Sometimes, it can seem like the appeal of YouTube’s most popular content is more about a creator’s personality than their creativity. Why does the most-viewed content seem so similar? Is relatability more important than authenticity? And how can creators be inspired by YouTube again, instead of disheartened? With the help of some YouTubers who have voiced their frustrations, TenEighty investigates…
“I am not interested in or stimulated by any of the stuff that’s deemed ‘popular’ on YouTube these days,” said Jack Howard in Ramble About YouTube. “It doesn’t interest me at all. I feel very out of the loop.”
The unscripted video, uploaded on 2 February, saw Jack discuss his growing concerns with YouTube, revealing that he feels disillusioned by the content he sees, questioning his place in the community and whether the site still caters to his tastes as a viewer.
“I don’t think I can find anything that’s for me, anything I want to watch is elsewhere,” he said, before adding that ultimately he wants to find content that he can engage with.
The video sparked a wave of responses from big and small YouTubers alike, with Paul Neafcy, Rosianna Halse Rojas, Francesca Georgiou, and US ‘vlogbrother’ Hank Green among those weighing in on the debate.
Following up on his original video in YouTube Discussion Continued, Jack responded to what had been said. He clarified that while he doesn’t believe “easy content is inherently bad content”, he does take issue with content creators who are “pandering to an audience” in order to gain views.
Jack suggested that “selling yourself” to online audiences has become more common than creating genuine content, and perhaps he has a point. “We have YouTubers in their mid-to-late twenties talking about ‘the worst things in school’,” Jack pointed out. “Why did you feel the need to make that? Surely, that’s not creating something you feel passionate about.”
As part of his series The NewTube Order – which explores topics such as the creator/viewer divide, the authenticity of YouTube, and more – Paul Neafcy has been expanding on Jack’s debate. He’s admitted that he hardly watches YouTube videos anymore, and hasn’t uploaded a video in six months.
“I think at least some of the reason for that absence is a disillusionment with the platform and the content it celebrates,” he said in Is Creativity on YouTube DEAD? “I’ve said for years that YouTube champions mediocrity.”
Paul believes that the majority of regular YouTube consumers are in their early-to-mid teens, and typically are not looking for enlightening or thought-provoking content. “[They’re] turning to YouTube for the illusion of having a friend sit with them and do nothing, and chat shit about nothing for a bit,” he said. “It’s all people want.”
For Paul, one of the reasons ‘easy content’ is dominant is due to the age range of its audiences. Often, YouTubers create content accessible to those aged between 13 and 18, especially when it’s the main demographic they’re hitting according to analytics.
And the idea of having a ‘friend’ as a YouTuber is something the community has discussed before. In 2014, Louise Pentland triggered another debate, discussing how fans idolise their favourite vloggers, and how fans often feel like they know the person they are watching, despite creators often leaving out parts of their lives. As a result, the person presented in their videos isn’t always a true representation of who they are.
This doesn’t change the fact that the friendly, and often personal, nature of YouTube videos is appealing. Unlike television, most videos on YouTube are produced from the perspective of one person from conception to upload. And content like this – while it still takes a lot of work – is easier and quicker to create on a regular basis than say a short film or scripted comedy sketch.
But to some, striving to be relatable is part of the problem. In another response video, Rosianna Halse Rojas discussed losing authenticity in the name of relatability. “The tension there is you have to prioritise one in a way,” she said. “Many people can’t talk about their lives as they are because their lives are firstly vastly privileged, but also skewed in a different way, so the emphasis for them is on the relatable.”
But there is more at play here than the age range of the audience and being ‘relatable’. In 2012, YouTube changed its search algorithm to favour ‘watch time’ over view count. It was a move designed to drum out misleading thumbnails and videos which piggybacked on popular trends, keywords, or video titles, in the hopes of rewarding creators who upload regularly with engaging content.
The more you upload, the higher you are in the search results. This is perhaps why so many creators opt for quick and relatable content and don’t find the time to indulge in more creative endeavours.
As a result, gaming and daily vlogger channels can boom, while short films, comedy sketches and animations are damaged (the latter of which we explored in Save Animation: How Watch Time is Endangering YouTube Animators). This culture only breeds quantity over quality, and also makes it harder for lesser-known creatives in these areas to break through.
In Honest YouTube Talk Time, US vlogger Hank Green discussed the business side of YouTube. Hank began vlogging in 2007 with his brother John, and back then, “there was a lot of attention and next to no content”, he said, which meant “it was really easy to get noticed”. Now that the site’s viewership has increased – along with the amount of content on it – it’s become much harder to attract the attention of potential viewers.
“The number one thing you need to get is attention,” Hank said, “and most people and companies that have attention want to turn that attention back on themselves or to sell it to advertisers.”
Hank concluded that the “meritocracy” that used to exist on the platform is now dead, saying: “One has to wonder whether that is 1) creating frustration, and 2) decreasing the number of people taking chances to do weird, amazing, wonderful things on this platform.”
However, Rosianna disagreed, expressing her opinion that even when YouTube wasn’t as dominant as it is now, it always helped to know someone who could promote your video to a wider audience, whether it be someone at YouTube itself, or another creator. “I remember just thinking ‘YouTube has its favourites’, and that feeling was consistent from the early days,” she said.
And this is a sentiment that has been repeated by some smaller YouTubers even today. In ‘small’ youtube vs. ‘big’ youtube, Maja Anushka reminded us that there’s no place on YouTube to discover content creators with less than ten-, fifty-, or even a hundred-thousand subscribers. “It’s left up to us to either befriend big YouTubers or find some crazy original never-been-done-before thing that will amaze the YouTube community,” she said.
“The only people you see recommended to you are people who already have thousands and thousands of subscribers,” added Maja.
The most popular YouTubers upload almost every day. They already have a lot of people watching them and therefore have a higher ‘watch time’ rating, so the search algorithm rewards them. This process locks out smaller YouTubers who may be doing original or artistic things.
“Who cares about the size of the audience?” Jazza lamented. “If we think they’re making great content, we should fucking shout about it because god knows YouTube isn’t going to shout about it for us.”
He went on to mention that mainstream media has also played a role in the rise of “effortless content”. The coverage given to prominent vloggers has resulted in them being considered the “epitome” of what a YouTuber is – a blueprint for what other creators should be like, if you will.
That blueprint isn’t true for creators such as Bertie Gilbert or Tim Hautekiet, who have both made waves on and off YouTube as filmmakers. Nor is it true for outside-the-box vloggers such as Myles Wheeler, who is known for putting his own spin on basic vlogging and creating a unique style as a result, or Adrian Bliss, who is known for his satirical observations. And it certainly doesn’t cover the improvised comedy of the RH Experience, or the sultry songs of Sarah Close, or the travel expertise of What’s Good London. The list goes on.
However, it’s Jazza’s assertion that we should “shout about” content we enjoy that may be the key to reinvigorating everyone’s passion for online content again. Front page spotlights on YouTube are well and truly a thing of the past, so perhaps we as a community need to do more to elevate creators who have something to say or are making creative or inspiring content.
But to many smaller YouTubers, it would appear that the ‘upper class’ of creators are resistant to this. For example, in early February, Benjamin Cook was asked if Becoming YouTube 2 would have an episode dedicated to smaller YouTubers. For the purposes of his series, Ben wasn’t sure such an episode would add much.
.@Dheanasaur I'm often asked this, but I’m not sure how it’d work. What issues/questions would it tackle that the main series doesn’t?
— Benjamin Cook (@benjamin_cook) February 1, 2016
This resulted in another very public debate over the merits of smaller YouTubers. “A subscriber count does not define quality,” Charli Marie pointed out in a blog post on her website. Either way, this perceived attitude some larger creators hold towards smaller ones can be discouraging for those trying to be creative.
Francesca Georgiou, a smaller YouTuber who TenEighty spotlighted as part of our 2015 shortlist, illuminated this point in RE: Ramble About YouTube. “YouTube has made it super clear recently that they’re completely indifferent to [smaller YouTubers] being here,” she stated. “Other YouTubers have made it super clear recently that they are indifferent about our existence and about our community.”
But of course there is hope for smaller YouTubers, as it’s clear creators such as Jack are willing to listen. Fran created a playlist of smaller creators to demonstrate their originality, which Jack linked out to in his follow-up video. “I can’t begin to explain to you how refreshing smaller creators are, who don’t have the limits that bigger ones do,” said Fran.
Nonetheless, the onus of finding and lifting up talent shouldn’t fall on a handful of larger creators (don’t worry Ben, we don’t expect you to shoulder this responsibility alone). It should fall on all of us.
We can and should ‘shout about’ the creators that are making artistic, thoughtful, and clever content, and shout loudly and frequently. And if we can’t find those creators, we should actively seek them out, rather than relying on YouTube’s algorithm for answers. Ask your friends; ask your Twitter followers; ask other creators you admire; read TenEighty’s weekly round-up; and if you see something you like, give that channel a push. If this means a ‘larger’ creator having to make videos dedicated to ‘shouting out’ other creators, then why not?
Ironically, this is something that Jack once did himself. In 2010, when YouTube began phasing out front page features, he launched GetFeaturedUK alongside other content creators with the aim of spotlighting smaller YouTubers. But the channel has been defunct since late 2013, and many of the earlier videos have since been removed.
Yes, the market is saturated. Yes, it’s hard to sort through all the rubbish to find the gems. And yes, it won’t necessarily mean that the most popular content on YouTube will rapidly change. But surely trying is better than giving in to disillusionment?
We’ve grown too used to not seeking out content ourselves. Let’s change that. Let’s set out to discover things with a genuine sense of intrigue, passion, and determination. Let’s get proactive, not passive, in our approach. And who knows? If enough of us try, we might end up changing the system itself for the better.
Check out our other features discussing issues facing content creators:
- Is Originality Dead on YouTube?
- Brand Deals: Everything You Need to Know
- The YouTube Culture Debate
- Charlie McDonnell’s Guide to Rebranding Your Content
Correction 25 February 2016:
TenEighty misattributed a quote as coming from Charlie McDonnell, when it had come from Charli Marie. We have apologised to both Charlie and Charli, and corrected the mistake. Thank you Charlie for retroactively endorsing the quote.
The line which reads – “Benjamin Cook was asked if Becoming YouTube 2 would have an episode dedicated to smaller YouTubers. For the purposes of his series, Ben wasn’t sure such an episode would add much.” – previously said – “Benjamin Cook was asked if smaller YouTubers would be included in Becoming YouTube 2. For the purposes of his series, Ben didn’t feel that they’d have much to add.”
This has been corrected to give a fairer representation of the incident described, as the previous description could be interpreted as misleading.