Benjamin Cook talks exclusively to TenEighty about Becoming YouTube, how he handled the backlash to the Girls on YouTube episode, and what the future holds for ninebrassmonkeys.
“I made Becoming YouTube after winning a bet,” explains Benjamin Cook, about his 12-part web series which concluded in February. “I wanted to see if I could get a partnered account without posting a single video, and I did.”
From its debut in December 2012, the series has been repeatedly praised for upping the standard of content online, while also tackling issues surrounding YouTube culture in a provocative and insightful way.
“Back in 2011, the partnership scheme was still quite an exclusive thing,” he says. “I had this friend-of-a-friend who got partnered – to be honest, no-one was sure how, or why – they wouldn’t shut up about it.”
At Summer In The City 2011 Ben was introduced to Hazel Hayes, who at the time was a partner manager for YouTube. “I persuaded her to partner my account on the promise that I would actually start making stuff,” he laughs. Once Ben had the account he wondered what he could do with it.
“I wanted to do the sort of thing Charlie McDonnell or Jack Harries couldn’t risk doing…”
“I was fascinated by the relationship between a YouTuber and their audience. I wondered what would happen if, say, I made some vlogs, built up an audience, and then four or five videos in did something horrific, like turn to camera and tell my audience to fuck right off because I wasn’t enjoying it anymore! That’s the sort of thing Charlie McDonnell or Jack Harries couldn’t risk doing.
“It kept building from there. Like what about, to make it even dafter, after telling the audience to fuck off, I’d do a big song and dance number. And then do another two videos where I’ve got to pick up the pieces and come back with my tail between my legs.”
That’s exactly what he did in an episode called YouTube Vs. The World. Ben unexpectedly turned to the camera and lamented the size of his audience, which had grown beyond 100,000 subscribers in less than a year, before bursting into a song that continues to get more and more ridiculous as the scene went on. But if this was the starting point of Becoming YouTube, where did the concept for the rest of the series come from?
“I wanted to have a go at all the stuff I saw my mates doing; the sketches, the music, the directing and the filmmaking,” he explains. “But at the same time I was fascinated by this weird old world that YouTubers inhabit, and I wanted to document it, investigate it, probe it.”
Ben’s background as an entertainment journalist allowed him to reach out to YouTubers on a professional level, as well as giving him the experience to devise an episodic series with particular themes to investigate. “Becoming YouTube is the ultimate have your cake and eat it project,” he jokes.
Initially intended to be a weekly series, Becoming YouTube began to have bigger gaps between each episode. “There was a bit of an outcry when I skipped a week over Christmas between Episode Three and Four,” he recalls. “Little did they know there’d be five months between some episodes!” Some of the delays were in order to accommodate more YouTubers who wanted to get involved, but Ben wasn’t worried about making his audience wait. “The whole ethos of Becoming YouTube is to test an audience, both in terms of their beliefs and sensibilities, but also their patience,” he explains.
With a format that was constantly growing and changing, it was inevitable some scenes were cut. “We filmed a whole sequence where I was down and out in New York, which was meant to be in Episode 11,” Ben reveals. “I also filmed a whole scene with Jack and Dean disposing of a body in the back of Ciaran’s car. The scene didn’t fit, so I cut it. Nothing major.”
Throughout the series, Ben’s onscreen character played up how he wanted to be ‘mad crazy internet famous’. Critics observed that his success was only possible to thanks to the big names he got involved. But Ben doesn’t deny this; instead, he embraces it. “It was designed as a community project. It relied on other YouTubers being involved because it was about other YouTubers, it was about people who were already crazy internet famous. My face is on screen in every ep, my name is all over it and it’s on my channel. I think I get enough attention, plaudits and credit.”
Becoming YouTube would spin bigger controversies than Ben’s hunger for internet fame. In Musicians on YouTube, there were scenes which depicted a man drilling through the side of his head, which some believed should’ve come with a clearer trigger warning.
“A few dozen people didn’t like the drill scene,” he mentions. “I did consider putting an annotation at the beginning of the episode saying ‘some scenes may disturb’, but no-one would have taken it seriously.” Ben seems unapologetic. “There was a trigger warning earlier in the episode: we flash forward to the moment with the drill, and warn of violent content ahead,” he insists. “Even the scene itself is a gradual build-up to that moment; it’s quite obvious what’s going to happen, and if you don’t like that kind of thing, that’s the point to turn away.”
He adds, “You do have a certain responsibility to your audience, and audiences do tend to call you out when you mess up. Perhaps one day YouTube will be regulated, with its own equivalent of Ofcom.”
“Women should always lead the discussion on feminist issues, but men should be allowed to join in too…”
A bigger backlash came after Girls on YouTube. With hindsight, Ben adamantly states that he wouldn’t have done anything different with the episode. “A lot of YouTubers making vlogs will record them at two in the morning, in a stream of consciousness, edit it quickly and put it up the next day without thinking. That wasn’t what happened with this episode. Every word was chosen very carefully to provoke a reaction or make particular points to get people talking. And that’s what it did,” he explains.
“At the time that video went up, only 17 of the Top 100 YouTube channels worldwide were fronted – or predominantly by – women. So there is a problem,” says Ben. “Women should always lead the discussion on feminist issues, but men should be allowed to join in too. To argue otherwise is dangerous and counterproductive. I’d always prefer to be the person engaged in an important, difficult discussion than the person stood at the back shouting ‘sexist!’ or ‘misogynist!’.”
Ben featured prominent female YouTubers like Emma Blackery, Lex Croucher, and Hazel Hayes throughout the series, but many viewers felt he could have used the episode addressing the gender imbalance to promote other female YouTubers. He didn’t, he explains, to avoid tokenism. “If suddenly for that episode I was to get in a few more female YouTubers just because they’re female, then that’s rather supporting the point I was making, but doing it in a kind of crass way,” he says.
The debate surrounding the episode extended beyond the series. After VidCon’s Becoming YouTube panel in 2013, some people on Twitter, most of whom had not attended the panel, attacked Ben for what they considered sexist remarks. They also criticised him about the way he dealt with the fallout, as documented on Oh No They Didn’t. “For about four days, YouTube and Tumblr were full of what was said, or had or hadn’t happened, at that panel. One of the panellists storming out, apparently, which never happened,” he says. “And then brilliantly someone uploaded a video of the whole panel, and suddenly the naysayers fell very quiet. Funny that.”
“The bigger picture is quite serious. It’s about mass media, communities online versus the real world, growing up, finding your place in the world…”
The series continued to tackle big issues, and in The War of the Word Ben was sent to Syria by Oxfam. “Becoming YouTube is half documentary, half sketch show, so I wanted to see if we could even do this when broaching the worst humanitarian crisis this century,” he says.
While many YouTubers might shy away from tackling such a complex issue, struggling to make it relevant to their audience without patronising the cause, Ben took it in his stride. “The minutiae of Becoming YouTube can be silly, but the bigger picture is quite serious. It’s about mass media, communities online versus the real world. It’s about growing up, finding your place in the world,” he reflects. “Becoming YouTube is good at tackling big issues.”
In Episodes Ten and 11, Ben played with the concept of whether or not a YouTuber could change the world, but how much does he feel he has done this? “Despite our best efforts, we haven’t saved Syria,” he jokes, “If anything it’s got worse since we went. I blame Jack Howard.
“None of us really set out to change the world, we just try to reach as many people as possible and make them think in new and interesting ways,” reflects Ben. “If not, the worst that will happen is some people will have watched Becoming YouTube, laughed at its jokes, and been offended by the Girls on YouTube episode. No one will have died because of it. Except for that kid with the drill.”
“There are a number of people on YouTube who are gay or bi, but prefer not to talk about it in their videos…”
Becoming YouTube covered a lot of ground, but nevertheless, there are some issues that Ben wishes he could’ve explored, such as sexuality and race on YouTube. “It’s certainly true that in the UK there are very few out, gay YouTubers,” he ponders. “The truth is, there are a number of people on YouTube who are gay or bi, but prefer not to make a thing of it, or talk about it in their videos.
“And that’s fine, you’ve got to respect that,” he explains. “We’ve seen it with Troye Sivan and Tyler Oakley, when you come out as gay, you’re then set up as role model for a huge number of young people, and that’s a terrifying thing to take on. So I understand why some people wouldn’t want to come out. But at the same time, I think it’d be a fascinating thing to discuss, if were we able to do it openly and honestly.
“The other topic maybe too controversial for Becoming YouTube is why the majority of the most popular vloggers, especially in the UK, are white,” he continues. “The reasons for this are probably many, varied and complicated, and it would be a tough one to tackle without offending, potentially, a lot of people.”
Having established his name as one of the YouTube greats, Ben has already begun working on other projects, teasing Becoming YouTube 2 at the end of Everything Changes. “There are three more topics I want to cover, and then, there is another series I’m working on,” he says. “But that won’t be Becoming YouTube and probably won’t be weekly.
“I can’t tell you much about Becoming YouTube 2 without spoiling it,” he adds. “The final three are far more cynical. They’ll probably leave people quite depressed to be honest. However, I can tell you Kylie Minogue will be in them.
“You might ask, ‘what’s Kylie doing in a documentary about YouTube?’,” Ben teases, “to which I’d say, ‘this interview is now over’.” And like that, it is.