Matt Stopera did not intend to write the next great Internet epic, an ongoing bromance saga that started out as a simple stolen phone mystery, mushroomed into a social media frenzy, morphed into a case study of celebrityhood and somehow resulted in the Niskayuna native and Buzzfeed writer becoming pop-star famous in China.
“It should never have gone this far, but the internet works in mysterious ways,” the 2005 Niskayuna High School graduate wrote. “None of this should have ever happened. It makes absolutely no sense at all.”
No, it doesn’t.
The odyssey begins in 2014, at a happy hour in a Manhattan bar. Stopera is drinking wine. His phone gets stolen. Attempts to call it go to voicemail; that phone is lost for good. That should have been the end of the story. And it was, for almost a year.
Then Stopera started seeing photos on his new phone, photos he did not take, photos apparently being taken with his once-pilfered smartphone. He wrote a story for Buzzfeed on Feb. 17: “Who Is This Man And Why Are His Photos Showing Up On My Phone?” It turns out the person who bought his stolen phone was still connected to his iCloud stream. There
were a lot of selfies: The 27-year-old writer dubbed the person “Orange Man” because there were an inordinate number of photos with oranges in the picture.
Stopera, who lives in New York, went to an Apple store to discover a lot of stolen iPhones end up in China. He had the phone “bricked” — disconnected from his iCloud.
“[W]e were done,” Stopera wrote. “I’ll probably never see my orange tree friend again. Game over.”
“It was just cool,” Stopera said in an interview Wednesday morning from a Manhattan hotel. “It was just a fun conversational thing. I solved the mystery, and it was over. … I thought a hundred-million-trillion percent it was over.”
But then, social media took over … in China. The story went viral on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, and it became a quasi-national quest to identify Orange Man. It took little more than a day. As a result of the firestorm, Stopera and the man initially called “Uncle Orange” became social media celebs. The man, whose real name is Li and who hails from Meizhou, preferred “Brother Orange.” Stopera shortened it to “Bro Orange,” or simply “Bro.” The two began to converse online through a translator.
Social media clamored for a meeting. Brother Orange extended an invitation. Stopera, gobsmacked, confused and, most of all, amused by the unfolding story that somehow cast him as a star, decided to go with the flow. By late February, the story, playing out in real time with each Stopera post (and hundreds upon hundreds of responses), had been read more than 60 million times on Chinese social media.
In March, Stopera flew to China. When he got recognized on the plane, he knew things were going to be different. When Stopera got to the top of the escalator to descend into the airport terminal to meet Brother Orange, he was confronted with hundreds of cameras — and Brother Orange bearing flowers.
His trip overseas would be covered like he was a foreign dignitary. Onlookers would gape as they would at a “real” celeb.
“The weirdest moment was going down the escalator and being mobbed like Kim Kardashian at the airport,” Stopera said Wednesday. “The weirdest moment is having cameras on you constantly, on you while you’re eating. No one looks good while you’re eating, and I’m not good at using chopsticks.”
On March 31, Stopera chronicled the adventure on Buzzfeed, in a long-form hybrid of narrative and social media posts headlined "I Followed My Stolen iPhone Across The World, Became A Celebrity In China, And Found A Friend For Life.” Brother Orange, it turned out, is a cool guy.
The bromance China clamored for actually turned out to be real. Too cheesy, too weird of a coincidence, Stopera said. Fate? He wonders. Maybe. Why not?
Now, Stopera has returned the favor, and Brother Orange is visiting the States. They went to Las Vegas, where they met Britney Spears, whom Stopera has worshipped since he was a kid. As a 14-year-old in Niskayuna, his rabid fandom earned him an interview on MTV, and the header of his Twitter account is the title page of a freshman English paper he wrote at Niskayuna High in part on his obsession with the pop star.
Stopera and Brother Orange went to New York to appear on “Ellen.” Then the writer and his new BFF traveled around the Capital Region. A critical stop was a Stewart’s Shop in Schenectady.
“He had to try Stewart’s ice cream,” Stopera said Wednesday morning, waiting to meet Bro before taking him to see the Empire State Building. “I took him to the Capitol. We went to Boulevard Bowl, which is what my family does every Thanksgiving. Yeah.”
They went to Lake Placid, Lock 7 in Niskayuna, grocery stores and car dealerships. As Stopera was introduced to China, Bro Orange got a deeper appreciation for America. Stolen phone equals improved foreign relations; that’s not how it usually works.
“He loves people in Albany and the Capital Region the best,” Stopera said. “He loved it where I’m from.”
Stopera had long planned to go to Japan next week, but also will be squeezing in a stop in China. There is another show Brother Orange wants to do. Such is the life of celebrity and bro-dom.
All this is at odds with a 2012 interview Stopera gave for the website How Did You Get that Job?, in which he was asked what job would he never want.
“It’s not really a job, but I would never want to be famous,” he said. “Famous people are crazy, and they live under a microscope.”
Stopera now has a new perspective on fame. He is, for lack of a better word, a celebrity. He’s been recognized on the streets of New York in recent days walking with Bro. And in China? Well, he’s on the scale of Britney Spears, at least for now.
“It’s crazy to even consider myself one,” Stopera said. “It’s exhausting, because you always have to be on. I always wondered why a celebrity said. ‘I never get a day off.’ Now I get it. It’s weird when people always have eyes on you.”
One day, maybe soon, Stopera hopes to stop, sit down and actually contemplate what has happened these past two months. Ask him to sum it all up in a sentence, and the writer is flummoxed.
“You can’t … insanity,” he said. “It’s surreal. You can put it into a word.”
Or a bunch of social media and Web posts, playing out in real time.