During the comedown of Summer in the City 2017, the creator/viewer divide debate came back into prominence, following years of similar discussions on the growing disconnect within the community. But why has it happened? And is it something to be solved? If so, how? TenEighty chats to creators Chai Cameron, Tom Ridgewell, Taha Khan, and Maja Anushka, as well as viewers Allie McGregor and Charlotte, to find out.
“So, I’m super struggling with the idea that waiting in line to take a picture with me and talk for 20 seconds really GIVES you anything,” shared Savannah Brown in a tweet not long after Summer in the City 2017, sparking a huge conversation within the UK YouTube community.
Among other things, the celebrity-like status some creators hold and the physical need for barriers at gatherings, have led many to feel the community has been split down the middle: ‘creators’ on one side and ‘viewers’ on the other.
The distinction between creators and viewers is often arbitrary. As Taha Khan points out, it’s more accurate to see the divide as a “sliding scale rather than a binary; most people on the space are creators and viewers to some degree.”
But that hasn’t prevented barriers (sometimes literally) being placed between creators, and those who watch them, leaving many confused and discouraged. “Maybe I’m just so tired of it all?” questions Tom Ridgewell, summing up the disillusionment that many are feeling.
Taha has played a role in pushing the conversation forward, in particular, through a livestream he co-hosted with Emma Popcorn. Speaking to TenEighty about the importance of the discussion, he asserts that “we’re helping to define how we should be navigating these spaces and what’s appropriate or not.”
The general mood of the community is clear. As Savannah mentions in her original tweet thread, creators and viewers alike have expressed the view that meet-and-greets aren’t much more than a hollow ritual. Some feel that the divide presents viewers as lesser than creators, forming a hierarchy in a supposed community. And many simply have no idea where they are meant to fit into this model.
Information, Power and Celebrity
But what caused the divide in the first place? Through the conversation, it has become apparent that the typical creator/viewer relationship comes with two key imbalances: information and power.
“Undeniably one person is receiving more information than the other,” says Maja Anushka. “The creator has to give parts of themselves away, while the viewer does not. This is a clear and almost immediate imbalance in the relationship – one that can turn toxic and manipulative if not handled in a responsible way.”
Taha agrees with this, referring to it as an “information asymmetry.” He adds that “the relationship between [creators and viewers] becomes one that is more unfamiliar than a normal encounter.”
Chai Cameron, on the other hand, believes that this asymmetry makes things easier for creators. “I know going into meeting someone who watches my videos that they know a bunch of things about me, which allows you to lead a conversation a lot more easily,” he reflects.
Whether the information imbalance is positive or negative is up for debate, but it’s easy to see how it’s caused. It’s less clear where exactly the imbalance in power stems from. One reason for it is certainly the celebrity status now afforded to some creators, as TenEighty explored in 2014.
“So many creators are too big to fail, too famous to be questioned, and can get away with anything.”
“The most popular YouTubers have millions of subscribers now, and that gives them some degree of celebrity status whether anybody likes it or not,” says Charlotte, a viewer. “As well as YouTube videos, they’re making TV shows, movies, makeup lines, books and radio shows, becoming more and more like those unattainable ‘traditional’ celebrities that we’re used to seeing.”
Maja echoes this, adding: “The more popular a creator is, the more audience they have, and the more a single audience member can feel unimportant.”
Viewer Allie McGregor believes that, on a practical level, “both online and at events, it’s completely impossible for creators with thousands of viewers to engage with every single viewer of their content.”
Taha explains that with celebrity comes idolisation. Larger creators are now no longer “just some dude on the internet”. They’ve acquired a celebrity status. “I think it causes viewers and creators to behave differently when interacting; both expect a brief interaction where you’re perhaps asked for a photo or autograph… It becomes more akin to conventional celebrity than to a natural conversation because both begin to accept this as the norm.”
As Maja points out, this idolisation can “easily lead to viewers being manipulated and used, due to their unrealistically positive image of their favourite YouTuber.”
“I think it’s all mad, if I’m being completely honest,” says Tom. “I think so many creators are too big to fail, too famous to be questioned, and can get away with anything.”
The ‘divide’ has likely stripped away a lot of consequence and personal responsibility within YouTube because creators are so famous they’re spared the repercussions of their actions by, among other things, their gigantic, unquestioning audiences,” he continues.
Even YouTube as a platform could be accused of upholding this power imbalance, primarily due to the algorithm (which favours content with high view counts and channels with the most subscribers). This is something which the YouTube community has noticed, and attempted to address in December 2016.
YouTube seem really determined right now to make it as hard as possible for subscribers to see videos created by smaller YouTubers. ty YT
— Lex Croucher (@lexcanroar) November 28, 2016
It has been suggested by some that this power imbalance is engendered by viewers, through their behaviour towards YouTubers.
In his video The Viewer/ Creator Divide, Steven Bridges asserts that “the dynamic between the viewer and the creator is often actually established by the viewer. If you as a viewer come up to a creator and you fan over that person, you’re setting up that barrier. You’re actually creating that divide.” Small YouTuber Katie (didsomebodysaykatie) agrees in her video on the topic.
Due to tensions evoked by the divide, small creators have also spoken out about how they feel they have to prove themselves to larger creators in order to be seen as worthwhile and communicate with them as peers.
“I have noticed that I tend to try to legitimise myself to creators by saying I also do YouTube or ‘I know [insert mutual friend]’,” affirms Taha. “I think this is a symptom of a larger issue of being seen as ‘just a viewer’ leading to the creators wanting to give you a more rehearsed or performative interaction.”
As a result of this ‘just a viewer’ mindset, some smaller YouTubers have made setting themselves apart from ‘fans’ their focus. For example in The creator/viewer Divide (or: why i’m scared to talk to creators), Joel Blundell says “it would be very difficult to introduce myself [to larger creators] as a peer”, and “I don’t want to establish myself as a fan.”
But is this fair on those who would identify as fans? The term ‘fan’ is already stigmatised with ‘fangirl’ generally being used to describe obsessive behaviours. So while some small creators aim to separate themselves from this in order to gain legitimacy, their approach can be considered to reinforce the stereotypes surrounding ‘fan’ culture. It encourages a divide between viewers and prompts us to ask whether breaking down the barrier between creators and viewers simply demands that this barrier is placed elsewhere.
“I guess there needs to be a recognised sense of maturity in order for being a ‘fan’ to not prevent a big creator taking you seriously,” she continues. “But it’s awful that fans are seen as lesser.”
— Emily🌹 (@emeaton14) August 26, 2017
Allie mentions that, while she appreciates that some people like to identify as fans, she doesn’t, due to the connotations that come with it. “Especially in certain situations, like a meet-and-greet, the ‘fan’ is sort of automatically assumed to be less important, less interesting,” she says. “I don’t think this is a good assumption at all, and it’s not true of any fans, but it’s how I feel I’m automatically viewed if I choose to say I’m a fan of someone’s work.”
Charlotte disagrees: “I would describe myself as a fan of some YouTubers. I know some people prefer the words ‘viewer’ or ‘subscriber’, but I don’t have a problem with being a fan if I really enjoy someone’s work. Am I a ‘reader’ of Harry Potter or a ‘viewer’ of Parks and Recreation? No, I’m a fan of them.
“I think YouTubers are aware of the true spectrum of their viewership more than we necessarily give them credit for,” she continues. “Sometimes I do feel out of place as a 26-year-old watching Dan [Howell] and Phil [Lester], but that’s only because many younger viewers are more concerned with being noticed than older viewers, so they make themselves known a lot more. And that’s not a bad thing… that’s just how some people express their appreciation.”
‘A Hollow Ritual’
— charlotte🌻 (@charliwho) August 8, 2017
Speaking to TenEighty she elaborates, saying that she understands why both groups may feel unfulfilled by meet-and-greets but, ultimately, they are not designed for fulfilling conversations. “If you want something more in depth, to spend more time one on one, then that has to be organised outside of events like VidCon or SitC,” she says. “If people don’t enjoy the experience of a meet-and-greet then they won’t go to one, and just because a viewer has met a creator at a meet-and-greet that doesn’t mean their interaction wasn’t authentic and meaningful and genuine.
“The point is that if you think meeting a creator will make you happy then you should do it if you’re able to, and if it won’t then don’t,” she observes. “The same applies for creators; if meet-and-greets aren’t enjoyable for them then they shouldn’t do it. I’m sure their viewers would just prefer them to be happy. But in the same vein, I think there are much worse ways to spend your time than saying hi and snapping a few pictures with people who admire you and your work.”
Chai has mixed views about meet-and-greets. “I enjoy meeting people and hearing what my videos have meant to them, and seeing their happiness in getting to meet me; it’s an ego boost and also a way to allow me to see the real world implications of my videos,” he admits.
“That said, I’m also aware how odd it is that I am meeting a group of strangers, who are mostly younger than me, and who know so much about me with the same not being true in reverse.”
Tom’s view is slightly more negative. “I sincerely loathe a lot of the standard practices such as the ’grip ‘n’ grin’ meetups where only a brief hello and a photo is permitted,” he says. “I believe those kinds of cattle-herding interactions truly dehumanise both the audience and the creators.
“It’s worth noting though that meetups can be incredibly mentally and physically draining, even for a neuro-typical creator, so I try not to judge anyone who has their own preferred way of doing things. It’s taken me years to develop a meet-and-greet style that works for me and my audience,” he goes on to add.
“I’m not seen as someone who is an interesting person worth getting to know in my own right.”
Allie describes her personal experience at meet-and-greets as “quite hollow.” She adds that she’s “inherently not coming in at the same level as [creators] and for many reasons including timing, safety, and the general environment, any interaction I have with them at an event usually isn’t going to become anything, or be very fulfilling.
“I think it’s disheartening that because of the inherent divide at an event I’m not seen as someone who is an interesting person worth getting to know in my own right,” she continues.
Using her personal experiences as an example, she explains approaching creators at events has sometimes left her feeling very uncomfortable. “I almost didn’t want them to remember my face so if I met them outside of that environment I had a better chance of being seen as ‘not just a fan’.” She also mentions that, while she will continue volunteering at events, she isn’t planning on meeting creators she watches there.
However, this uncomfortable feeling is also experienced by creators approaching people they watch, as Chai admits. “It’s more than likely to end badly. I’ll say something stupid or awkward,” he says. “I’d prefer to be introduced to them at some later date by a friend or in some other circumstance… There is less of a divide between creators and other creators, even if you are a fan of that person because you work in the same industry.”
In The Middle
The discussion around the divide has undeniably been most prominent within the smaller YouTuber community, which Maja believes is because they experience it most noticeably. “While most YouTubers start off as viewers, smaller creators are the ones closest to that side, and therefore have lots to say about being a part of both groups.”
Conversely, Taha thinks that the conversation is happening community-wide, but that smaller YouTubers are just more open about it: “I think that these conversations are just happening more publicly in the smaller YouTuber community as a lot of our audiences are also creators who are interested in the discussion. Whereas I think larger YouTubers are having the same discussions with each other in private, at conventions and so on.”
Maja adds that she is reminded of her experience as viewer when her own audience approaches her. “I never want someone to idolise my persona, or to compare themselves to me. I’ve been in that position – thinking someone I follow is perfect, and subsequently that harming my mental health,” she says.
“I always try and remind people, especially the wonderful ones who approach me at SitC or gatherings, that I am just another person,” she affirms. “When speaking to creators, I try and keep this in mind so as to make the experience feel less daunting.”
She also mentions that smaller YouTubers generally seem less daunting due to their smaller audiences. Taha also alluded to this in his reply to Savannah’s original thread.
Some Thoughts! 💭 pic.twitter.com/mlCSUKQI06
— Taha Khan (@KhanStopMe) August 7, 2017
He adds that smaller YouTubers “have the luxury of being able to chat to people extensively if both them and their audiences are aware of that. They can interact as with a shared interest rather than in the fashion of conventional celebrity.”
However, he believes that this is changing somewhat. “As YouTube grows, some smaller YouTubers are intentionally and unintentionally mirroring the conventions of creator/viewer interactions of larger YouTubers. I think there is a shift where some YouTubers of even my size and smaller are expecting brief interactions with perhaps a photo or autograph rather than interactions with perhaps more depth.
“This is in part because culture is changing to reflect the prevalence of ‘celebrity YouTubers’ and the concept of fame on YouTube. But… I think that some smaller YouTubers either intentionally or unintentionally increase the divide because they enjoy the feeling of ‘fame’ and the creator/viewer divide helps cultivate that feeling,” he continues, referring to Tessa Violet’s video on fame.
Gatherings: Help or Hindrance?
The main place that IRL interactions between creators and viewers take place is at gatherings and conventions, such as Summer in the City and VidCon. But do they help to break down or simply highlight the divide?
Chai and Tom have similar views on how gatherings can help close the divide, with Chai saying that viewers can interact with creators “which gives them a more real sense of knowing them.”
Tom finds the experience deeply humbling. “[It] reminds me that each view is a real human being and I think they have the same effect on my audience.”
“You’re very literally dividing the creators and the viewers.”
Charlotte, who attended Summer in the City twice before the ticketed meet-and-greets were introduced, recalls how gatherings had started to get dangerous. “As YouTube grows, conventions like SitC have to grow, which means the divide also naturally grows,” she asserts. “Summer in the City isn’t a small gathering of people in a field anymore and it never will be, because it just isn’t feasible.”
Taha agrees, mentioning that the idea of creators and viewers being on a spectrum cannot be translated to real-world events, despite it working online, because it’s simply not practical. “[Events] have to put up physical barriers which really accentuate that divide but also create an environment for viewers to meet creators that would otherwise not be able to safely.”
Allie adds that “waiting in a huge line to meet someone for less than a minute definitely can have the effect of making you feel lesser than them. There’s also heaps of security and separate areas for creators with a certain sized following.” She refers to this security as “absolutely necessary” but adds that it “places the creators on a step up from viewers.
“It’s obviously not intended to be that way but when you’re paying to meet someone it’s hard not to feel that,” she says. “You’re very literally dividing the creators and the viewers”.
All of this can sometimes result in an upsetting experience for viewers. As Chai explains, “some people can come away realising that the creator they watch doesn’t know them at all, and that, for the most part, the videos they watch are a pretty one-sided conversation. [Creators] usually don’t have the time at these events to talk to each viewer for more than 30 seconds, which is a brief hello at best, and a blurred selfie at worst.”
“It further entrenches the idea that your idols are bigger and better than you.”
As Tom mentions, the reality of the meeting can differ from expectations. “In theory, getting the chance to meet one’s heroes should be a very humanising experience but in reality, especially at all these events, it further entrenches the idea that your idols are bigger and better than you.
“The meetups are too fast-paced and packed for anyone to have a truly meaningful exchange,” he continues. “Of course, the alternative is that we go back to people getting trampled in a field. Fact is, for most creators there are just too many fans to meet without it being a rushed, meaningless experience for everyone.”
However, for Maja, there’s a bigger indicator of the divide at gatherings. “The separation between creator and viewer can be truly seen with green room passes, stage performances, and panels,” she says. “We need more opportunities to blend the divide.”
The Dangers of Overfamiliarity
But, while the conversation has focused on the many benefits of closing the divide, there would also be some dangers in doing so. In many ways, the divide acts as a necessary and inevitable boundary. On a practical level, the breaking down of barriers would be a security risk at events like Summer in the City and VidCon, as explored by TenEighty in The Gathering Storm.
Also, as Tom explains, YouTube relies on these barriers. “To ’close’ the divide would be to collapse the economy of YouTube itself. If people aren’t idolising and obsessing over their favourite creators then merch sales and video shares plummet.”
In their video Overfamiliarity on YouTube, Emily Eaton and Ruby May Cee explore how closing the divide could lead to viewers misconstruing how well they know creators or cases of assumed friendship. It could be suggested that overfamiliarity played a role in the cases of alleged sexual abuse in the past.
Alluding to this, Allie says that the majority of creators do not want to use a viewer’s passion as a tool against them. “Horrible things have been done by creators in the past, and that’s a further reason for creators to be more careful about their interactions with viewers,” she says. “In almost all cases, whether it’s because of numbers or a perceived power imbalance, it comes down to the safety and well-being of both creators and viewers, and no one abusing their position.”
Chai asserts that overfamiliarity is one of the reasons why the divide is needed. “Having a divide reminds people not to get too attached to the people they watch online, which I think is healthy. I don’t think there is anything wrong with relating to someone online, but when you start to believe you truly know someone by watching their videos, that’s when things get weird,” he says.
“I like to think that the more obvious the divide is, the less weird things get, but I don’t know if everyone is aware that the divide exists at this point,” he continues. “YouTubers are incredibly open and honest with their audience, that’s one of the reasons people feel so close to them, but the audience will never truly know the person who made the thing they are watching.”
But that’s not to say viewers aren’t already aware of this, and perhaps, as Maja points out, deserve more credit. “Viewers deserve respect,” she says. “By recognising the audience as what they truly are; real, living, individual people (not some faceless entity that has no identity whatsoever), it makes creators more grateful, and humble.”
The Inevitable Divide
So, can the issue of the divide be solved? Charlotte, Allie, Maja and Taha agree that, for the most part, it can’t.
Allie reiterates the importance of security at events like Summer in the City and the inevitable divide it causes, while echoing Tom’s thoughts on considering YouTubers’ personal limits. “They physically and mentally cannot be expected to try and meet and engage with so many people,” she asserts.
“It’s not that the divide is bad, or unnatural, it’s just that it needs to be discussed.”
Charlotte also thinks it’s inevitable. “The creator/viewer divide is something that I’ve just accepted is there,” she says. “There [are] always going to be imbalances in a conversation between any kind of creator and a fan of their work, but that doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing or affect the way we interact with each other unless we let it.”
Chai’s view is that it’s not an issue that needs to be solved. “It will find a balance just by there being creators and viewers, and the natural progression of having an audience.”
On a similar note, Maja adds that “until every single viewer gives as much information to the creator as they put out in videos, there will always be a strange dynamic. It’s not that the divide is bad, or unnatural, it’s just that it needs to be discussed.”
Keeping The Discussion Alive
It might be impossible to completely break down the creator/viewer divide, but talking about it brings the community closer.
Some have suggested more social spaces for those on the ‘viewer’ side; areas similar to the green room at Summer in the City that can be accessed by anyone.
Totally agree, we need more social spaces at these events so people can make friends the way I did at SITC 2011!
— Lucy Moon 🌻 (@iamnotlucymoon) August 7, 2017
Maja mentions the much loved Small YouTubers panel at Summer in the City, describing it as “fantastic at giving the lesser known creators and viewers a chance to speak.”
Creators can also take steps to break down barriers. Tom attempts this by being completely honest about his own life and the nature of his relationship with his audience. “I provide an honest and unromantic depiction of my reality so it’s impossible to view me as a greater being or whatever. Also, I share most of my production and trade secrets in vlogs so others can do as I do,” he says, referring to his videos HOW TO YOUTUBE and How We Make Videos.
“I avoid referring to my audience with a collective name, instead just addressing them as ‘you’,” he adds. “It may change nothing, but my hope is that it encourages my viewers to think as individuals and not subscribe to a mob mentality.”
Ultimately, though, the main step forward that should be taken is to change the attitudes that creators and viewers have towards each other. There is clearly a need for viewers to see creators as individuals, so as not to excessively idolise them, and for creators to see viewers as individuals, rather than just as a mass audience.
“Creators need to be aware of how lucky they are, and viewers need to be aware of their importance, and their value,” Maja asserts. “No one should be taken for granted.”
Check out some of the following features by TenEighty:
- The Evolution of Online Beauty
- The Adpocalypse: Is Demonetisation Driving Creators To Patreon?
- Clickbait: Tactical or Unethical?
- YouTube Goes Mainstream