As TenEighty’s two-part interview with YouTube legend Charlie McDonnell concludes, he talks maintaining creative control, prioritising quality over quantity, and growing up with his audience…
As well as being one of the first YouTubers in the UK to break through, Charlie McDonnell was also one of the first to break away, getting work in established media as a result of his online success. In addition to Chartjackers for BBC Switch (which he mentioned last time), Charlie’s hosted Radio 1’s Internet Takeover slot and the Channel 4 web series Science of Attraction.
But those old-media gigs have never felt like a priority for him. “I don’t get those offers as much any more, which is probably cos I’ve turned down a lot of them in the past,” he admits. “I always was of the opinion that the most important thing for me is having creative control. So when someone comes to me and says ‘We can do the charlieissocoollike TV show, but here are all of the rules you have to follow’, then I’m sort of like ‘Well, I sort of already do the charlieissocoollike TV show. I don’t have as much money to do it as I would if I did it this way, but I also get to do whatever I want’.
“I did a presenting thing for this show called First TV, which was meant to be a magazine-type show for young teenagers. That was very much straight presenting – it felt much more like a Saturday morning show on CBBC. It was a fun thing to do, but it wasn’t really fulfilling me at all. There’s only so many ways you can tell kids to enter a competition to win a scooter and put it in your own way. When I did Science of Attraction, I was hoping that I would get more creative input. But I still did enjoy it, because it was a topic that I was interested in, at least.
“But yeah, I’m kind of content to do that stuff as and when. That Radio 1 stuff more recently was pretty fun to do, I really enjoyed that. But I guess it is all about me being able to do what I want to. That’s when I clench up, when people tell me ‘This is the way that a thing should be’. It happens less so these days. I feel like I’ve gotten better at dealing with compromises that I have to make.
“I do that to a certain extent with brand deals and things on my YouTube channel,” he points out. “There’s always someone in that scenario where they’re telling you what to do, and they have their specific rules that they have to hit, and I try and be as understanding about that sort of thing as I can. It is more difficult when it’s just ‘Here’s the script you have to read, try and get your personality across’. I feel like my personality really does come from the thoughts and feelings that I have, as opposed to just the way I act.”
“YouTube is the thing that has gotten me to where I am…”
If Charlie was offered a TV gig that guaranteed him complete creative control, but accepting it would leave him with no time for YouTube, would he take it? Or is maintaining a presence on that platform essential? “I wouldn’t take a risk like that,” he replies, immediately. “Like, YouTube is the thing that has gotten me to where I am, and in that scenario, it’s probably likely that YouTube would have gotten me that TV show, so I would be very much investing my whole worth into just that show, if I didn’t have time to do anything else.
“I would obviously love to be in that scenario, where I have the ability to make a TV show and have full creative control. If I really felt like I was going to be able to make something great, that I felt would stand up on its own and be [so] successful that I wouldn’t need the YouTube channel as much, then I might go for it. But that doesn’t really sound like a likely thing that would happen. I don’t know if I would even trust myself to make something that good!”
And so YouTube’s where he’s stayed. It’s more than eight years since Charlie joined the site, and it’s changed enormously during that time. “I don’t really know how much I like the insistence on the insane amount of content that you’re apparently supposed to make in order to have a career on YouTube these days,” he observes. “It is quite scary to me that it’s gone in this direction, where you need to have your daily vlog channel, and you need to have your gaming channel, and you’re posting at least one video a day on all of those, and then also maintaining this main channel… You apparently have to be way more present on YouTube in order to make it work. I really do miss the days where I could post a video once every month, and just spend the time working really hard on it, and make something I was really proud of and really great at.”
This was part of the thinking behind Cereal Time, his breakfast show with Jimmy Hill. “I wanted to have a show where I could be uploading something every day, and be present online,” Charlie explains, “so that if I was going to make something for my main channel and I was like ‘Actually, this would be better if I spent an extra week working on it’, then I had a different channel where I was putting stuff up frequently.”
That shift in the culture doesn’t fit well with Charlie’s way of working. “I am more of a perfectionist, I do want to spend the time working hard on something,” he says, “whereas people don’t put a lot of effort into daily vlogs at all. That’s kind of the point of them.” He tried that format himself, but discovered “that mentality of ‘How do I film my life as best as possible, to make it the most interesting story I can?’ was a really unpleasant way to live. I just wasn’t present in my life at all, because I was thinking about how to film it. I tried it for a week, and I don’t really remember what I did in that week! I can go back and watch it, obviously, but that’s not really the same as living it in the actual moment. Every now and then, if I’m doing something interesting or cool, then I’ll film a bit of it and then splice that into a main channel video, and talk about it after the fact, with my own opinions on it. So I can have a bit of that vibe.”
“If I was taking the videos that I made back then and setting up a new channel, I really don’t think they would go anywhere…”
He’s also concerned by changes to the algorithm YouTube uses to connect viewers with content, and creators’ attempts to adapt to it. “It’s kind of crazy that so many YouTubers these days, their careers are based off of how well they can satiate this computer,” he says, laughing. “Like, in my head, it’s this little creature that sits there, and wants to watch the same thing over and over and over again, every single week, at exactly the same time, and wants you to never stop watching. It’s just this weird thing that we all apparently have to appease now. It should be more about what people actually want to watch, but apparently we have to do what the algorithm says now.”
How well would his own earliest videos go down on today’s YouTube? “If I was literally taking the videos that I made back then and setting up a new channel and re-uploading them, I really don’t think they would go anywhere,” he ponders. “It was a lot easier back then to feel that you could be a YouTuber. I watched people who were doing it, and they didn’t have very good cameras or equipment, and it just felt like something that I could do myself. Whereas I worry about people who have aspirations to be YouTubers now, who look at video-bloggers and see the expensive equipment that they have, and their setups, and the kind of crazy lives that they have, the money that they have – it just feels very abstract and unattainable, and much more like traditional celebrity culture than it did back then.
“The other thing is I just didn’t really upload that frequently. It was me just putting bits and pieces up when I felt like it. I guess Dan Howell still does that, to a certain extent. I hung out with my girlfriend’s cousins recently, two young girls who both watch YouTube, and they mentioned danisnotonfire. One of the things they said they liked about him was that they did have to wait a bit before they got something from him, and it kind of felt like more of a treat to them when they saw a video from him. Whereas they also liked some of the people who are uploading regular videos, but quite short things. So maybe that sort of thing could still work.”
Last time, Charlie told us how his earliest videos were met with criticism from longer-serving YouTubers who resented the speed of his success. But now, Charlie’s the established elder; having been around so long, he’s watched many of today’s biggest YouTubers start out and reach his level of success – or even overtake it.
“It’s sort of changed over time,” he points out. “I’m still kind of getting used to it. I feel like a couple of years ago, maybe, when I went to VidCon, I still felt very lucky, because even though there were people who had bigger channels than mine at that point, they were still very much saying, ‘Hey, we watched your videos! You’re the kind of guy who inspired us to do what we’re doing now!’, and that just makes me feel… that always makes me feel really, really nice, when you can say that you’ve inspired a new channel, inspired someone to do something.
“These days, when I go to VidCon, it is quite unnerving, just going to something like that and having people who are massive, and I have no idea who they are at all, and don’t know where they’ve come from in the slightest. I think I would be more sad about that if I didn’t still have so many people around me who do still really love what they do, and have those people who are still doing really well, who can also say they started out because they watched a little video of mine initially.”
“It’s just really nice to see someone who’s really smart talking about something that they think is awesome…”
How would Charlie advise someone starting out on the YouTube of 2015? “There is absolutely no guarantee that you’ll become the next YouTube star at all, and so I really just don’t think that should be the goal of people,” he suggests. “If you’re making stuff that you’re really proud of, and that you think is good – or you can see some improvement, even though nobody’s watching it – at least you can still enjoy what you’re doing. Whereas if you’re making stuff because you have this idea in your head about the kind of audience you need to pander to, and what’s going to be popular, and what’s going to work, and you don’t like what you’re making, and then it doesn’t go anywhere either, that’s just going to be terrible.
“I mean, there are some people who do seem to enjoy doing stuff that does really fit well with what a majority audience wants on YouTube, and if that’s your thing then that’s great. But you just have to do what you think is going to be good.”
As a viewer, Charlie’s currently enjoying StoryCorps (“this great channel which is dedicated to taking these real-life, usually quite powerful stories about people who have been through quite big, hard shifts in their lives, and then animating them”), CGP Grey (“he’s very good at explaining the way that systems work in the world – he did a great video about why the recent UK election was the worst one in history”), and the PBS Idea Channel (“it’s all about taking really interesting ideas, and trying to frame it in a way where it’s relevant to the Tumblr generation”), but he cites engineerguy as his current favourite.
“I really just like watching people who have some kind of passion for something,” he explains. “He’s an engineer who makes these quite nicely-made videos, with cool graphics and animations, talking about the way that engineering works. He made a really great video recently about the manufacturing of aluminium cans!” He pauses, then laughs. “And that’s apparently the sort of thing I’m into! I don’t know anything about engineering, it’s just really nice to see someone who’s really smart talking about something that they think is awesome.”
Within six months of starting his channel, Charlie was appearing on national television; as one of the most visible YouTubers in the UK, he soon began to be recognised in public.
Even when those interactions began badly, he would go out of his way to accommodate fans. “I’ve had it in the past where people have recognised me, and then instead of coming up to say hi, they’ve decided to follow behind me and take photos,” he recalls. “When that happens, if I notice it, I will go up and say hello to them, and be like ‘That was a bit creepy!’ – but then also just be a normal person with them.”
In 2010, he actively encouraged fans to approach him by offering ‘I found Charlie!’ badges to anyone who spotted him. “It’s a way to say to people ‘Hey, I don’t mind if you come up and say hello’,” he explains. “Interacting with people who watch you online is always a bit of an awkward situation, so I wanted to have it so I have something to do with people when they come up. I can have a little conversation about the badge that I was about to give them, or whatever it might be. It’s not always necessary, but I always do try and give them to people when I see them.”
That level of acceptance contrasts with the criticism fandom has drawn, particularly recently, from some YouTubers. “I feel like the thing I like the least about that conversation is the way that the responsibility is put on the fans to be perfect,” Charlie considers. “I have been in many scenarios with video-bloggers where they are quite harsh on their fans, and don’t see them as particularly smart people. And even if they’re not talking about their fans specifically, they’ll use the word ‘fangirl’ in quite a derogatory way, which I don’t think is fair.
“I do think the most important part of that topic is to make sure that you do have a strong respect for your audience, and you do treat them like smart people. I don’t know if it’s just the fact that I’ve been on YouTube so long that my audience have grown up with me, but I never really find the people who watch me to be stupid at all – I just think they’re smart, cool people.
“I love meeting people at VidCon even more than I did years ago, now. Usually, when I approach my line before I do some kind of signing, I’ll see another line in the distance, and the YouTuber [that line is for] will pop out, and everyone in that line will start screaming and going crazy. And then I’ll come down my line, and everyone will be like ‘Yay… Charlie…’,” he says, adopting a hesitant whisper. “‘Yeah… woo… I’m so excited…’. They’ll just be really lovely, and just… my kind of people, I guess.
“I don’t know if my audience is like that because I have just gotten people like that through having that respect for them?” he ponders. “I’m not entirely sure how it works, but I do think that’s the most important thing for me.”
And eight years in, those fan encounters are starting to change. “It doesn’t happen as often as it used to,” he admits. “In fact, it happens in this weird way now, where I’ll get grownups coming up to me and being like ‘I used to watch you, and now I don’t have time to watch anything on YouTube any more’. I met a guy at a party recently, and he was telling me that I was part of his childhood, and now he’s a grownup, and has a proper job. I was the equivalent of watching a kids’ TV show in the morning. That sort of thing is quite odd.”
“Sometimes I’ve actually been more comfortable talking about things in a video than I have in real life…”
With a large and enthusiastic audience came interest in Charlie’s personal life. In 2012, he made a video specifically to discuss a relationship he was in at the time, but with his current girlfriend, a formal announcement no longer felt necessary.
“I feel like people are very good at respecting that sort of thing now,” he observes, “probably because I don’t treat it as that big of a thing. It might also be just because I’m older now – when I was younger, I didn’t really feel like I wanted to talk about my relationships at all. It seemed like a bigger deal to people – ‘Oh my god, Charlie’s got a girlfriend, we need to be criticising this person’ – and it just can be quite hard on the person you’re in a relationship with. But now that I’m a bit older, it just kind of makes sense to people now that I would be in a relationship with someone, and that’s just sort of fine. They’re much more respectful.
“It probably helped, as well, that with my current girlfriend, Emily, when I mentioned her, I just sort of slipped it into a video that was about something else – it was like ‘Hey, here’s a thing that’s going on’, and not me making a big deal out of it. Maybe that was a mistake I made before – trying to make a big deal out of it, because I felt like I needed to, but that also sort of encourages other people to think that it’s a big deal, when really it kind of shouldn’t be.”
Is there a line he won’t cross in terms of sharing his personal life, or is openness a vital part of the relationship he has with his audience? “I try and be a pretty honest person, for sure,” he asserts. “I’ve shared a lot of stuff about my own, like, inner psyche with the internet – some stuff where I’ve actually been more comfortable talking about things in a video than I have in real life! That’s kind of a weird thing, but that’s apparently the way that my brain works.
“But I don’t know where I draw the line, necessarily. There is a line there. It exists. There must be. But it’s always just ‘What do I feel comfortable mentioning?’ in the moment.”
Going forward, filmmaking remains Charlie’s passion. “I’m very interested in – when I have the time and ability to – making a short film that I will probably make with my own money,” he says, “something that I don’t have the same kind of time restraints as I did when I made my short films with YouTube. That would be probably the next thing on my list.
“I just don’t know when I’m going to have the time to do it. After starting Cereal Time, pretty much all of my time has had to go into making that show. So once I get to the point with that where I have enough time to be working on other things, I’ll want to get back into doing short narrative stuff – and then, hopefully, longer narrative stuff in the future. I’ve just got lots of ideas for things I want to do. And I do definitely find that I’m the most fulfilled when I’m writing a story, right now. I don’t know what it is about that, but that is the type of creation that makes me happiest.”
We’ve been talking for well over an hour, and Charlie’s seemed relaxed, engaged, and entertaining throughout – no hint of the ‘shy kid’ who started making videos on study leave almost a decade ago. “I feel like the distance between the ‘Charlie’ persona and me in real life is much, much closer than it used to be,” he observes. “When I started off, all of those years ago, there was a very distinct difference between the quiet, shy kid who I was in real life, and this big, confident, charismatic persona that I was getting across in the YouTube videos. As time has gone on, I’ve felt more confident being able to be myself on camera, and also felt more confident just as a person generally. As a result, those two things have meshed quite nicely.”
“My YouTube persona really is a part of me – it’s just not all of me…”
To what extent is Charlie ‘on’ when he makes a video today? “There’s always going to be that distinction to me,” he acknowledges, “of the way that I act on camera versus the way that I am talking to someone that I don’t really know, or just hanging out at home. There’s a certain energy that I want to get across when I’m making a YouTube video, to try and keep people engaged in what it is I’m doing. I don’t want to just sit there, unedited, and chat about what I’ve been up to recently – it sometimes takes me quite a while to formulate a thought, so I think that would be quite boring. It’s the sort of thing I wouldn’t want to watch, and not really what I want to make. So there’s always going to be that distinction.
“I’m always trying to make it so that I am ‘myself’ on camera, even if I never will fully realise that, I guess. I really don’t see my YouTube persona as being its own character, or anything like that. It really is a part of me – it’s just not all of me. It’s just the version of me that I want to share when I’m posting a YouTube video. But it kind of differs – like, I feel like the way that I decide to present myself in a video-blog feels quite different, to me, than the way I decide to present myself even on Cereal Time, which is still a YouTube show, and still feels quite similar. I feel like, if you look at those, and try to contrast them, you would probably be able to come up with what seem like two different personas. But it’s still me.”
Is there anything he wishes his younger self had learned sooner? “I feel like I was maybe more free back then, because I didn’t have as many people watching me,” he says. “Nowadays, I try and remind myself to try and not play it too safe, whereas back then I had no reason to even know what ‘playing it safe’ was.
“So if anything, I could probably take more inspiration for my current self from my past self,” he concludes. “‘Just have fun, play around, don’t worry if things fail, just do your best and enjoy yourself’…”
Photos by Ollie Ali.
Want more from Charlie?
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