Jana Hisham started her first channel in 2010, sharing her opinions on topics ranging from the London riots in 2011 to her Saudi background. A champion for equality, TenEighty chats to Jana about having conversations on the internet, her own personal identity politics, diversity, and the state of YouTube today.
“When I was 15 I had a lot of internet friends as I didn’t have many real life friends,” Jana Hisham laughs. “One of them introduced me to some YouTubers like Charlie McDonnell and that led me to finding other creators like Shane Dawson and Philip DeFranco.”
Soon after, she gained a passion for the platform and would daydream about being a YouTuber, drawn to the ability to have conversations with others from all over the world. “I just fell in love with the idea of having an audience from around the world communicating with me and for me to share my views and life,” says Jana.
At the age of 16, she bought her first iMac and, armed with a webcam and iMovie, begun making videos about her opinions on her first channel (now inactive). “One of my first videos (now private) was me ranting about labels and how people felt the need to label themselves to enjoy things – like the emo phase!” she reminisces.
Growing her channel was a slow process, both personally and technically. As a shy person growing up without previous experience in video production, she had a lot to learn. “I remember being a kid and I couldn’t go up to someone and ask for a seat, or to borrow a chair – it brought me so much anxiety to do that. To turn on the camera and to start talking to it is not something that would come natural to most people.
“I remember filming so many videos in the beginning and [I would] watch them a week later and be like ‘what the heck?’” It took two years of learning each step of video creation before she reached a stage where she was proud of her work.
“ Funnily enough, when you share your opinion on the internet, some people will disagree strongly! ”
Being a young social commentator, some of her videos got a lot of attention considering it was the early years of YouTube. She discusses her video on the 2011 London riots (now private), which she filmed when she was 16. “It was a video ranting about how stupid it was that people were looting,” she says. “These protests were so important, it was about important cultural issues but so many kids were turning it into an opportunistic time to go steal some trainers and it was counterproductive to the cause.”
In 24 hours, the video reached 200,000 views with news outlets picking it up. It received mixed opinions; some celebrated that a 16 year-old-girl was speaking out at the behaviour of fellow young people, while others felt she was missing the bigger issue of how the riots for some were about wider inequalities in society.
“Funnily enough, when you share your opinion on the internet, some people will disagree strongly!” she says.
What she found most difficult was how people made assumptions about her. “They thought I lived in a rich neighbourhood and have a privileged upbringing.”
When asked about how she dealt with such responses, she replies that “in the beginning, you take every comment personally and you get angry. It’s so horrible to have people make assumptions about you and criticise you in a personal way rather than disagreeing with your opinions. As a teenager, it’s not easy to swallow.”
However, she is now grateful that she started out by talking about controversial issues online, gaining a thick skin and learning how to express her opinions without alienating people.
“As you get older you realise how problematic you can be with the little things that you say. There’s a couple of videos I watch back now and I’m like ‘what was I thinking?’”
Recently, notable creators, including Zoe Sugg, Jack Maynard and Shane Dawson, have had old tweets or videos that contained problematic content reexamined in the public domain. We ask Jana if people should be held accountable for the things they’ve said in the past.
“I think you always have to take responsibility for the things that you say, especially when you put them out there on the internet. But when you’ve been on the platform since a very early age it’s very easy to end up changing and evolving and growing as a person.”
She comments on how this is a new challenge that our society previously hadn’t faced. “We have such a huge backlog and archive of everything everyone’s ever said and every opinion everyone’s ever had.”
“There’s not a single person in the world who hasn’t done anything that could be deemed as offensive or been ignorant.”
Sharing her thoughts on Shane Dawson, a creator she’s a fan of, she says: “If people watched him seven years ago, when I started watching him, they would be like ‘this is awful’. And so much of it is unacceptable today – not that it was then – but in the context of the time it didn’t feel that out of place.
“But it doesn’t make him a terrible person now, he’s apologised for what he did, he’s come out to say he has learnt. There’s not a single person in the world who hasn’t done anything that could be deemed as offensive or been ignorant. You have to allow growth.”
She emphasises the importance of allowing people to apologise for their past behaviour, to grow as people and to not take for granted how society has become more accepting over the last decade.
“We’re learning so much so quickly as a society about equality and about people from different walks of life and identities. With the context of the time – people were like that, but the internet freezes you and doesn’t allow growth and you don’t bring the context.” Jana believes that while some situations cannot be defended, others are less black and white.
She also feels that these situations can be an opportunity to see that people are capable of change. “With people today who are tweeting racist, homophobic or offensive things, we can have conversations with those people and educate and inform them. They can turn into the people who, five years on from now, will look back and regret what they’ve done.”
Warning against being trapped in echo chambers, she encourages exploring content that you may not agree with online. “The algorithms are that if you watch or follow certain people or content, those platforms will always serve you that content,” she explains. She calls for people to look at both sides, rather than simply searching for evidence supporting your personal opinion.
“For example, people thought Brexit would never happen, Trump would never be elected and then you’re surprised because all your friends and all the content you’re reading are so against it. The other half are in their own echo chambers and we’re not speaking to each other,” explains Jana.
“There was a belief when we were kids that racism and sexism was over – just because certain laws are in place doesn’t mean society follows. People who have prejudiced or racist opinions still have a community on the internet where they can express that.”
Jana believes that instead of criticising and shaming people, we needs to have more productive conversations. “As much as people of diversity and of colour have been marginalised in the past, we have to learn from that and rise above people that have the contrasting opinion, otherwise you’re not accomplishing anything at all.”
Nonetheless, she’s confident that audiences are learning to think more critically of content. “When we look at the media now we always read against the text. We have to look at different perspectives, where the source is coming from, who are their investors, who are they trying to promote and demonise.”
Regarding conversations about equality, Jana is often invited to appear on diversity panels and discussions at events. While it’s an important cause, we ask if she ever feels burdened and restricted.
“ It was exhausting having to speak out about feeling like I was not being treated as equally as other creators. ”
“I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with stuff like that. On the one hand, I’m from such a diverse background and having unique perspective – not only am I from the Middle East and have a strong connection with that background but I’ve also lived in London for 20 years so I really have a deep understanding of the culture [in the UK].
“On the other, it’s hard when it’s the only thing people want to ask you about – I have a lot of expertise in social media and marketing and stuff like that, there’s more to me.”
Ultimately, Jana feels that it’s important to be visible and be represented. “It’s not just to go up there and be like, ‘this is my opinion on diversity’ but more to be a figure for young girls to see me,” she explains.
“They can go ‘she’s wearing baggy jeans and a tshirt, no makeup and her hair is frizzy but people still care about what she has to say, and respect her opinion and she’s passionate about what she does.’”
She acknowledges how draining it is to be expected to be a spokesperson, commenting on her experience at HelloWorld’s debut event in 2017.
“It was exhausting having to speak out about feeling like I was not being treated as equally as other creators,” affirms Jana. “Regardless of the reason – whether it was the size of my platform or if I wasn’t as much a part of the show, because I wasn’t friends with them – whatever it may have been.
“To feel unequal as a person from a diverse background has so much different context. Regardless of intention, for someone who’s diverse, it can bring up a lot of negative emotions.”
Jana shares that she was asked to meet with HelloWorld to discuss how they can improve this year’s event. At time of this interview, she hadn’t given them a definitive answer yet. “Although it would be really a positive thing to sit down and have an honest conversation – the outcome is very important and the outcome of how people feel, regardless of intention. A lot of people don’t understand that and it’s very hard to get people to that stage.
“I don’t believe I’m the most educated person on how to do that because being in that experience is a very emotional thing,” explains Jana. “It’s a very exhausting responsibility to have, but at the same time you have to be on the right side of change.”
However, Jana feels that there is now more of a community who are advocating for equality. “More and more white English or American or European [people] are allies to diversity and to minorities. People are recognising that just because this isn’t my personal experience doesn’t mean that other people don’t deserve an equal opportunity.”
However, there has been criticism towards YouTubers, and those in the entertainment industry in general, for speaking out about certain topics. Some feel that YouTubers and entertainers should not be advocates, particularly on political subjects.
“Every single person, regardless of your following or influence – everyone has a responsibility that when there is injustice, it’s very important to speak out and everyone does that in different ways,” Jana urges.
“It doesn’t mean you always have to give a opinion. Just because you’re not an expert in the field doesn’t mean you can’t have a very human opinion.”
She takes the Logan Paul incident as an example. On 31 December 2017, Logan uploaded a vlog where he filmed the corpse of a man who had hung himself in Aokigahara, also known as the ‘Suicide Forest’, in Japan.
“You don’t have to have a degree in political science or international relations to come out and say ‘you can’t film someone who’s just committed suicide,’” affirms Jana.
“Before people spoke out about it, the video wasn’t flagged at all. It had a good ratio of likes, it had good views and it wasn’t receiving negative attention until people took to their platforms and forced the website to come out and say it’s unacceptable. It’s sad to say but I don’t think YouTube would have had such a strong stance about it if that hadn’t happened. It’s about people using their platforms to hold people accountable.”
This incident led to a lot of people criticising YouTube as a platform and how it has changed over the years, many pointing to the algorithm and automated restriction mode. “It’s not a human person judging videos, it’s a calculation,” says Jana. “At the end of the day it’s about business and profit.”
She acknowledges that there are people working for YouTube who are dedicated to improving the user and creator experience, but feels there needs to be more of a human element that goes into curating content on YouTube. “We need to have more of a sense of authenticity of what is just organically viral and not just favouring the things that are manipulated to achieve those massive numbers,” says Jana.
She believes Twitter Moments to be one of the best things to have happened in social media: “It’s a curation of a collection of tweets from different people on topics. That’s what I want to see – not just the most clickbaity thing, or the most popular thing, or the video with the most watch time because it’s so outrageous.” Jana wants to see meaningful, high quality content tailored to the individual rather that content that’s likely to have a good click through rate.
“ To some extent we’ll never get back to that ‘golden age’ of YouTube because no one knew of the power of the platform then. ”
We ask Jana what her thoughts are on the sentiment that we have moved away from “the golden age” of YouTube.
“It was always going to be more corporate. I mean when something is popular, at the beginning you’re going to have a group of early adopters who jump on things before it’s a trend and they’re the people who make it cool. When others see they’re getting money off of this or recognition or fame, then you attract the attention of everyone and you attract people who are just going to exploit the platform and use it for personal gain.”
She shares a story of an encounter she had at Vidcon in 2017, which was the first one she had attended.
“I had a woman who introduced herself as ‘manager to the stars on YouTube’ which already is just awful! And I explained to her what I did, that I’m originally from the Middle East and I make content to a global audience.”
“Thirty minutes later, she came back, recognised me and she pointed to me and was like ‘oh and you’re the girl with the crazy Muslim channel! You make the crazy Muslim videos!’”
Jana laughs it off as she recounts the story. While she met some wonderful people, she uses this tale as an example of others who are in the industry for their own gains.
“You’re just going to meet some insane people that don’t understand the platform, don’t understand social media, don’t understand social video and their sole objective is to exploit the platform, exploit the creators and to just make quick money,” acknowledges Jana. “And you’ll find them in every industry.
“The idea that all you need is a camera and some video editing software and you can become a millionaire is so tantalising for people that there’s no way that you’re not going to find people who are going to exploit that.”
She acknowledges that in many ways that’s just how human beings are, but says it’s up to the creators and platform to counter against this behaviour and encourage higher quality conversations that garner communities. However, she doesn’t feel YouTube can ever return to its earlier years.
“To some extent we’ll never get back to that ‘golden age’ of YouTube because no one knew of the power of the platform then so people were just doing it for fun.
Jana notes that it is not the platform itself that is important to her. “For me, it’s about the community and conversations,” she explains. “I think as long as the platform is able to still have meaningful connections and conversations with people, I’m always going to use it but I think as soon as it stops doing that, I’m not going to use it. I don’t have that much loyalty to the platform itself. Whatever platform is going to be the best at building a community, that’s going to stand the test of time.”
Over the past two years, Jana has been transitioning away from her original channel, which is in English, to Jana Vlogs where she speaks in Arabic (with English captions). Her original channel is currently inactive, so why did she leave the channel she had been with since 2010?
“YouTube has never been a full-time thing, it’s always been a hobby and a side-project. My content reflects what my lifestyle is like.
“With my English content, I used to watch a lot of that so it was natural for me. English is my strongest language and there wasn’t anyone doing Arabic content that I could look to for inspiration. 16-year-old me wasn’t original enough to do it myself!”
During her Masters course, she launched her second channel which mostly consisted of vlogs and has now become her primary channel. She wanted to share her life with her Middle Eastern audience and, as she was being introduced to more Saudi creators, she wanted to be more engaged with that community.
“[The channel] got very popular very quickly, especially as I was a Saudi female living and working in London – it was quite a rare thing for people to see.”
“ I’ve grown up on the platform and I’ve become this person due to all the opportunities that I’ve had on the platform. ”
Jana notes that balancing her identities personally and publicly can be a challenge. “There’s a lot of expectations on you as Saudi person in the culture and on you as someone who’s grown up very British. There’s expectations to have one opinion or the other, or have a certain look or air about you, especially as a female.
“In Saudi or Arabic culture, it’s still very traditional in sense of gender roles and you have to be very feminine, and you have to learn to walk in heels – which I can’t do! And you have to be very hospitable, and be a homemaker and a socialite. As someone who was very shy and awkward growing up, that was just something that I couldn’t achieve.”
Jana empathises with the conflict of wanting to please your family and fulfil their expectations, and with being yourself, emphasising the importance of being authentic.
“Whenever you’re doing something that’s not authentic, it becomes very laborious and very boring. You’re not doing yourself justice and you’re not being honest and that’s very exhausting,” says Jana.
She notes it takes a lifetime to figure out how to navigate between contrasting identities. “It always has to be about understanding you’ll always be both. I’m 23 and I don’t think I’ve mastered the art of being bicultural and having all those different identities merge into one but you’re not alone in that,” affirms Jana.
“I’ve had people get in touch with me and tell me I’ve helped them understand that you can be different from what certain societies expect you to be. But it’s tricky! I think growing up, being more mature and independent and achieving so many things in your life, you gain that confidence to trust yourself. You can look less to those traditions and cultures to guide you on who you should be.”
Currently, Jana is thinking about the next steps for her channel. As she is currently in a full-time job as the head of social for a media publisher, she no longer wants to create ‘follow me vlogs’.
“There would be no time and no variance if I made day to day vlogs. I wake up early, commute an hour, work 9-6, get home – and the last thing I want to do is turn on a camera. On weekends I want to do fun stuff and not just work. It’s hard to make content about your life when your life is very work oriented.”
However, because YouTube is not her main source of income, she feels she has a lot of freedom to experiment with her content and try something new: “You can get stuck doing the same thing, it’s always good to challenge yourself to diversify your content.
“A lot of my YouTube friends have had the same experiences as me – it’s very scary to try to do something new but they’re bored of what they’re currently doing and feel like they’re just doing it for the sake of it. Always do what you’re passionate about and the audience will follow,” she advises.
Jana is considering creating more English content, with episodes talking about the internet, trends and social media. “I’ve grown up on the platform and I’ve become this person due to all the opportunities that I’ve had on the platform,” she says.
“Now I also have this responsibility from a career perspective to be a part of the industry and I feel that responsibility as a creator as well. As I’ve grown up and my audience has grown up with me, I really want to push myself to make authentic content that’s doing something new and pushing the boundaries.”
Ultimately, Jana never wants to lose sight of why she creates, no matter where she goes in life: “I’ve always just wanted to have those connections and conversations around the world.”
Photos by George Yonge.
Want more from Jana?
Check out these exclusive photosets:
- Jana Hisham TenEighty 2018 Cover
- Jana Hisham TenEighty Photoshoot: Set 01
- Jana Hisham TenEighty Photoshoot: Set 02
Alternatively, check out some of our previous TenEighty interviews: