YouTubers, book review: In search of authenticity

You could be forgiven for noticing YouTube only when a scandal breaks, but, as Chris Stokel-Walker writes, it's an increasingly important part of the entertainment business.

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YouTubers • By Chris Stokel-Walker • Canbury Press • 349 pages • ISBN: 978-1-912454-21-1 • £20 / $30

It may have been an interviewee in Annie Gottlieb's 1988 book, Do You Believe in Magic? who attributed the US's widespread 1960s generational conflict over the Vietnam War to a generational change in media. Sure, everyone got their news from TV, but parents and grandparents -- who had grown up with radio -- listened to the reassuring words delivered by commentators and government spokespeople. Young people watched the pictures and were horrified.

This idea has always resonated. One day soon, those same young people, now older adults, may be equally startled by what their young people think. Because something akin to that kind of generational change is happening now. Have you heard of Hannah Hart, KSI, or Jake Paul? If you have, you're probably under 25. If you haven't, and you're not eager to spend thousands of hours following links on YouTube (and are trained to prefer the polish of TV and film), Chris Stokel-Walker is here to explain it all for you.

In his book YouTubers (subtitled How YouTube shook up TV and created a new generation of stars), Stokel-Walker documents the culture of YouTube as it shifted from an anarchic site full of amateurs' experiments into a huge business whose top stars rake in millions in sponsorship and advertising, all selling their 'authenticity'.

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This is the same desire to avoid air-brushed perfect presentation that we see in politics with the rise to the top of figures who appear to say whatever comes into their heads. Yet, as Stokel-Walker shows, behind the scenes YouTube's contributors work as hard as any creative operation -- writing scripts, sourcing images, shooting video, and editing the results. Many who start young burn out as they grow older and want to change their image, only to find that their audiences won't follow. At what point, for example, will seven-year-old Ryan, the highest-paid YouTuber in 2018, rebel against unboxing and playing with toys for public consumption?

A question Stokel-Walker doesn't address is whether the laws that protect child film and TV stars from exploitation (California ensures that 15% of the revenues earned by children is placed in a trust their parents can't raid, for example) apply to YouTubers.

Stokel-Walker has said that he wrote this book because the media generally ignores YouTube except when there's a scandal -- the spread of conspiracy theories and misinformation, horrors aimed at children, or the 'adpocalypse' when advertisers pulled out after discovering their brands were being associated with extremist content.

He's right to highlight this omission: YouTube is an increasingly important part of the entertainment business, but remains invisible to many of us -- like the gaming industry, whose relative cultural obscurity persists even though it's bigger than the film industry.

Still, when Stokel-Walker writes that YouTube has 1,000 stars whose videos regularly draw larger audiences than most TV shows, it's hard to be sure of the comparison. Yes, it's clear that Jake Paul's latest video drew 1.7 million views in its first 11 hours, but TV ratings are more inscrutable. Will later generations rediscover Jake Paul the way today's teens are lapping up Friends?

Unreliable partner

By the end of YouTubers, Stokel-Walker's interviewees are looking for ways to be less dependent on YouTube. Adpocalypse and YouTube's own unpredictable algorithmic changes have shown them it's an unreliable partner. They sign up with Patreon, they spread across other social media platforms, and they explore YouTube's fast-rising competitor, Facebook.

Meanwhile, the site is constantly professionalising, and at some point young people searching for authenticity will go elsewhere. This pattern is familiar to anyone who's lived through a few media generations -- which will soon be 10-year-olds, as the size of generational slices continues to shrink. Early eBay was people selling off the junk in their attics. Now it's filled with offers from Argos and Chinese producers. In 2010, Twitter had no PR or promotional intermediation. Even early television (live action!) was filled with authenticity -- part of Julia Child's enduring appeal was her willingness to be seen making mistakes. From that point of view, you could see YouTubers as the latest in a long line of tragic colonisations.

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