Wallace Peeples, better known as Wallo267 on social media, had been out of prison for all of 117 days when I met him, and already he had 50,000 followers on Instagram.
A short item in the Times Herald reported back in 2014 that a Graterford prisoner was found with three cellphones, five chargers, five headsets, an iPod, and a wireless hot spot. Three years later, I got the rest of the story on the corner of West Allegheny Avenue and 13th Street in North Philly.
Part of it was journalistic curiosity, of course. The rest, truth be told, was social-media self-interest.
A little advice for everyone trying to build a brand: Skip the meetings and workshops and revolving know-it-all experts and go straight to Wallo267.
I did, and I got a priceless, curbside crash course from a guy who mastered reaching his community on contraband cellphones while mixing dirt and manure on prison grounds. (Cue the script writers.) And whose poignant and inspiring and sometimes silly videos now routinely get tens of thousands of views – numbers most of us can only dream about.
One of his videos, about staying off the streets before it's too late, freaked out the cops who came up behind him as he lay on the ground with ketchup made to look like blood splattered on his head. That one's been viewed more than 391,000 times so far.
This is the kind of impact he dreamed about when Google and YouTube opened up the world beyond the prison cells where he was serving a 20-year term for multiple armed robberies.
Instagram, which Peeples learned about from friends and family during visits, kept him connected to that world, even if in prison he mostly posted static motivational pictures and messages.
On the corner, people constantly stopped to greet him. They honked their horns, hung their heads out of windows as they yelled out, "Wallo!" He didn't know them all, but they knew him — from the daily videos which are gaining him attention and opportunities in and out of Philadelphia.
Peeples, who is 38, calls himself a motivator, but he's just as much a preacher and teacher, a creator (he has his own clothing line) and coach who talks in camera-ready catch phrases and whose over-the-top optimism and energy are contagious, which might explain the overwhelming positive reaction he's received online.
And why I suddenly found myself performing for the camera as he took over my Instagram account to post a couple of videos that got more views than anything I've ever put on there. (Note to self: Post more than doggie pics.)
A few minutes before my 60 seconds of Instagram fame, Omar Cooper drove up in his minivan, his kids and T-shirts in tow. Cooper asked Peeples if he could help spread the word about his "Count It" clothing line, and without missing a beat Peeples handed his phone to a friend nearby and told him to hit record.
"People want a shot," he said as he posted the video that instantly started to rack up views. He turned to Cooper.
"You could put your stuff in stores, but you don't have to because these days it ain't about brick and mortar, it's about click and order." Cooper nodded enthusiastically. "You gotta take it outside your neighborhood and other neighborhoods and cities because everybody in life got to make it count. [See what he did there?] You just have to stick to your message."
After about 150 days of freedom and now 60,000 Instagram followers, Wallo267 is making it count and sticking to a message cultivated on the same streets where he once wasted his life, trying to make up for the havoc he wreaked.
As part of my curbside social-media training, I've spent a lot of time watching and rewatching his videos. Looking for what sticks and what doesn't, looking for the lightning in a bottle that helped a guy who went away when beepers were all the rage and spent more than half his life in prison get through the noise and negativity online. I'm no expert, but what I found is that authenticity speaks louder than anything said or done.
In one video, posted about a month after his release, the usually upbeat Wallo is in tears as he talks about the struggle that many of his followers know all too well. He doesn't sugarcoat it; it's hard out here, he tells them. He misses his brother, who was shot to death in 2013. He has moments of doubt. But then he looks in the camera.
"I don't care how down you are," he tells his followers. "You can bounce back. I don't care what nobody says. We're extraordinary people. And there's nothing we can't do. Remember that."