Philip Franchina has been watched more than 11 million times on YouTube, but even he was surprised when someone recognized him and offered him a free Frappuccino the other day.
"It's really awkward," said the 21-year-old online comedian who goes by the online "stage name" Philip DeFranco or sXePhil. "I'm a ridiculously shy person. It's really been a transformation, Now when I think about a minimum of 30,000 people judging you ... it's kind of messed up."
A year ago, he was a college biology student in North Carolina who decided to respond to a video someone had posted on YouTube about their family. He was startled that tens of thousands of people viewed his response and many commented on it.
Today, he's on leave from college, in talks with a sponsor for his phillyd.tv show and now wondering whether his future lies with test tubes or video tubes.
He's one of scores of video bloggers - or vloggers - with loosely defined audiences of tens of thousands of people. Admittedly, that's a fraction of the millions of viewers for broadcast TV. But it's still an accomplishment for people pulling it off with little more than a camera, their computer and whatever personality they can push through an eight-inch window on YouTube.com.
Some of these digital descendents of vaudeville or the "Borscht Belt" have talent. Some are truly awful.
The vlogger who goes by the name of Chris Crocker got 8 million hits on YouTube the past week and coverage from CNN, Fox and others for his angry, teary rant in defense of Britney Spears. A 16th minute of fame couldn't possibly be in his future.
Amber Lee Ettinger, the YouTube sensation known as "Obama Girl," just made a new video in support of the military, but the ability to look good in a tight T-shirt and high heels isn't a novel talent, just a useful one.
Franchina seems to have more talent than many and is one of the most prolific on YouTube. He has a natural deadpan delivery, a smart-alecky appeal and a quick mind.
He spends several hours a day at home in Florida preparing his schtick - "basically, I get to work four hours a day in my boxers." That includes trolling for current events on the Internet for material. One trick he learned: combing the heaviest search terms on blog sites like Technorati to determine what people are most interested in that day. His family tells him they watch every now and then, but still mostly think of it as "a little side thing," he says. He receives some income from YouTube - he declined to say how much - from its ads alongside his videos.
Topics on his vlog - not the family hour - range from Lindsay Lohan's meltdown to large breasts. He was a little chagrined when he realized from an online viewer census that one-third of his audience is 16- and 17-year-old girls.
"I wouldn't want my sister watching my videos," he says. "The person I portray is not really me. I consider that character a complete jerk."
Some of the feedback he receives, however, is more passionate than he ever would have imagined, like an e-mail he received the other day from a woman who regularly clicked on his videos. Thanks for helping me smile through a divorce, it said.
"Stuff like that, that's what keeps me going every day," he said.
It's been a fast, strange ride. He acknowledges that this time next year he could be looking to try out his stuff in New York or LA - or studying for his MCAT exams for grad school.
Andrew Ratner, a former technology reporter, is Today editor of The Sun.