Why the YouTuber bubble is about to burst
Last month, a subsection of the internet was buzzing with excitement and anticipation. If you’re over the age of 25 and spend your time watching Netflix dramas rather than lifestyle vlogs, you may not have spotted the announcement of HelloWorld Live – but there are hundreds of thousands of fans out there who could think of little else.
The event was described as an “epic four-hour, immersive live show like nothing on Earth – bringing the world’s biggest YouTube talent and YOU together under one roof”. Featured top of the list of confirmed appearances are Zoella and her brother Joe Sugg, who between them have around 20 million YouTube subscribers.
As two of the most successful YouTubers in the world, legions of fans tune into their daily vlogs, follow their Instagram Stories, Snapchat and Facebook Lives, all in an effort to get a little more insight into their “real lives”. While their fans aren’t all young, it’s those in their early teens who buy the merchandise, tearily approach them in the street for selfies and queue for hours to catch a glimpse of them at an event.
The industry can’t get enough of it. Young, attractive, charismatic YouTubers who are willing to share their lives are a goldmine. “Influencers” like Zoella, Joe Sugg, KSI and Alfie Deyes rake in millions of views and exert an influence on their followers, in a way that’s much more based on a sense of relatability than we’ve ever seen with celebrities in the past. In turn, fans expect an increasing amount of access to their lives, and as the technology evolves to allow for this, content creators (and their agents, managers and events organisers) need to push the boundaries to remain relevant.
(Above: Joe Sugg, Wikimedia Commons)
A few years ago, taking a camera with them while they did a daily shop and cooked dinner was enough to satisfy viewers who wanted a glimpse of their daily life. It seems the next step are huge “immersive” events, where you can ostensibly live their lives for yourself. “Think ‘Woodstock’ for the iPhone generation,” Paul Caslin, the creative director behind HelloWorld Live, told the BBC.
And yet the impact of such immersion into their idols’ lives remains unclear for their young fans. Alison Smythe is a teacher at a secondary school in north London. Over the past five years she’s seen a huge spike in the number of pupils whose perception of their relationship with their favourite YouTubers has become distanced from reality. “Young people are easily influenced by people who they admire, and there have always been kids who became fixated on celebrities but it was the distant glamour they admired. With the amount of access they now have to social media celebrities, they can confuse the boundaries.”
“They truly believe they are sharing their lives with these people.”
Smythe recently asked a class of thirteen-year-olds to compose an essay on friendship, and six separate students referred to their relationships with social influencers. “Two young girls wrote about Zoella, and how she was their best friend. They truly believe they are sharing their lives with these people.”
This insatiable desire for – and perceived entitlement to – to YouTubers’ lives means content creators have to consistently up the ante. For those without massive followings, weekly videos talking about make-up products or video games is no longer enough to stand out in an increasingly saturated space. The videos are becoming more extreme, whether that’s chasing the adrenaline-seekers with potentially life-threatening stunts, or offering unparalleled access through the controversial trend of “family vlogging”, where parents will film themselves and their young children going about their lives, turning camping trips into YouTube content and making celebrities out of toddlers.
Liam Thompson is 23, and in December 2009, while still at school, he and his twin brother Jake started the YouTube channel TWiiNSANE. Initially, they simply wanted to share their hobby: playing video games, specifically Call of Duty. They uploaded videos of themselves playing, and their subscribers started to increase. They were invited to events, and brands came calling. But they soon realised that in order to maintain their success, they were going to have to go from simply filming what they loved, to thinking strategically and choosing to film videos they knew would lead to growth.
“We realised Call of Duty had been around for years by this point, and people were losing interest. There was definitely pressure to re-think our content and focus on what people wanted to see, so we started doing more to-camera videos with us talking,” said Thompson.
The brothers soon realised this approach didn’t feel natural to them. “It was around about the time when prank videos were getting really popular, so we tried mixing in a bit of real-life element too,” said Thompson. This didn’t quite work either, and the brothers saw that until they figured out whether they could sustain their YouTube career, they’d have to move on. Now, they both work in social media and their channel is currently on hiatus until they work out what path their content should take.
(Above: Twiinsane, via YouTube)
Thompson, who works as an influencer executive at creative agency Cake, realises that it’s getting harder to stand out in the YouTube space. “There’s two ways to keep growing your audience: either create content that’s searchable, or shareable. There are always people searching for content within a certain trend. At the moment, for example, viewers are obsessed with fidget spinners, so a lot of YouTubers are creating those types of videos, which will get them hits when people search for it,” he explained.
“It’s clearly staged, but it gets the views.”
The other way is to make videos that are so extreme or emotional that people will share them across social media and they reach new potential viewers. But there is a danger to this strategy.
“More than other platforms, Facebook seems to be full of fake videos,” adds Thompson. “These may have started out as genuine, but in order to keep it up they have to fake it. There’s one guy whose thing is pranking his brother, for example, but there’s no way someone would be pranked every day and continue to fall for it, and offer perfect reactions to the camera. It’s clearly staged, but it gets the views.”
In a bid to compete with fake content, YouTubers have to push their channels with videos that seem more raw, more extreme and more private. Often, sharing increasingly intimate parts of their personal life seems like the answer. Type “birth story” into YouTube and you’re faced with more than 12 million videos in which women talk about their labour, often including clips of the birth and footage of their newborn baby.
Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?
You often hear creators and viewers alike wax lyrical about the “good old days” of YouTube, when it was mostly teenage girls sitting in their bedrooms with grainy webcams, telling you what their favourite lipsticks were.
Since then, the popularity – and financial reward – of daily vlogs, Snapchat and now Instagram Stories has slowly shifted the balance in power: whereas before viewers would seek out creators whose content they connected with, now YouTubers are going out of their way to create content which is relatable to the vast majority of viewers, as well as maintaining a level of aspirational lifestyle which keeps people coming back.
When part of the appeal is that these people are “just like us”, it’s hard to maintain relatability as YouTubers jet off to France for a press trip with Chanel, and it feels especially contrived when the following week they’re uploading a Primark haul.
(Above: Zoella, via YouTube)
It seems almost impossible for a YouTuber to maintain their authenticity if they want to make a career out of sharing their lives
Where once personality was everything, the desire to cover all basis and reach as many viewers as possible is making viewers confused about the real identity of the people they’re following. One way to counteract that is by sharing highly personal aspects of their lives. YouTubers create videos talking about their relationships and breakups, time-lapses of them cooking a romantic dinner or cuddling up to watch a movie on a Saturday night.
In an industry where no rules have been written and views seem to matter the most, it seems almost impossible for a YouTuber to maintain their authenticity if they want to make a career out of sharing their lives.
So where does Youtube stardom go from here? Are stadium-sized “immersive” recreations of 20-somethings bedrooms the next stage of 21st-century celebrity? Will virtual reality headsets let viewers sit side-by-side with Zoella et al? For an industry that initially made its mark with down-to-earth authenticity, it all seems rather grandiose.
“There will always be some people willing to share more than others, but everyone draws the line somewhere. It may seem like you’re seeing someone’s whole life, but that’s probably not the case,” says Thompson. “Then again, it’s so easy to get sucked in. After all, it only takes one video to go viral and it can change your whole life forever.”