It used to be that I spent a good chunk of my day stalking my friends (OK, my exes) on Facebook, but all that changed the minute TextsFromLastNight came into my life. Now most of my time is spent LOLing at my computer and emailing my latest faves to my friends. And I know I’m not the only one. TFLN, a website born out of a drunken weekend in Detroit, gets over 15,000 submissions a day and 5 million readers LOLers a month. It’s even been nominated for a Webby award, a huge honor in the Internet world, especially for a site that documents drunken debauchery. (Go vote for it!)
Since my very first TFLN encounter (“I used a bag of wine as a pillow last night”) I’ve been determined to meet the geniuses behind it and kiss them on the mouth shake their hands. And I finally got my chance… to talk to them, at least. Last week I got to sit down with Ben Bator and get a behind-the-scenes look at TextsFromLastNight: how it started, where it’s headed, and how they choose which texts will earn a coveted spot on the site.
I also got his direct number so I could send all my drunk texts directly to him, but I’m gonna keep that one to myself.
CC: Tell me how this happened.
Ben: We had a lot of fun in college. Lauren and I were friends in college and then we became better friends when she was in law school and I was about to go. We would hang out around Detroit and we’d go out with our friends, and we’d be texting our friends who were in Lansing and Ann Arbor and, you know, all the different colleges. And as the nights went on they kind of sent back more and more ridiculous things and we just had the idea of, like, what if we just took all of them and put them online? It didn’t take any crazy planning and we never thought, “OK, this is going to change the world.”
CC: Were you drunk when you thought of it? Because I think some of the best ideas are born out of intense amounts of alcohol.
Ben: We definitely talked about it when we were drunk. [Pauses.] Yeah drinking played a part, I’m pretty sure.
CC: So, your plan was really small – just sort of make people laugh?
Ben: Yeah, it was just funny. I mean, it was just a fun escape from law school, from real work [laughs]. So it was just kind of one of those fun things that reminded us of better times, you could say. And yeah, I guess a lot of other people thought the same thing. It was around finals week in most colleges when we redesigned it, and we made it really easy for people to post their own, and almost instantly, it just blew up.
CC: When did you realize that this was going to be huge?
Ben: I remember one day, we were getting more texts for some reason, and we knew people were talking about it; we saw it on Twitter and we saw our fan-page was growing. And I remember taking a break and going to my friend’s pool , it was the first nice day in Michigan, and all of a sudden I was sitting there and I look at my phone and I got four emails: one was from Penguin, one was from Harper Collins, one was from MTV and one was from a publication in New York, and I was just like “Someone’s messing with us.” And it was only a few months after it started, it was just unreal. It still doesn’t feel real.
CC: Wow, it happened so fast! Why do you think it’s so successful?
Ben: Well, you don’t have to watch a video, you don’t have to do anything. You can read TFLN at work or on your phone. It’s something sneaky that can keep you entertained. You can do it in class or whenever, and it’s really fun. I guess you can even be inspired by [the texts] too [laughs].
CC: How do you decide what’s going to make it on there and what’s not? It has to be hard to choose.
Ben: Here’s the thing, people get upset when their text doesn’t make it, but it’s because we have to take it out of context. So obviously I don’t know your friend Rachel, and it might be hilarious that she never gets drunk and she got hammered and slept with, like, half of, the Chicago Cubs… OK, actually that might make it anyway. [Pauses.] That was a bad example [laughs]. That would more than likely make it.
CC: Well, now I know what I’m going to do on Friday.
Ben: Right, now you’re going to be on a mission [laughs]. So a lot of the times people will send something in, and while it might be really funny to them, it doesn’t really translate. We don’t know what it means. It also has to be able to exist on its own, be funny on it’s own. And we like things that are more open-ended, where the person doesn’t need to figure out what the situation was that set up that event.
CC: Sometimes I’ll read the site and think that there is no way on earth some of those texts are real. How do you know they’re legit?
Ben: We can really tell when people make them up. They’ll submit it three different times and they’ll write something different every time – like they’ll change an exclamation point and we can see [the changes] each time.
CC: So they thought grammar was the problem!?
Ben: Right, we’ve gotten some weird emails like, “Do you guys not accept the text if it’s not like grammatically perfect?”
CC: So what’s your favorite thing about TFLN?
Ben: [The commentors] get into arguments over how something happened and if it’s believable. And there’s always one or two people that are like “No, no, no, that’s possible…I’ve been there.” [Laughs.] It comforts me.
CC: Why did you guys decide to turn this into a book? I’ll be honest, I was skeptical, but then I got it this morning and I opened it and the first text I saw was, “There’s paper in my puke” and I kind of lost it.
Ben: I’ve read through this book so many times – as it was being made, as we were picking out what was going to go in it – and seriously, I got the book in my hands and when I read it through the first time I couldn’t stop laughing. Me and my brother and my friend Ryan, who is like one of the most cynical people I’ve ever known, nothing can really make him laugh anymore and if it does, it’s really funny. So we were looking through it and we were crying we were laughing so hard. And I think it’s more fun because you can’t really do that on the computer – you can’t all huddle around the screen really giggly.
CC: Yeah, but I feel like having it online makes it more appealing to most people. You can’t bust this book out in class.
Ben: I don’t know I think there’s something amazing about having something so “digital world” in kind of an analog experience. I think that makes it way funnier.
CC: True, and I can read it in the bathroom, which is way safer than bringing my laptop in there. OK, that was a little too much. Uh, so, your job is to aggregate texts of really drunk people…then put them on a website. Do you ever think about that?
Ben: Yeah, it’s actually funny. I’ll talk to Lauren about it and we’ll be like “Is this really our job?” And you know, sometimes it actually does feel like it. You’ll wake up and, as much as it’s a fun job to go through really funny text messages, it’s something you have to do every day. So if you’re really not feeling like it, or really didn’t have a good night the night before, it’s kind of difficult. But yeah, it’s ridiculous – I just can’t even pretend. It’s just the best job EVER.
CC: Is there any truth to these rumors that there might be a TFLN TV show?
Ben: There’s…truth. We actually are in production. Happy Madison, Adam Sandler’s production company, is producing it. And fingers crossed, it’ll work out, But we’ll see.
CC: So before this all went down, both you and Lauren were planning on becoming lawyers. I assume that’s impossible now?
Ben: Well we kept ourselves a little bit more low-key at first [to protect our reputations], then there was a post on the Wayne State Twitter account: “Did you know the creators of TFLN are WSU Law students?” So they really like that. And we talked to some people that were at other schools and they were like, “Well if you’re ever in law school, you could still apply here…” So it ended up being one of the most amazing things; it’s managed to open doors that we were completely convinced were shut.