It doesn’t matter how many people know your name. It matters how people care about you.
That’s the idea behind Escapex, the company that made the Jeremy Renner app, which thrived for two-and-a-half years as a safe space for fans of the actor but was killed recently by online trolls. The same company is behind hundreds more apps designed for those with large flocks of followers to make money from those followers.
Sephi Shapira, the chief executive of Escapex, explained that he did not care what his famous clients did to attract their fans, or even, really, if they were celebrities. (The most famous American names on the platform include the burlesque dancer Dita Von Teese and the model and activist Amber Rose.) Their interests and expertise were beside the point. Really, only one skill was essential.
“The ability to create and retain engagement — that’s their talent,” he said of his clients. “That’s how they’re measured.” As to how they amassed their following? “I’m agnostic,” he said.
Escapex, along with similar companies like Disciple, is premised on the idea that, on the familiar social media platforms, those with hundreds of thousands of followers are leaving money on the table. Escapex’s name suggests the alternative these companies offer: that these people should “escape” from Instagram, Facebook and Twitter and build private, walled-off platforms for their most engaged audience.
“Our focus is to empower celebrities and create these loving, encouraging communities,” Mr. Shapira said.
So: You create the cult. Escapex lets you take it with you.
Escapex apps can’t match the big networks for user experience. But they can create a place for exclusive content, private conversations and a proximity to celebrity. For Escapex clients, it means controlled access to their most fervent admirers, a way to reach the superfans, ignore the haters and make money. Users are ranked on a “fanboard,” based on their in-app activity, for all to see.
On social media, by contrast, “the haters and superfans are all just avatars,” Mr. Shapira said.
Everyone’s Famous to Someone
The Escapex apps illustrate a shift in the mechanism of celebrity, said Joshua Gamson, the author of “Claims to Fame: Celebrity in Contemporary America.” While the ultra-famous continue to exist, he said, “it certainly seems to be the trend toward less of that and more localized, more fragmented little pockets of fans and celebrities.”
“You might have fewer people who know you but they know your brand and they’ll follow you anywhere,” Mr. Gamson said. “It’s not pathological, but there’s a devotional piece to it.”
Escapex’s clients rely on that devotion. In creating their apps, they can choose from a menu of features and business models. Some are free, while others require a paid subscription of $ 2.99, $ 4.99 or $ 9.99 per month. “Liking” a post on the app of the comedian Chris D’Elia, for instance, requires that the D’Elia-head cough up $ 2.99.
Sarah Projansky, the author of “Spectacular Girls: Media Fascination and Celebrity Culture,” said that the apps transpose the fan-club celebrity culture of the early 20th century into the punishing marketplace in which influencers — Escapex’s client base — are compelled to operate today.
“Influencers are trying to make a go of it in an economy that encourages that kind of self-employment,” she said. Many, she pointed out, depend on their youth for their appeal, and the Escapex app might provide them with a means of cashing in on assets — like skill at video games or conventional beauty — that would eventually disappear.
Where the Fan Is the Content
Virtually all of the content on Escapex apps is generated by users, not the celebrity who convened them. On Mr. Renner’s app, users shared details about their lives and even exchanged goods with one another. There was no barrier to join, share or view content.
That made it easy for the trolls to invade. As a result of the app’s recent infiltration — in which the regular flow of conversation was disrupted by people who weren’t necessarily devotees of Mr. Renner — the “Avengers” actor announced the end of the app himself.
Mr. Shapira said he was not concerned about something similar happening to others on the Escapex platform. He noted that it had been the actor’s choice to shut things down and that the comments on the app had been more positive than not. “Trolls come with the business,” he said.
Asked if he would allow someone with unacceptable views onto the platform if that person had a talent for engagement, Mr. Shapira said that while he did not “believe in thought-crime,” Escapex would have no place for such views.
“We don’t do any political-oriented accounts or anything like that,” he said.
Escapex earned more than $ 5.5 million in revenue last year, according to financial documents reviewed by The New York Times. Mr. Shapira said he expects to more than double that number by the end of 2019. The money earned from each app is split, with the company collecting 30 percent and its clients collecting the rest, Mr. Shapira said.
Mr. Shapira started the company in 2015, inspired by a conversation with a New York bartender who was also a musician. She had close to a million followers on Facebook, but when he asked why she was bartending she said she had no way to make money from them.
“That doesn’t make sense,” he thought at the time.
Four years later, Mr. Shapira is helping hundreds profit from their fans. But as far as he knows, the bartender is not an Escapex client. He never learned her name.