TenEighty takes on the discussion that has defined 2014 on YouTube so far: what is YouTube’s culture and has it become too hard for the community to manage?
When Louise Pentland opened up the debate about YouTube culture earlier this year she probably never imagined it would go this far. Stars from across YouTube – Charlie McDonnell, Felix Kjellberg and Zoe Sugg to name a few – have all chipped in with their own take. ‘Culture’ is a deceiving header for the issues at hand when really it’s addressing several complex social elements within our community.
It spans the act of idolising, the idea of fame, the barrier between creator and fans, how YouTubers perceive themselves and their audience and vice-versa. Now the YouTube digerati are discussing how to deal with it.
All this was born out of Louise’s personal experiences, the observations she made about them and the struggles they imposed on her. In YouTube Culture, she discussed the messages she receives online from her audience, many of which describe her as ‘perfect’ and declare her an inspiration and an idol. As grateful as she is, she finds these messages unsettling.
“I don’t feel like you should idolise any YouTuber,” she explains in the video. She admits that many of her friends are YouTubers, but believes they shouldn’t be idolised either. Instead she compels her audience to “look through history for women who have done incredible things,” and champion them instead.
While this is probably sound advice – there’s a wealth of people of notable endeavours beyond the realm of YouTube – why can’t we idolise YouTubers as well?
If anything it is far more revealing of Louise’s perception of herself. It’s not that she dislikes herself or views herself as a bad role model, but she believes she isn’t worthy of the level of adoration she receives. After all, she is only a YouTuber right?
Hazel Hayes picks up on this and uses Louise as an example in her video YouTube Culture | Video Response to SprinkleofGlitter. She argues that Louise is someone who is worthy of respect because she has seen hard times and still found success. The problem is more a matter of how people go about it.
“To idolise is to love unquestioningly, uncritically or to excess,” says Hazel in her video. “To love somebody unquestioningly and uncritically probably isn’t a very safe or healthy thing to do for either of you.
“Lets take idolising out of the equation,” she suggests. “Lets talk about respecting and admiring because that’s really what should be going on.” This suggestion is clever, because it makes us consider our behaviour around people we admire. But would all fans understand the nuances between the act of idolising and the act of admiring? For some it’s a matter of uncontrollable emotion.
Alfie Deyes feels differently. “We may be a little bit different off of camera – because we’re not having ourselves edited, we’re not choosing what we get to say and we’re not talking about specific topics, we’re just living our lives – but that does not mean you can’t idolise us,” he says in We Need To Have A Talk.
He reveals that before he found his own YouTube fame, he idolised people like Charlie McDonnell. It was his admiration for Charlie and others that drove him to take up vlogging.
“You can idolise the part of their life that you do know,” says Alfie. “As long as you realise that the part you are idolising is only the part you get to see.”
Part of the ‘to idolise or not’ question is drawn from the belief that the majority of their audiences think they know the creator. Louise, Hazel and Alfie all assert “the truth is, you don’t know us”.
All of the YouTubers explain that despite how personal vlogs can be, their videos are thought-out, sometimes scripted and edited down. They leave out parts of their lives that aren’t perfect. They filter themselves. What you see is not a true representation of them.
The YouTubers believe by revealing this they are in some ways shattering an illusion. They treat the issue carefully so as not upset their audience. However as Charlie McDonnell points out in Respecting Your Audience, this approach is rather condescending (even if it is unintentional).
“YouTubers are making it the audience’s fault, when it works both ways,” he says. “Some big YouTubers – not all, but some – have just as much of an issue imagining their audience as complexly as some members of their audience have imagining them complexly.”
While this doesn’t stop thousands of fans hoarding round their idols at conventions and screaming their heads off, it may help YouTubers handle the situation better. Creators such as Louise and Zoe have expressed how overwhelming this can all be. Perhaps if they consider Charlie’s viewpoint they may come to realise that their fans are equally overwhelmed.
How humans behave when they feel a large rush of emotion – whether it’s happiness, anger, frustration, sorrow or excitement – is often irrational and hard to contain within. It is not wrong for fans to behave with such fervour when they see someone they admire, nor is it wrong that many YouTubers find it difficult to handle.
In Sometimes It All Gets A Bit Too Much, a very emotional and teary-eyed Zoe Sugg perhaps gets to the root cause of why many content creators find it difficult.
“The most frustrating part about it, is that it started off as a hobby and I was just making videos that I loved and enjoyed,” she explains. “And now that there’s a lot more people watching I feel like I have to do videos that you’ll enjoy rather than ones that I enjoy making.”
The sentiment here is echoed gently through all the YouTube Culture videos, but never defined as clearly as that. All YouTubers – no matter how big or small – started creating videos as an unpaid hobby. And now that hobby comes with a great weight, one that has elevated them to a status above others, when most still perceive themselves as ‘normal’ and not ‘famous’.
We are the first to sail the seas of online internet fame – we’re still figuring out what it all really means – therefore our perception of ‘fame’ is only informed by how it plays out in society around us.
Zoe, Louise and Alfie openly admit that they don’t see themselves as celebrities. They just film videos in their bedroom as a hobby, sometimes with their mates. Sometimes it affords them certain opportunities, but the rest of the time they lead a normal life. So why should they consider themselves ‘famous’?
“Where previously I was pretty uncomfortable at the idea of referring to big YouTubers as ‘YouTube celebrities’, nowadays I don’t even bother adding the ‘YouTube’ to the beginning of that phrase,” explains Charlie.
“These people appear on magazine covers, they’re on the side of buses, they get stopped in the streets, they can draw crowds of thousands of people. In my mind, the biggest of the big YouTubers are just celebrities now.”
As hard as it may be to grasp for many content creators, this is a reality that they have to accept. They may not be your conventional celebrity, their lives might not play out how they imagine a “famous person’s” life does and they don’t feel like they’ve changed – because it’s likely they haven’t!
But their status has been elevated to a level that can only realistically be described as fame. Thus making them a ‘celebrity’. The sooner they realise this for themselves, the sooner they’ll find ways of dealing with their position appropriately.
Michael Markman sums this point up best in his three part series YouTube Celebrity Culture. “Some stars are conflicted. They show up, bask in the adoration, sell their merch, smile for the selfies and then they go home and fret about it. They get on camera to tell us how unhappy our attention makes them,” he says.
“I don’t blame them, I mock them but I don’t blame them,” he continues. “Fame is a burden. With great fame comes great responsibility and some YouTubers actually take that very seriously.”
Nevertheless, it’s hard to admit your own fame without sounding arrogant, but denying it may be irresponsible. One of Alfie’s main concerns is people believing he thinks he’s famous when they see him with security at gatherings. “It’s not that I think I warrant a security guard,” says Alfie. “It’s the fact that there are thousands of people trying to meet me and we need to do it safely otherwise it’s not possible.”
While having security is a responsible move that shows he takes his position seriously, he still denies that this is a result of his fame. Could it be that YouTubers crave normality? “For YouTubers on this side of things, I think they don’t want to feel ‘other,’ they don’t want to feel special, they want to feel normal,” explains Charlie.
Some YouTubers assert that there isn’t a divide between creators and fans – perhaps they genuinely believe that – but perpetuating the illusion that there isn’t a barrier can be dangerous.
Felix Kjellberg reveals that he doesn’t like calling his audience ‘fans’ because it seems self-absorbed. “That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to give you guys a name, because to me, it makes us more the same that way,” he says.
Not everbody agrees. Michael explains: “That sense – if you’re in a club – is a collaborative deception. It has two authors: the viewer and the creator joining forces to create a fiction. We fall for what we project on the image we see on the screen.”
The sincerity of these YouTubers is not what’s being questioned here. They genuinely do care about their audience. Otherwise they wouldn’t go to conventions, maintain such strong social media presences or address their viewers as much as they do. If they didn’t care, they probably wouldn’t even address these issues. But they are famous, they do have fans and they simply don’t have time to treat every single person as one of their ‘bros’.
YouTube is just shy of it’s tenth birthday, and in that time a lot has changed, however the ideas from the early days still linger. “Something about the YouTube mythology that we had – that all YouTubers are equal – obscured that [the idea of celebrity],” says Michael. “It made it possible for some creators to ignore the fact that their very presence was a kind of pressure. Well that mythology was false.
“There’s nothing inherently wrong with role models and heroes, that’s how we learn,” he continues. “The trick is picking your role models and deciding what it is you want to learn from them and what you should ignore.”
Echoing this, Hazel believes there is a healthy way to admire others. “I have idols too,” she says, “but by realising that these people are flawed and not perfect, yet can achieve such wonderful things, suddenly my flaws aren’t limitations.”
Ultimately having role models is meant to be a positive thing. We admire others and it often helps us strive to become better people. Those who are idolised may not perceive themselves as worthy of this, but they should respect the fact others do. Imagining each other ‘complexly’ is the start of that process, but owning your ‘fame’ – however large or small – is the key.
To read more about the YouTube culture debate check out Biased and Brash: Why Mainstream Media Doesn’t Understand Vlogging or witness YouTube celebrity culture at play.