TAMPA — Charles Trippy stands in the grass behind his apartment, a red bull's-eye painted on his bare chest.
Before him, a firing squad of friends. One of his best buds since middle school takes aim. His girlfriend arches her eyebrow and removes the safety.
"Let's do it," the 24-year-old Trippy says. "I just want this over with. I'm really ... scared right now."
The .68-caliber paintball pellets smack his chest and arms, leaving Barbie-pink splotches. Trippy jumps up and down, as if a firecracker has blown up beneath his feet. He's taking it, but oh it hurts: "AHHHHHHH!"
He runs behind a tree and throws himself face down on the grass. Bright red welts appear.
It's all captured on video for the world to see. Literally.
Trippy, a recent University of South Florida communications graduate, is an Internet celebrity. More than 23 million have logged on to see him and his quirky videos. He's such a click magnet, he now gets paid when he posts.
He's got almost 130,000 registered fans on YouTube.
Eleven-thousand followers on Twitter.
Ninety-thousand MySpace friends.
And he's maxed out on Facebook, with 5,000 friends.
But in his everyday life, Trippy can count his friends — the ones he hangs out with face-to-face — on one paint-splattered hand.
"Acquaintances are important," quips Trippy's girlfriend, Alli Speed, 19, one of the paintball shooters, "but the ones who stick by you and help you hurt yourself, those are the ones who really care."
• • •
It all started as a bet.
About three or four years ago, Trippy vowed to get more MySpace friends in a month than one of his buddies. He doesn't remember how many friends he got that first month or even who they were; what matters is he won the 12-pack of beer.
Soon he got bored with MySpace and moved to Facebook. He shot a video with a friend, a drunken brawl. Again, don't ask for numbers. He doesn't remember, but he sent it out to all those MySpace friends he had gathered and boom. Hits.
More videos followed. He plopped his puppy, Zoey, in front of a mirror and she tried to bite her image. That one got more than 200,000 hits. His other dog, Marley, had a chirpy bark. She generated 300,000 hits. "I was like, wow," he said.
Trippy climbed into a stuffed animal claw machine and tried to get out. He donned a banana suit and danced. The firecrackers he hid beneath a toilet seat exploded on his friend.
One of his videos, a rant on Apple's iPhone, got more than 1 million hits. Another, in which he repeatedly yawns, got 478,021.
He made the longest video ever on You Tube, nine hours of him hanging out with his friends (947,011 views). And the shortest one, less than a second in which all he does is open his mouth (809,972 views).
In January 2008, the online magazine Gawker dubbed him "one of YouTube's most watched creators." He climbed YouTube's charts, hitting No. 49 on its most-subscribed list.
He joined YouTube's partner program, which places advertising on his videos and pays him by the hit. He won't say how much he makes, but he acknowledges that YouTube celebrities can, and do, make six-figure incomes.
Fans stop him at the grocery store, in Target, at the dog park.
His father, Chaz Trippy, percussionist for the Greg Allman Band for eight years, was on a bus with a bunch of college kids headed to a USF game in El Paso last year. No one on the bus knew him, but they all knew his son.
"That made me feel neat," the older Trippy said.
Trippy Jr. joined Twitter, a fast and short social messaging site, and his fans followed.
He posted photos and his Twitter friends helped him pick out a Christmas tree, shoes, a shirt, some lamps and a fern for his apartment in North Tampa. They got to check out a jukebox that played one of Dad's songs and some smashed bathroom door at a bar in Tallahassee where he went to the bathroom.
He posted often, and at times was ranked the top Twitterer in Tampa Bay. More than 11,000 signed up to hear his random thoughts.
Like this: This is nuts! Will we ever see a celebration like this for a U.S. President again?
And this: Going to Busch Gardens today. Woot!
And this: Driving on the interstate when you are the only car is a wonderful feeling. You own a little piece of the world for a split second.
He had climbed the Internet's social networking ladder like no other and yet, he felt like he was getting sucked in too far.
He appeared on Blog TV three times a week. Sometimes he spent 23 hours a day on the computer. His friends complained that his iPhone had become an extension of his arm.
His phone number leaked out, and he started getting texts with machine-gun fire rapidity. E-mails flowed like a river into his inbox. He tried to respond to them all.
"It was overwhelming until I realize that it's really stupid and then I calm down," he said.
He started to feel like his Internet friends were outnumbering his real-life friends. Like the father of three in Idaho, a radio DJ and YouTube comedian; and the twentysomething from Georgia who did comic news spoofs.
He made plans to meet them and, surprisingly, it was as if they knew each other.
"I found that Internet friends, once you meet them, they can be just as close to you as real friends," Trippy said.
He compiled a video, asking for input on the subject. Nearly 3,000 people responded.
"A lot of people were like me," he said. "They had more friends on the Internet than in real life. I guess it's my generation or the generation behind me."
• • •
"Oh baby," Trippy's girlfriend says, studying the raised welts on his body from the paintballs. "Oh, I got you in the ribs."
Trippy shakes it off. He has resolved to spend more time with this close circle of friends he grew up with in Bradenton. He even took an Internet-free vacation over the holidays.
One of his friends is in grad school. Another is finishing a degree at USF. They have girlfriends or wives, and less and less time for colorful antics.
It was a struggle to get them together to shoot this video.
"I don't think this is good enough," Trippy says, surveying his wounds. "Let's do it again."
Two more times they shoot him. Then they refuse. No more. He needs Neosporin and a shower, they say.
Trippy still doesn't think he has enough footage.
Then Kellen Begley, the middle school bud, walks up to Trippy. In the past, he wore a banana suit so Trippy could chase him around USF in a gorilla suit. Now he hands Trippy the paintball gun.
Begley begins to run. Trippy aims and shoots him square in the derriere. A perfect hit.
Begley goes down, flat on his face in the grass, rubbing his behind.
Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8640.