The video loops. Images repeat. The story unfolds over a few quick seconds before starting over.
“Well, you have stomach ulcers.” This line is repeated endlessly as the video continues looping. The repetition might seem annoying, but for Thomas Sanders, it is essential.
Sanders is editing a video on his iPhone, watching it over and over to make certain it meets his standards before posting it.
This line about stomach ulcers might seem strange out of context, but it is actually the punch line of the video.
The video opens with a snippet of the Lil Mama song “Lip Gloss.” She asks,“What you know ‘bout me?” Sanders moves to the beat. He stands next to a friend dressed as a physician. “Well, you have stomach ulcers,” the physician says. Sanders replies with a casual “Oh, that’s good to know.” A few final beats of music, and the video restarts.
All of this plays out in just six seconds.
Sanders, 27, has made hundreds of videos like this for the past two years. He estimates close to 800.
Sanders has become a celebrity on the social media app Vine. Vine allows users to create six-second videos and share them within the app. Think of a smartphone news feed similar to Instagram or Twitter made up entirely of short, looping videos.
He began making Vines in the spring of 2013 and has since amassed an army of fans, totaling 5.8 million followers.
Building An Audience
Initially, Sanders had no idea how much attention Vine would bring him–but he’s using his bright, energetic sense of humor to spread positivity online.
Sanders, a Gainesville native, can often be found onstage at the Gainesville Community Playhouse. He has performed there consistently over the past eight years. Patrons who attend the theater regularly often recognize him around town.
But lately, a much wider audience has taken notice.
In April 2013, a good friend of Sanders recommended a new social media application for creating mini-movies that looped continuously.
For a while, Sanders just played around with Vine, seeing what could work in the allotted six-second time limit, without giving much thought to specific jokes or story ideas.
“For the longest time, it was just for fun,” Sanders said. “I would make three Vines a day just trying them out.”
Then things got creative. Sanders began implementing more humor and short story ideas into his Vines. Sometimes, he simply sings. His displays of vocal ability are among the most popular of his videos.
Sanders is mostly known for a few specific jokes on Vine. Sanders’ “Storytime” Vines are widely shared online. These videos involve some light pranking, where Sanders narrates strangers’ actions to capture their reaction. He also makes videos featuring Disney or Pokémon-themed pranks.
By the time Sanders caught on to the creative possibilities of Vine, there were already a few Internet personalities the app had made famous.
The realization that his energetic brand of humor had found an audience came when he made a Vine featuring a vocal impression of Stewie, the popular Family Guy character.
Sanders posted a Vine of him ordering at a fast food drive-thru while in character as Stewie, causing the drive-thru attendant to burst into laughter. This video was the turning point in Sander’s journey with the app.
In September of 2013, just six months after his first Vine, Sanders reached one million followers.
Getting To Know The “Fanders”
At the 2,000-follower mark, fan art started pouring in. Sanders’ fans were sharing art online inspired by the jokes in his Vines. Some were simply stylized versions of Sanders, featuring themes ranging from Tim Burton to Prince Charming.
In fact, Sander’s looks are often described as a cross between a Disney prince and actor Matt LeBlanc.
One particular fan, Tunisia Jenkins from Riverview, Fla., was one of the first people to post art inspired by his Sanders’ Vines.
When Sanders was promoting a local production of the musical “Into the Woods” on
Instagram, Jenkins wanted to travel to Gainesville to see him perform.
Jenkins discovered Sanders’ Vines after a friend told her she needed to check out the app when it was in its infancy.
Jenkins said Sanders’ videos were really funny, so she began following him.
“A majority of his Vines are really relatable,” Jenkins said.
After one particular Vine, Jenkins was inspired to create some pieces of fan art. The first piece she ever made was a Tim Burton-influenced drawing of Sanders, which she decided to share on Instagram.
Jenkins said she discovered Sanders’ admiration for Burton’s work from a post he made on social media.
Sanders took notice of Jenkins’ art and began promoting and reposting it.
Jenkins has made several friends on Instagram and has built an online community with a shared interest in Sander’s Vines.
They call themselves “Fanders.”
Another fan was interested in traveling to Gainesville to see Sanders’ performance in “Into the Woods,” and she contacted Jenkins.
“I really wanted to go,” Jenkins said. Jenkins’ sister agreed to drive her to Gainesville.
Presently, Jenkins has seen three of Sanders’ theatrical performances.
“He’s really sweet and down to earth,” she said. She said meeting him exceeded her expectations.
Jenkins estimates she has created 40 original pieces of fan art.
Sanders and Jenkins communicate frequently over social media, and the fandom has evolved into friendship.
Sanders posts weekly collections of the fan art that impresses him, a practice he has dubbed Fan Art Friday.
He said the feeling of knowing he has brightened someone’s day is what drives him. He hears stories from fans all over the web that inspire him.
Recently, a woman who works in a hospice center shared a story with Sanders about how his Vines brightens the day of a 103-year-old patient.
Another woman told Sanders his Vines seemed to be the only thing that could calm her restless two-year-old.
It is stories like these that keep Sanders excited about creating Vines.
“That’s really powerful,” Sanders said.
Three weeks ago, Sanders was invited to be a guest on ABC’s “The View” as part of a segment featuring Vine stars.
Leading up to the day of the interview, Sanders said he had no idea what to expect and was terribly nervous about tripping over words or seeming ill-prepared.
The three-minute segment went smoothly despite Sanders’ initial fears.
“I was really happy with it,” he said.
In his spare time, Sander volunteers in the drama departments of the local high schools.
Ellen Frattino, drama director at Santa Fe High School, said Sanders invites her students to participate in Vines.
Sanders and Frattino have worked together for several years in community theater.
“He pitches a Vine idea to my kids and asks their opinion,” Frattino said. “Then he’ll come after school and direct them in it.”
Frattino said her students are always really excited to work with Sanders.
“It’s actually a really good learning opportunity for them,” she said. “They kind of get to see the work that goes into making movies. I mean, sometimes it takes a whole hour just for one six-second video.”
Because so many of his fans range in age from 13 to 18 years old, it is important to Sanders to spread positivity through his work. He said the Internet can be a really negative place and bullying and hateful comments are too common.
“It provides an opportunity to speak out for positivity, anti-bullying, environmental stability; you know, all these stances that I’m really passionate about,” he said.
The Next Leaf On The Vine
With his growing recognition and established brand, Sanders hopes to pursue bigger dreams.
“I really want to get into voice acting,” Sanders said. “But the endgame is definitely Broadway.”
Voice acting seems like a natural fit for someone like Sanders, who has the energy and spontaneity of an animated character.
Sanders is still an active participant at the Gainesville Community Playhouse. He still loves doing it and attributes much of his success to the skills he learned through performing there.
“I would never be where I am with Vine if it wasn’t for community theater,” he said. “It was a very powerful resource in my life for expressing myself, coming into myself, being comfortable with myself.”
Because of his success with Vine, Sanders left his daytime job at an engineering firm. Now, he says, it’s just Vines by day and theater at night.
Sanders said in the early days of Vine, having 50,000 followers was considered an impressive fan base.
Now, he tries not to focus on the numbers.
“I don’t look at numbers, don’t look at ‘likes,’ don’t look at comments on Vine because I don’t want to classify Vines as inferior to other Vines that I’ve made,” he said.
From the early Vines that were merely fun experiments to his recent appearance on “The View,” Sanders has remained grateful and down-to-earth throughout his journey.
For a guy who has built a fan base of nearly six million followers with his energy and wit, his humility and gratitude may be his most impressive qualities.