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Big Sky nerds: Brothers still speak for underdog
Hank Green works from the basement office in his Missoula home. Green is well known to thousands of people because of Brotherhood 2.0, a yearlong experiment on the Internet in which he and his brother John communicated only through YouTube videos.
Photo by TOM BAUER/Missoulian
Watch a video interview with Hank Green, of Brotherhood 2.0 fame.

Hank Green might be the most famous man in Missoula.

But you probably wouldn't recognize him walking down the street.

That's because he's Internet famous.

Green, 28, who lives in Missoula, and his 30-year-old brother John, who lives in Indianapolis, are known to hundreds of thousands of fans of Brotherhood 2.0, a yearlong experiment in which the brothers only communicated with each other through YouTube videos called video blogs or vlogs.

Five days a week, the brothers would alternate videos, stare into a camera and begin with "Good morning, John" or "Good morning, Hank."

From there the monologue ran the gamut from Harry Potter plot twists to personal adventures to superhero exploits of the environmental kind, all the while picking up interested followers like a rolling snowball.

Though Brotherhood 2.0 was personal communication between two brothers, fans tuned in by the thousands, even millions, for each new installment.

"It's kind of demographically plausible that they're all basically nerds," Hank Green said. "They're into us because my brother writes books for young people, and young people who read books are generally nerds. They're into us because we're funny on YouTube, and YouTube viewers are generally nerds. They're into us because of our humor, and our humor is directed toward nerds. And some people are into us because they think that we're cute. And the only people who think that John and Hank Green are cute are nerds."

The experiment birthed the Nerdfighters, a nebulous group of self-described superhero geeks who follow the exploits of John and Hank Green religiously, and who claim to be "made of awesome" rather than flesh and bone.

Their expressed mission: to decrease world suck.

"A nerdfighter, overarching, is someone who watches John and Hank Green and is a fan," Hank's wife Katherine Green said. "The word nerd doesn't mean a lot these days. It's being co-opted. Everyone is a nerd. They're someone who doesn't feel like they're popular, but has friends and interests and is maybe really excited about one or two specific things - like Harry Potter."

In fact, John and Hank share a love of Potter novels with other adoring fans of the boy wizard, something that may have helped create an explosion of interest when they started Brotherhood 2.0 in January 2007.

"Fame pre-Internet (i.e., broadcast fame) is the classic one-to-many relationship, mirroring the architecture of the broadcast media: One person talks, everyone else gets to listen," David Weinberger, of the Berkman Center for the Internet and Society at Harvard University, wrote in an e-mail to the Missoulian. "The Internet enables many-to-many relationships, and since it is uncontrolled and unowned, everyone gets to have a presence there. Internet fame reflects the Internet's architecture, just as traditional fame reflects the broadcast media's architecture. It can be one-to-many, but it can also be much more local than that."

And though there are local nerdfighters in Missoula, this isn't where Hank Green caught his big break.

One of the brothers' videos was featured on YouTube's front page.

Their viewership soared from 200 hits per video to hundreds of thousands and beyond.

"It was a big accomplishment," Hank Green says with a hint of astonishment. "When we got featured on the front page of YouTube, that number had extra zeros on the end of it. It was more unreal than surprising."

It jumped to 1,016,570 hits.

Despite the requirements of Internet fame to be eternally creative and diligent about posting something every day and responding to the thousands of comments and questions, John and Hank Green remain remarkably well-grounded.

"Well, it's certainly preferable to being actually famous," John Green wrote in an e-mail. "They (nerdfighters) co-create with us. This creates a feeling of intimacy, which sometimes can lead to things that make you a smidge uncomfortable - like having people show up on your doorstep. But when I encounter Nerdfighters in real life, they are always great fun to talk to, and I'm always grateful for the experience."

Perhaps, as Katherine Green explained, it's because her husband and brother-in-law don't have to compete in the "extra-sick celebrity world."

"You have control over it," Katherine Green said of Internet fame. "I guess you have the same control with celebrities, but it's simpler, smaller and you have more connection with the people who are interested in you because you have the medium of comments and personal messages. With celebrities you're more exposed and less accessible, which isn't good, I don't think."

The good and bad parts of fame aside, the Brotherhood 2.0 experiment ultimately brought two brothers closer together.

"Oh, we're infinitely closer," John Green said of Brotherhood 2.0's influence on his relationship with Hank. "It's difficult to even put into words how our relationship has changed."

Like the fact that the brothers often talked on the phone once or twice a year before Brotherhood 2.0.

"Now they talk almost every day," Katherine Green said. "They're more involved in each other's lives, more supportive of each other."

They're more competitive now, too.

"The objective that worked the most in terms of having the most effect on people was making my brother laugh," Hank Green said. "Growing up, our form of fighting was who was funnier instead of who was stronger."

Like many famous people, Hank Green begins his day from the comfort of his bed.

This is not because he is lazy; he simply works until the most ungodly parts of the night.

Upon waking, he reaches over and grabs his white Apple laptop computer, flips open the screen and starts his day job, something most Internet-famous people have.

His is EcoGeek.org, a popular blog that focuses on the role of technology in saving the environment.

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Because it is around noon, and he posted the last items the night before to keep the East Coast crowd happy, Hank Green scans comments and begins posting the day's eco-tech news.

EcoGeek.org is Hank Green's moneymaker. It's where he puts his time, his energy and it's where he gets most of his frustrations, unlike Brotherhood 2.0 and the Nerdfighters, which offer creative respite. Both, though, offer different forms of Internet fame.

"The environment can be disillusioning in terms of a cause," Hank Green said. "There are times when I'm like, 'I'm giving up,' but there are so many examples of our species recognizing a problem, fixing a problem and moving on to something else."

Stuck between one of the most idealistic and forward-thinking blogs on the topic and the reality of the future is a place the frenetic Hank Green is only temporarily keen on.

"I'm so beyond utopia, though," he said. "I know that if we solve the environmental crisis, we'll just (mess) up something else. But I'd like to be able to move on to (messing) up the next thing."

Perhaps it was the personal nature of two brothers bantering about all things geeky, or maybe it was the sense of community viewers felt at Brotherhood 2.0, but the Nerdfighters, who Hank Green estimates at between 30,000 and 60,000 worldwide, are a force unto themselves.

They hold meetings and gatherings, some of which Hank and John Green attend, and some of which they only hear about later.

Their sense of justice is weighted in favor of the bullied, the downtrodden and all the technology-loving, role-playing, wizard-reading geeks of the world.

"A Nerdfighter is a person who cares about outsiders, about the people the social order has ignored or rejected," John Green wrote. "Whether that means the kid getting bullied at the fancy American prep school or the kid who can't afford $5 tuition to continue her education in Bangladesh, the Nerdfighter community tries to welcome the outsider in."

And though they are Internet famous, the Web is so big, so connected and yet disconnected that their fame is simply a microcosm of their own lives.

"I like it," Hank Green said of being Internet famous. "Only because I'm famous with a certain segment of people who are quite cool in my version of what cool is. I think if I was famous in all of America, that would be extremely uncomfortable."

It is partly the acceptance and connectivity of Internet fame that sets it apart from its more selective counterpart.

"That's because the broadcast media are so alienating," Weinberger said. "The famous are the people the media decide to make famous. On the Net, though, we get to decide who to make famous. So frequently, they're exactly the sort of people that the mainstream media would have ignored. It's our revenge for 100 years of Britney (Spears) and Paris (Hilton), etc."

And maybe it's the fact that they've been able to define their fame that keeps John and Hank Green fairly level-headed about it all."

"It's hard work running any kind of community - but that's what we're doing," John Green explained. "I really feel like we are famous in the way a pastor is famous, or the president of a neighborhood association is famous, or a small-town mayor. Like the mayor of Missoula is probably about as famous as us, you know? I like the mayor of Missoula a lot. He doesn't think that being the mayor of Missoula makes him America's most important person. He's just a guy running a city."

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