Tuesday, January 10, 2012
Livin' The Meme: The guy behind Callin' Oates
Selvidge is the guy who created Callin' Oates, a hotline that plays a Hall and Oates song of your choosing. There are four. Rich Girl. Maneater. One on One. Private Eyes. You call 719-26-OATES. You push a button. Music plays. That's it.
Over a two day period in late December, more than 332,000 calls had come in. Hundreds more dialed in every minute. It's become viral in a way that harkens back not to YouTube or LOLcats but, instead, Tommy Tutone and 867-5309. It's not meant for your smartphone. It's meant for any phone. And because of it, thousands of people are gleefully doing something customer service lines have taught us to hate: dialing a number, pushing a button, then being subjected to decades-old soft rock.
Has Michael Selvidge's phone been ringing off the hook? Not really. Thousands of bloggers and Facebook denizens published the number without talking to him. The Atlantic Wire and The Verve both called for interviews. Selvidge says The New York Times decided not to do a story because he wouldn't give them the exclusive. He just wanted to tell as many people as possible. He had to drive to his girlfriend's parents' house on a Wednesday morning to do an interview with NPR because they needed to do it over a land line. He doesn't have one.
Selvidge is not a programmer. He doesn't like math. That's sort of how he ended up in public relations. And his biggest PR stunt turned out to be something he never intended to be a PR stunt. It’s something simple he made for the amusement of his friends and family. Selvidge’s new employer is Twilio, which provides APIs for developers and enterprises to add telephony capabilities to their apps (think of a completely computerized call center, for example). They ask most new workers to create an app of their own.
Selvidge had no clue. At first. So the 32-year-old lifelong San Franciscan called a buddy from high school who also had no programming experience. They went online to learn how to create an app. They brainstormed (one early idea: an app that would have sent insulting text messages to his buddy’s brother) before settling on Hall and Oates. Selvidge isn’t a rabid fan. “I don’t have a tattoo of Daryl Hall on my back or anything,” he says. He listens to old school country, Scandinavian black metal and everything in between. But at work, he listens to a lot of Hall and Oates. He says it’s fun. Soothing. Nostalgic.
Selvidge used Twilio to set up the phone number for $1. Then he and his buddy worked on the app for 2 ½ hours, copying php code, pasting it in, making some tweaks, and learning how to deploy it. His hotline went live on Saturday, December 18th. At first, just family and friends called to test it. Then, he thought others might like it too. He created a Twitter page on the following Monday. On Tuesday, he sent an at-reply to Jenna Wortham, a New York Times tech reporter who was listening to Spotify. He suggested that she try calling 719-26-OATES instead. She retweeted him. The meme began.
“Honestly I thought at best I’d get, you know, 50 Twitter followers,” Selvidge says. Instead, hordes of people started to call. The hotline preceded the website, which hastily went up Tuesday night. Before that, he says, “People were sending around the phone number like it was a link.”
So far, nobody has gotten a busy signal. Because of Twilio’s architecture, when the app that powers the hotline needs more bandwidth, it simply finds it somewhere out in the cloud. The app itself is strikingly simple-- just five lines of code. The first one plays the greeting, welcoming you to the Hall and Oates Emergency Hotline. The rest listen for the number you push and take you to the corresponding song. The hotline has only gone down once, for a few minutes, when Dropbox cut off the public folder where Selvidge was keeping the mp3s. It was getting too many hits.
The feedback, overwhelmingly, has been positive. “I’ve seen zero trolls,” Selvidge says. People are sending the number to each other. They brag about which song they chose (right now, Selvidge has no way of measuring which of the four choices is the most popular). Some people say, despite a sound quality that rivals an AM radio, there is just something soothing about listening to the music. “Had an intense and unexpected urge to hear Rich Girl by Hall & Oates,” one woman tweeted. “@CallinOates saved my life.” A VP from the Warner Music Group direct messaged Selvidge to say that he loved the idea. Hall and Oates’ manager said the same. He says they’ve heard about it, but don’t really have a response. They’re on vacation.
At some point, Selvidge had to stop. “There was a point [Tuesday] where I was tracking tweets, and getting emails from new followers... I had a bit of a meltdown,” he says. “I realized there’s a point where you have to stop tracking it incessantly.” He’s now looking for ways to use Callin’ Oates to market his company, despite the fact that the Twilio isn’t even mentioned when you call. He’ll come up with something, he says. “I kinda had to think about this like a client, like, what would advice would I give myself?”
Wednesday was a lot like Tuesday. Selvidge was working from home again, sitting on the couch. He didn’t want to spread his cold to his co-workers. And despite a few phone calls, not much has changed. He doesn’t have more money. He still has fewer than 600 Twitter followers. “There isn’t paparazzi waiting outside,” he says. “I’m not going to delude myself into thinking I’m actually famous, only temporarily internet famous.” But there is at least one benefit. “It’s funny to think that from now on, when you Google my name, this is probably going to come up.”
He can go for that.
RELATED: The Time Hall & Oates' Manager Called Me And Went On An Unsolicited Epic Rant