When Alex Eklund updated his Facebook status on Nov. 30, he had no idea it would make him a social media star.
Eklund was studying in the Baylor University library when he noticed a theme among his friends' status updates. During the airing of the annual Victoria's Secret fashion show on CBS, girls posted updates like "I'm going to have to hit the gym after this" and "I'm going to starve myself for a week." Although Eklund assumed his friends didn't mean the statements seriously, they still made him uneasy.
"There was an underlying sense of insecurity which I sensed throughout the entire thing," he said.
On a whim, Eklund posted in response, "I'd rather have a Proverbs 31 woman than a Victoria's Secret model."
Almost instantly, Eklund's post went viral. Both negative and positive comments piled up on his wall as friends, friends of friends and total strangers reposted his comment. During the next few days, Eklund discovered the power of social media to capture an audience, cultivate a following and spread a message.
Some people, like Eklund, stumble on the social networks' ability to create overnight celebrities and scramble to make use of their instant audience. Others, like former Victoria's Secret model Kylie Bisutti, leverage their social media presence to help strengthen their brand. And sometimes, the two strategies overlap.
Markus Pfeiffer, a digital media professor at Regent University, believes Eklund's message generated such a strong response because his post reflected a timely trend: "An unknown person or ministry can reach a very wide audience and get discovered, because of the viral capabilities - because they are watching trends. A lot of stories are born within these tools."
Less than 24 hours after posting his comment, Eklund realized he had struck a nerve. Leveraging the opportunity to capture so much attention, he and his friends produced a video to clarify and expand on his Facebook post. Within three days, the video had more than 120,000 hits on YouTube. "When so many people started looking at the page and talking about it, and different people reposted it as their status, it just kind of became a movement," Eklund said in the video.
Along with four of his guy friends, Eklund founded the Live31 Movement, a group committed to redefining beauty. Just three months later, its Facebook page has more than 14,000 fans, and its Twitter account has more than 1,800 followers.
"It's one of these really typical social media success stories," Pfeiffer said. "One individual had a vision or idea that could be propagated, and it struck a chord."
Social media platforms allow individuals to monitor trends in an organic way, making it easier to offer material that people will respond to, Pfeiffer said: "In this case, [Eklund] understood this was a hot topic, and he was able to turn that into a ministry that got a lot of attention."
Live31 generated so much buzz it soon caught the attention of Bisutti, winner of the 2009 Victoria's Secret Model Search. She had spent several years modeling lingerie for the company, but quit in 2011 because of her Christian faith. On Dec. 21, she tweeted Eklund: "I stopped being a Victoria's Secret Model to become a Proverbs 31 wife!"
During a recent interview with Good Morning America, Bisutti said the realization that her career choices did not honor God came on gradually: "I just became so convicted about wanting to honor my husband with my body and wanting to be a role model for other women out there who look up to me." She decided to redirect her career to model more modest clothing and says she now chooses her jobs carefully.
Michael Bartlemay, the first person to repost Eklund's original status and a member of Live31, was amazed at how much Bisutti's story meshed with their message. "We thought, 'This person is incredible, and we have to get her on board.'"
Like Eklund, Bisutti wanted to spread a message. In part because of her prolific tweets, she soon found herself making the rounds of morning talk shows and evening news magazines and doing some free promotion for a fledgling ministry started by five college students.
After Live31 reached out to her, Bisutti agreed to write a blog post for the group's website, detailing her story in her own words. In an interview with Inspired Women Magazine, Bisutti said she wanted to tell her story to young girls and show them that true beauty and self-worth comes from Christ. Pairing her message with Live31 helped her reach even more like-minded people. In February, fashion and religious blogs were buzzing about Bisutti, and the former bikini model was telling her story on Fox News, Good Morning America, The Glenn Beck Program and CBS This Morning. Links to videos of Bisutti's national television interviews poured into Live31's Facebook page, generating even more momentum for Eklund's movement.
The convergence of Bisutti's and Eklund's messages is a good example of social media's ability to level the playing field, giving users the potential to build a platform and allowing freer access between celebrities and individuals, Pfeiffer said: "That is part of the democratization of social media. Individuals have a lot more power and leverage that never really existed before, or that was more difficult. Individuals with the right message can reach a large audience and influence ethical issues."
Bisutti has continued to promote and retweet material for Live31 to her 7,000 followers. "Their message is so biblical and Christ-centered, and it is exactly what I'm striving to be," she said. "I love every bit of their message, and it all resonates with what I believe," she told World on Campus in an e-mail interview.
Bisutti, who receives numerous tweets a day from followers thanking her for being their role model, praised social networks for giving her the opportunity to spread her message: "God's telling my story using social media and I'm grateful to be a part of it. I think it's reached a lot more people through this outlet, but nothing is too big for God."
Eklund and his friends are developing a series of videos on the Live31 website and plan to continue leveraging social media to spread their message. "It is our platform at the moment," Bartlemay said. "It's not just on the Baylor campus; it's not just Texas. Our best way to be able to contact people is social media."
Eklund agreed: "Social media is what we are."