YouTube stars create communities, not fans

YouTube stars create communities, not fans

This weekend 18,000 screaming fans—most of them teenaged girls—will arrive in Anaheim, California in hopes of seeing and meeting their favorite stars. But instead of cheering for Jennifer Lawrence or One Direction, they’ll be chanting the names of Hannah Hart and Tyler Oakley. The event is called VidCon and it’s an annual convention for fans of online videos—or more specifically, YouTube. As the VidCon website explains, “The ways that we entertain, educate, share, and communicate are being revolutionized. The creators attending and on-stage at VidCon are central to that revolution.” They are creating communities instead of fans.

VidCon is the brainchild of YouTube content creators, or “YouTubers,” Hank and John Green. Hank is a musician and John is best known as the author of The Fault In Our Stars, but together they run a thriving YouTube network centered on their Vlogbrothers channel. In twice-weekly videos they discuss everything from the political situation in Ukraine to popular chord progressions to having perspective on life. Their videos aim to “decrease world suck” (inequality, poverty, corruption, etc.) and “increase awesome” (civic engagement, education, and generally being a good person). The brothers started making videos in 2007 and over the past eight years—in a process documented in detail by Margaret Talbot for The New Yorker —they’ve developed a thriving fan community dubbed “Nerdfighters.” At least part of the phenomenal box office success of the film adaptation for The Fault In Our Stars can be attributed to this flourishing fandom. But unlike the traditional celebrity/fan relationship, Hank and John are an active part of the community they’ve created.

When I asked Hank about his relationship to Nerdfighters, he explained, “I am a member of a community that initially formed around the videos my brother and I made. We do cool things together, we think about things, we care about the world, we try to make it better. They inspire me and, hopefully, I inspire them. I guess the point is that it’s not my relationship with Nerdfighters, it’s all of our connection in a broader community of people with similar ideas and interests and values.” Hank and John organized the first VidCon in 2010 as a way for YouTube creators to interact with their online communities in real life. The event is part fan convention, part networking opportunity, and part celebration of the expansive world of YouTube.

To summarize YouTube content creation would be no more possible than to sum up a TV landscape that ranges from Game Of Thrones to The Bachelor. Popular YouTube channels include everything from the camera and editing magic of RocketJump to the culinary misadventures of Epic Meal Time. Webseries like The Lizzie Bennet Diaries or musical parodies from Team StarKid are traditional media adapted for the platform, but other YouTube content is less familiar. A Swedish man named Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg has racked up a staggering 27.5 million subscribers—the highest for an individual YouTube creator—on his gaming channel, PewDiePie. But the Vlogbrothers’ preferred style of “video blogging” or “vlogging” could probably be considered the core of YouTube content creation. While the precise definition of vlogging varies, in its broadest sense it refers to a person speaking to the camera without the guise of a fictional character. Vloggers break the fourth wall and invite viewers into their bedrooms or offices where they film their videos.

Over 100 creators will be attending this year’s VidCon as Special Guests, and that reflects only a small fraction of the site’s top personalities. On The Brain Scoop, science communicator Emily Graslie educates her viewers on her work at the Chicago Field Museum. A slew of beauty vloggers like Zoella, MissGlamorazzi, Patricia Bright, Tanya Burr, and AndreasChoice provide makeup tutorials, fashion hauls, and lifestyle tips. Some channels like Hannah Hart’s My Drunk Kitchen, GloZell Green, HartBeat, CommunityChannel, and Mamrie Hart’s You Deserve A Drink are more explicitly comedy focused. Other YouTubers simply offer winning personalities in weekly or daily vlogs where they’ll share stories about their lives, fulfill goofy challenges, answer fan questions, and collaborate with other creators. Tyler Oakley, Grace Helbig, Joey Graceffa, Lilly “Superwoman” Singh, Jenna Marbles, and Kingsley are popular American and Canadian vloggers while a slew of British personalities includes Jim Chapman, Jack Harries, Charlie McDonnell, and countless others. Popular YouTubers have anywhere from a few hundred thousand to a few million subscribers.

These vlogs offer a level of intimacy and authenticity that is particularly appealing to teenagers. Specific data from the YouTubers I spoke with, as well as observational research from meet-up videos, indicates that the majority of YouTube fans are women between the ages of 13 and 25. As Jezebel’s Lindy West chronicles, more teenagers are eschewing movies and television and instead get their entertainment solely from YouTube personalities. YouTube reaches more American adults in the 18–34 demographic than any cable network. It’s a power President Obama recognized back in March when he met with several YouTubers as part of his initiative to get young people to sign up for healthcare coverage.

As with most entertainment popular among teenage girls, there’s plenty of confusion and derision about the world of YouTube. But it makes sense that a largely teenaged fan base would elect twenty- and thirtysomethings as their idols. These vloggers fill a void between the sanitized entertainment of the Disney Channel and the over-sexed world of The CW: a glimpse at the fun, funny, often mundane world of adulthood. If reality TV makes stars of the insane, YouTube makes stars of the relatively normal. Watching a YouTuber vlog her lunch or share recent shopping purchases may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but neither is it the downfall of society. A video in which AmazingPhil recounts an awkward spa experience is akin to hearing a stand-up comedian share a funny story. And there’s an anthropological aspect to vlog-watching as well; glimpsing another human being’s everyday idiosyncrasies can be both fascinating and reassuring.

Another big part of YouTube’s appeal is its grassroots potential: Theoretically all one needs to start a successful YouTube channel is an Internet connection, a camera, and solid content. Of course that democratic ideal is partially a myth. Not everyone can become “YouTube famous,” especially now that the market is so saturated. Most of the top YouTube stars started making videos sometime between 2006-2011. Having slowly built up their viewership in those early days, they were poised to reap the most benefit when YouTube exploded in popularity during the past few years. Those with the most popular channels tend to have fairly high production values and they are predominately young, attractive, and white. Fantastic vloggers of color like Chescaleigh and Black Nerd Comedy have trouble monetizing their channels despite their enjoyable content and long length of time on the site.

Like film in the early 20th century or television in the 1950s, YouTube is still in its “Wild West” phase. The site has only been around since 2005 and the success of early YouTubers mostly comes down to trial and error. Top-tier creators currently make a living through some combination of ad revenue, sponsorship deals, and merchandising. This kind of individualized business model may become a thing of the past as companies gain an interest in harnessing the commercial power of YouTube. The website recently launched a campaign designed to turn popular YouTubers Michelle Phan, Bethany Mota, and Rosanna Pansino into household names, and all three have seen huge spikes in their subscriber counts.

For now, however, most YouTubers still operate on a more grassroots level. As Tyler Oakley explained to me, “While a lot of fandoms are communities, rarely is that community fostered by the creators themselves.” YouTubers usually communicate with their fans daily via the comment sections of their videos and on social media sites like Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. They meet their fans face-to-face at events like VidCon, Playlist Live, Summer In The City, and DigiTour. It’s not uncommon for a YouTuber to tweet a location and for hundreds of fans to arrive there for impromptu meet-and-greets. While actors or musicians might think of these types of fan interactions as supplemental to their jobs, for many YouTubers these fan interactions are their jobs. As Jim Chapman put it, “The moment I start getting too big for my boots and begin separating myself from my audience will be the moment they feel alienated. I think that is the uniqueness and the beauty of my relationship with my audience: I wasn’t cast by a big production company; they picked me.”

And while some stars trade in clickbait titles and fan-servicing content, there are also YouTubers who take their elevated status seriously. Many even describe themselves as the “older sibling” of their younger viewers. When Troye Sivan and Hannah Hart share their coming-out stories or Zoella speaks about her struggles with anxiety, they are creating safe communal spaces for young fans who are dealing with the same issues. After recent allegations emerged that some YouTubers had inappropriate and abusive relationships with their underaged fans, the response was swift. Major YouTubers like Hank Green, Charlieissocoollike, and OMFGItsJackAndDean uploaded videos about sex and consent, while Sprinkleofglitter, Karen Kavett, and Tyler Oakley released videos on YouTube celebrity culture. These vloggers encouraged their teenaged viewers to educate themselves on consent, think critically about the world, and claim agency over their lives. It’s the kind of response that’s hard to imagine happening anywhere else—the equivalent of Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow writing op-eds about consent and power dynamics after James Franco’s Instagram flirting scandal. Yet this advanced level of discourse happens all over YouTube, such as when Emily Graslie shared her thoughts on misogyny on the Internet and Meghan Tonjes critiqued Instagram’s fat-shaming policy. Others turn discussion into action. For his birthday, Oakley’s fans donated over $525,000 to support LGBT suicide prevention resource The Trevor Project. And in 2013 the Vlogbrothers’ annual Project For Awesome raised $869,000 to be split among 20 charities voted on by Nerdfighters.  

That empowerment is inspiring a whole new generation of YouTubers. Nathan is a high-school vlogger whose channel TheThirdPew started finding a major audience after he uploaded a critique of a misogynistic video. He’s now joined the conversation on YouTube celebrity culture as well. And 17-year-old VickyThePixie has a tiny subscriber count by YouTube star standards, but her thoughtful video on YouTube culture has been viewed more than 59,000 times since it was shared by Charlieissocoollike. Both of these teenagers are following the example laid out by Hank and John Green: They are using the grassroots potential of YouTube to discuss the things that matter to them. Being taken seriously as a teenager is a rarity, but YouTube has given Nathan and Vicky a platform from which to prove that their age is not a measure of their intelligence.

It’s not surprising that YouTube has found its audience among a digital generation. The low production costs of vlogging means content can be uploaded quickly and often, inspiring a communal conversation that’s part and parcel with the larger social media experience. As YouTube moves from niche to mainstream, the platform will undoubtedly adapt. Hopefully it won’t lose its unique sense of community along the way.

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