in the FOH Army in earnest.
When the book was released, the publisher had only ordered about 15,000 copies because that was how many they were expecting to sell over the next two years or so. They were in for a surprise.
By using self-promotion on Twitter, Serrano got his followers to buy up all the copies from retailers like Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million. When one seller’s supply ran out, Serrano used his Twitter account to issue marching orders as to where his loyal followers should turn next to buy the book.
I’m like a lazy Spider-Man … I’m just going to send some tweets from my couch and then hopefully we can fund your GoFundMe page.
“Every place we were going, they were selling out and somebody made a joke that we were like a shitty army, the shittiest version of an army, just going to places and causing trouble,” Serrano says. “Then somebody else came behind them and was like ‘We’re the FOH Army.’ I think that was because somebody had made a ‘Get the fuck out of here’ joke at one point because a place said we weren’t going to sell out and then we sold out. It was like ‘Get the fuck out of here, of course we’re going to sell out.'”
Now, two more books, hundreds of articles and untold numbers of tweets later, Serrano’s Twitter army has more than 300,000 followers and he’s almost guaranteed to hit the New York Times Bestseller List with anything he publishes thanks to pre-ordered copies. That sort of success in book sales is almost unheard of unless you’re Dan Brown or Oprah picks you for her book club. The FOH Army has become a force in the publishing world.
“It wasn’t a thing that I planted or even a thing that I made,” he says. “Somebody else came up with it. I don’t even remember who it was. It was just a person on Twitter and then, once it had a name, it became a thing, Like as soon as Taco Tuesday, for example, as soon as that had a name people were like oh, ‘We eat tacos on Tuesday.’ I get it.”
Though Serrano does still ask his followers to buy his books, he also has used the FOH Army to do everything from raising money for hurricane relief efforts and Planned Parenthood to soliciting donations for an airport worker who drove the author around to help him find his lost car.
Serrano calls the group’s fundraising work “guerrilla philanthropy” and says there’s actually very little organization that does into the FOH’s efforts.
“I was reading a story about an LGBTQ youth center and saw they needed money. It just happened across my timeline,” he says. “In the story, they were explaining the high rate of suicide attempts in that population and I was like ‘Damn, that super fucking sucks.’ Then I saw they had a nonprofit and that there was an easy way to donate money. I just started sharing that, you know, hey here’s a thing, do you want to donate? We might’ve sent in like $10,000 or $12,000. That’s how all of this stuff works. I get sent shit all day long, every day. Sometimes a thing will stand out. If I share it, then you know, fingers crossed here we go.”
It sounds sort of like a Spider-Man situation: with great power comes great responsibility.
“That’s probably a good way to put it,” Serrano says. “I’m like the worst. I’m like a lazy Spider-Man. I’m not going to do anything myself. I’m just going to send some tweets from my couch and then hopefully we can fund your GoFundMe page. It’s been really cool. I think over the past few years, we’ve topped over $300,000 in straight cash donations to people or places. That’s a cool reputation to have. That’s more meaningful than the Bestseller List. We’re talking about a real-life impact. That’s a thing you experience a lot when you’re teaching. You get to see this impact that you’ve had on somebody else’s life. It doesn’t happen so much as a writer, but this allows for that to be a thing.”
The influence Serrano now yields has also had another real-life impact.
“Now I can walk into a room and they have to take me much more seriously,” he says. “With The Rap Year Book, I had never done a book before and I was at the mercy of the publisher. They were just giving me advice, telling me this, telling me that, then all of this stuff happened and we sold a bunch of books. People realized if I put something out, more than likely a certain amount of people are going to buy it. That’s an interesting proposition for a publisher or for any place that wants to sell stuff.”
However, that increased influence has not changed the way Serrano interacts with people online.
“I think that the most fun part is definitely interacting with people,” he says. “Most of the time I’m on there just celebrating stuff and people show up for that. I’m also very clear about any sort of beliefs I have, be it political, be it pro-choice, be it whatever or supportive of whatever communities are out there. A lot of times, the people who don’t agree with that might make a little fuss for a minute and then they leave and they’re gone and everybody else is like ‘Oh cool.’ You make enough noise about the stuff you like and like your friends stick around and the people who aren’t your friends leave and then it feels better.”
So, even though Serrano is the butt of a running joke that he’s extremely muscular, 29 and 6’3″ (none of which are true), being the general of the FOH Army ain’t too shabby.
“Writing is fun. I enjoy it. It’s a cool job to have. I like that it allows me a lifestyle I want to live,” Serrano says. “Most days, I’m just sitting at the computer or I walk across the street to the movie theater by my office and watch whatever. This is just what I’m doing for work. I really like that part of it. But more than anything, I just want to make some jokes with some people on the internet and then just make it to dinner so I can eat my food.”