Three years ago I discovered a group of online vloggers and filmmakers who were adept to letting viewers know every part of their lives. These YouTubers, as they later became known to me, became like partial friends. Had a bad day? Go watch the latest JacksGap video because it’ll make you smile. Feeling a little unpretty or insecure? Take some advice from Zoella because she’s like the cool, older sister you wish you had. I, and millions of other viewers, found these YouTubers to be enormously relatable.
For a few years very few people understood YouTubers. No one, and I mean NO ONE, could understand the appeal of a Viner. When I first told people what kind of blog I write, they would be confused but in-quizzical. “YouTubers?” they would ask. “What is that?” And then Tiger Beat discovered the latest Disney star wasn’t selling their magazines.
No one gives a damn about a new medium of celebrity until that medium makes money. Enter droves of YouTubers this year who finally discovered how to profit and exploit their fans for millions. Just how many books have been “written” by YouTubers in the last year? Just how many have starred in direct-to-internet films and released albums? This new generation of YouTubers is less about connecting with viewers and more about plugging their latest product.
Take Caspar Lee, for example. When I first found the South African teen Caspar had just finished school and was beginning to garner hundreds of thousands weekly views on his blundering and largely stream-of-conscious videos. He was bratty, vulgar and immature but he was wonderfully uncensored. Caspar was never offensive (like many Internet celebrities are), but he knew his comedy well. His videos had true personality and wit. These days Caspar is living in Los Angeles and filming constant collaborations with other YouTubers to bring in a consistent million views. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; in fact, it’s a smart business move. Caspar knows what teens want to see. But his videos have suffered as a result. There is no real heartbeat or personality to Caspar’s videos: they are instead replaced by a character, an exaggerated version of the Caspar that became famous.
YouTubers are caricatures in 2015. Do you want to see Alfie Deyes finishing his 213th challenge video with Tyler Oakley? Take your pick! Want to see Tyler Oakley hijack nearly every term used by the black community or drag queens so he will stay within his gay stereotype? Easy. As YouTubers are becoming smarter, they are becoming less authentic. And as they become less authentic they become the best teen idols.
As a result, what happens when your (imaginary) best friend suddenly becomes the new teen sensation? A year ago Cameron Dallas was on the cusp of breaking mainstream. Baewatch was the only blog consistently profiling him, but he was gaining momentum. It didn’t take long; smart marketing and a “reputable” film in the form of Expelled ensured he was going mainstream. Pick up any teen magazine and you’ll find him on the cover. He sells. He’s not average anymore. He’s a celebrity with millions, living on his own in L.A. while making films.
As internet celebrities garner more success, fans are left to grapple with the question of “How can we relate to you anymore?” When your key appeal was being a little cooler or smarter than the average viewer but still being poor and without any opportunities, how do you reconcile becoming a huge phenomenon? How do you connect with fans in a realistic sense? To some fans, the more successful one becomes the more there is to emulate. The more money Zoella makes, the more she is profiled in magazines like Vogue, the more of an inspiration she is for fans. But it would be easy–and seems to be extremely easy–for these YouTubers and Viners to become disconnected from real life. When your life is vacationing in Greece, attending a frenzy of events and promoting your latest fragrance line, you lose your “normal” card. You become a lifestyle blogger who is privileged. A true dichotomy is revealed when these celebrities refuse to acknowledge their success to protect their brand. What fun is it to believe Zoe Sugg is on the same level of fame as the average pop star when she’s still talking to you like your (now more successful and glamorous) best friend?
The question for me becomes: At what point does there even need to be a separation between internet celebrity and real celebrity? In 2015 it is all the same thing. There would be no Kylie Jenner without Snapchat or Instagram. There would also be no legend of Beyonce without her self-made and curated empire via Instagram and Tumblr. Celebrities today are using social media as a means to control what and how they are perceived. In the same way Zoella argued that she only shows select “portions” of her life, Beyonce finds herself doing the exact same thing.
And it all comes down to what will make them the most money.
Every-day people becoming world-wide celebrities means that the lines are blurred between fame and normalcy. Teens too can develop their Instagram to have the same appearance of their favorite celebrity. Pretty selfies can garner a seventeen year old 20k followers while he is in math class. This is what the Internet has done.
So what’s next?
The question of how to profile and follow a trend is changing constantly this year. Internet celebrity is no longer an underground trend. If Glozell can interview President Obama, I think I can safely say that this is not an “unknown” phenomenon. Many YouTubers are finding themselves at a crossroads, then: stick with the trends, dumb down your contact, promote your social media and latest product and you will find success. Stick with your guns, release content that is meaningful and watch as your numbers tumble. A recent survey of JacksGap’s brilliant videos show none reaching over a million views. Jack and Finn Harries (the twin duo behind JacksGap) don’t seem to be bothered though. They are not interested in creating an empire. They’re interested in creating art.
And that is where internet culture is at: Are you going to become the latest manufactured star or you going to become your own self-made success story? Contrary to how you view it, today there is a big difference.