At 5 p.m. on August 31, Shea Serrano tweeted that he’d soon return home to Houston and wanted to raise funds for victims of Hurricane Harvey. Two minutes later, he had amassed $2,272. In 20 minutes, his followers had sent him a total of $7,500 to his PayPal and Venmo accounts. Just 10 minutes later, that number doubled. The digits quickly kept rising, and in six hours, the number was at six figures. By the time he asked his followers to stop sending in donations, he had received $134,000.
Serrano isn’t a local politician. He’s not the executive director of a disaster recovery nonprofit. He’s not tied to any foundation. He’s just a guy on Twitter writing funny books, articles, and tweets on hip-hop and the NBA with a really big following, or rather, an army – the FOH Army.
The digital force, which stands for the Fuck Outta Here Army, is 161,000 deep, and has rolled with the Mexican-American writer since October 2015, back when he released The Rap Year Book: The Most Important Rap Song From Every Year Since 1979, Discussed, Debated and Deconstructed, an illustrated anthology of the best rap songs from 1979 to 2014. Through shameless self-promotion, The Ringer writer got his squad of then-43,000 to buy up all the copies, selling out on Amazon and Barnes & Noble and even crashing a few websites along the way. Soon, Serrano became a New York Times best-selling author with thousands of dedicated followers, or soldiers, as they started to describe themselves, ready for their next duty. The self-described “bored guy on the internet” couldn’t think of a better way for his cyber military to serve than to raise money for altruistic people and organizations.
“I don’t know why you would not want to [give back]. It just makes sense to do that,” the Houston-based Serrano tells Remezcla. “Before this, I never had like a platform to do anything, so when I finally got one, it was like, what am I gonna use this for?”
Along with his FOH Army, Serrano helped raise $12,000 for Planned Parenthood on International Women’s Day, $10,000 for Thrive Youth Center, a San Antonio-based homeless shelter for LGBTQ youth, and $2,705 to Genesis Women’s Shelter in Dallas, where Serrano’s friend and work partner, illustrator Arturo Torres, spent some time with his own mother as a child. But it’s not just organizations they collect money for. Serrano’s Twitter fundraising allowed him to tip a pleasant airport employee $3,000 during the holidays for helping him find his car in the parking lot and even put textbooks and other educational materials in public school classrooms.
He never plans the digital charity drives in advance. In fact, little organizing goes into any of them. Nice guy Serrano just reads an article or hears a story about an issue or movement that seems worthy to get behind and relays the message to his army on Twitter. Minutes later, they’re Voltron-ing up – that is, forming one unstoppable super robot – and donating hundreds to thousands of dollars, which Serrano collects and then bestows on the individual or group.
“This isn’t pre-planned. We don’t have a calendar three weeks in saying we’ll do this on this day and that on that day. It happens as it happens,” he says.
It’s not a life Serrano prepared for, either. The former ESL middle school teacher sought to make a few extra bucks to make ends meet while his wife, pregnant with twins, was on maternity leave. That’s when he started freelancing. First, it was a $15 article in a newsletter about former Astros second baseman Craig Biggio, and then it was a spot at the Houston Press. Four years later, he was writing for L.A. Weekly, then Grantland, MTV, The Village Voice, The Source, Vice and more. His side hustle became his main source of income, so he began doing it full time.
“It’s still fairly new to say I pay all my bills writing on the internet,” Serrano says.
So is being a general of an army. A massive group of loyal followers, which culminated because of his writing, wasn’t exactly something he envisioned for himself, so it’s still difficult for him to make sense of it now, even as his infantry grows and comes through for each of his philanthropic missions.
“We’ve been doing it for like almost two years, and it’s still surprising to watch it happen every single time,” he says. “I always think to myself, I ran out of good chips or equity to cash out with these people, but that’s never the case.”
Serrano doesn’t let the power get to his head, though. Hailed as an “internet hero,” he still uses Twitter like any other civvy: roasting Donald Trump, making petty jokes, sharing parenting stories about his little ones – Boy A, Boy B and The Baby – and then casually interacting with his army. He doesn’t take the labels too seriously, probably because he doesn’t really consider what he does that valorous at all.
“Everyone makes it a big deal: ‘Shea Serrano gives 10k to a shelter.’ But, really, I tweeted, donated like $30 and transferred all the money everyone else put in to the shelter. It’s like five minutes of work and 30 bucks. I’m not out here picketing, protesting or doing real activism. That’s a hero, and that’s not me,” he says, sounding a lot like any beloved commander who put their soldiers before themselves. And maybe that’s why the FOH Army comes through for him each time.
Serrano’s third book, Basketball (and Other Things): A Collection of Questions Asked, Answered, Illustrated, comes out on October 10.