Box of tricks
YouTube began as a video-sharing platform to launch unsung talents. A decade on, it has morphed into a raucous electronic town square – for better and for worse.
How ten years of YouTube has changed our lives
In late 2005, when YouTube was only few months old, one of its founders announced that its users were consuming the equivalent of a video rental store each month. Today, 300 hours of video are uploaded to the site every minute. And video stores? … Well, kids, they offered films on DVD and VHS. VHS tapes were like giant cassettes. Cassettes were … oh, ask your mother.
The video-sharing giant has become the world’s third-most-visited website, after Google and Facebook. According to Jawed Karim, he and two of his PayPal colleagues, Chad Hurley and Steve Chen, launched the site after becoming frustrated that they couldn’t find footage of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami and that same year’s Janet Jackson Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction”. This high-and-low ethos is ingrained. YouTube can be lauded for promoting democracy and re-energising education, and in the next breath criticised for its limitless library of cat videos or nasty user comments.
What is beyond debate is YouTube’s influence (spotted by Google in 2006, when it bought the site for $US1.65 billion). Almost anyone can upload almost anything and be in with a chance of reaching its one billion monthly users – whether they be activists, terrorists, politicians or pop stars, or just the proud owner of a particularly grumpy-looking cat.
Justin Bieber looks into the camera and says, “I was found on YouTube.” He narrows his eyes. “I think I was detrimental to my own career.” This footage, of the star’s statement in an assault case filed against him by a paparazzo, was uploaded to YouTube by fans in March 2014. Although his lawyer corrected Bieber’s “detrimental” to “instrumental”, the slip was fitting: Bieber, the precocious Canadian talent discovered on YouTube at the age of 12, had been hoisted by his own online petard. Innumerable artists have since followed Bieber’s lead, using YouTube to share their work directly with an online audience, leaving talent agents and other traditional gatekeepers to fame scrambling to catch up.
By nurturing a devoted audience on YouTube, the so-called Beliebers, Bieber also paved the way for a new breed of celebrity: the intensely accessible and “normal” person who can earn a six-figure salary by sharing his or her thoughts and hobbies online. Zoe Sugg, better known as Zoella, launched her YouTube channel in 2009. She was a “haul girl”, one of a band of YouTubers who unveil their new clothing and beauty buys from their bedrooms, like a virtual best friend. Now 25, Sugg has more than 9.9 million subscribers across two channels. They helped ensure her 2014 novel, Girl Online, sold more copies in its first week of release than any debut novel in British history.
The first YouTube celebrities emerged from viral one-hit-wonder videos, such as Charlie Davies-Carr, the baby who bit his brother’s finger in 2007 and earned his parents more than $A580,000 from advertising revenue and merchandise. Tabatha Bundesen gave up her waitressing job to manage her pet, Grumpy Cat, only days after the latter’s first appearance on social media. The two-year-old moggy – real name Tardar Sauce – has earned Bundesen $A124 million, and in December her first feature film, Grumpy Cat’s Worst
Christmas Ever, was released in Australia and the US. There are YouTube celebrities in every niche field imaginable. DC Toys Collector is an “unboxer” – she unwraps new toys. Her video of five Angry Birds eggs being opened has been viewed 99 million times. Half a million people have watched Abby Vapes demonstrating how to exhale smoke from an e-cigarette like a dragon. Others, such as Brit Marcus Butler (3.58 million subscribers) and American LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) advocate Tyler Oakley (6.7 million), are famous just for talking.
Beneath the often goofy personas lie steely business sense and an indomitable work ethic. “YouTubers are the most diligent, hard-working people you could meet, who have doggedly pursued a creative outlet that has turned into a huge media concern over many, many years,” says Dom Smales, founder of Gleam Futures, a social media talent agency with offices in London and Los Angeles. Gleam looks after Sugg, Butler and other online stars.
While the music industry was once sniffy about YouTube talent, record companies now fight over homegrown musicians. “They’ve done the work, they have the fans and they’re super-powerful,” says Meridith Valiando Rojas, who co-founded DigiTour Media after leaving traditional record company artists and repertoire. “If you have the audience, you have all the leverage.”
But, as Bieber has discovered, online fame comes at a price. TMZ, the Hollywood gossip site, has released videos on its YouTube channel of nearly all of Bieber’s misdemeanours: urinating in a restaurant kitchen, getting arrested, being frisked inside a police station … YouTube has contributed to the 24/7 scrutiny of modern celebrities, as anybody with a smartphone can upload footage of the famous. So the competition for exclusive images among paparazzi has become even more savage than it was before. In 2013, a photographer was fatally run over trying to get a shot of Bieber.
YouTube might have increased the range and pace of celebrity careers, but it suggests that the public’s relationship with the famous has stayed the same: we build people up to tear them down again.And the lure of the new is as intoxicating as ever. Some believe the stars of Vine, an app that allows users to upload six-and-a-half-second videos, are leaving YouTubers in their dust. A New York Film Academy dropout, Andrew Bachelor, known to his 11.5 million Vine followers as King Bach, has seen his slapstick clips land him a role in improvised MTV comedy show
Wild ’ N Out. Meanwhile, Jack & Jack, two 18-year-old rappers from Nebraska, have eschewed traditional record deals and their releases dominate iTunes download charts regardless – thanks to their 5.3 million Vine followers.
Shane Dawson, a Californian YouTube comic
with 6.47 million subscribers and a burgeoning music and film career, complained to The New
Yorker recently: “Vine makes me kind of sad – I’m nervous that [what it does] will turn into what content is.” Before it even enters its teens, YouTube seems to be joining the entertainment old guard.
GAMING GONE VIRAL
When Lewis Brindley and Simon Lane started making video guides to World of Warcraft in 2008, cultivating a megabucks media empire wasn’t the plan. Now, with 18 channels, 21 million subscribers and more than 120 million views a month, Brindley and Lane’s Yogscast is one of YouTube’s biggest success stories.
YouTube’s most popular channel of all is that of PewDiePie, aka Felix Kjellberg, a 25-year-old Swede who offers profane hyperactive commentary while playing horror and comedy games. PewDiePie’s channel has 35.7 million subscribers. To put that in context, if you combined the subscriber numbers for Rihanna and One Direction – the two most popular music acts on the website – you would still be nearly three million short of PewDiePie’s “Bro Army”.
Ten years ago, few predicted gamers would be the most followed people on the fledgling site. Even the concept – watching other people play video games – has many baffled. But, as Yogscast CEO Mark Turpin points out: “Video is the best way to find out about a video game, to watch it being played. The layer on top of that is the personalities, entertainers, who people want to spend time with.” These young men and women engage their audience as if they were friends. And their audience love them for it, regardless of what entertainment industry magazine Variety might think. (It criticised PewDiePie’s “aggressive” stupidity.)
The rise of video streaming has led to a rethink in game consoles. Sony’s PlayStation 4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One offer the ability to share gameplay online at the touch of a button. The industry has become savvy about using YouTube to its advantage. PlayStation Access, for example, is a YouTube channel offering irreverent videos (with themes such as “six multiplayer games that will tear your friendship apart”) largely free of the corporate stuffiness you might expect from an “official” source. They’re a clear attempt at capturing the spirit of gamer channels. Xbox, meanwhile, premiered
Forward Unto Dawn on YouTube, a live action drama created as a prologue to its science-fiction blockbuster,
Halo 4. It has racked up 55 million views. Game trailers have also emerged as an important part of a publisher’s strategy, keeping interest in a game bubbling throughout the lengthy gap between announcement and release. “They’ve even eclipsed
YouTube has contributed to the 24/7 scrutiny of modern celebrities, as anybody with a smartphone can upload footage of the famous.
blockbuster movies in view count,” says Xbox UK marketing director Harvey Eagle. Getting featured on a prominent YouTube channel can catapult obscure games to mainstream success. In 2012, British independent developer Mike Bithell released Thomas
Was Alone, a minimalist puzzle platform game that saw reasonable sales. Then it was featured by YouTube channels NerdCubed and TotalBiscuit. “In one week it had doubled the amount of money the game had made,” Bithell says, taking it “from a hobby to quit-the-day-job-type stuff”.
For all their influence, YouTubers inhabit a grey space in the industry. Last year it emerged that a marketing agency working for Warner Bros had approached YouTubers about fantasy game Shadow
of Mordor. They offered pre-release copies with a draconian set of conditions, including only talking positively about the game and ensuring no bugs were mentioned. The incident raised questions over whether YouTubers should be regarded as entertainers or critics who answer to a journalistic code.
ADS: WE LIKE TO WATCH
“The Yogscast has a policy that we make it clear when there has been a commercial aspect to any coverage – both in the video itself and in the description,” Turpin says. “Guidelines are changing all the time.” Indeed, a landmark ruling by Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority last November told video bloggers that they must inform their audience when a video has been paid for by advertisers. Each year, YouTube compiles a list of the most popular videos over the previous 12 months. Last year the top 10 (non-music videos) included a mini-film of strangers kissing, a singing nun, and a video of the iPhone 6 being purposely bent. Curiously, it also included four ads.
The internet was meant to kill off advertising. Instead of sitting through annoying commercials during television broadcasts we would go online to watch uninterrupted dramas, comedies and silly clips. But we appear to actively seek out ads on YouTube, such as the titillating Fifty Shades of Grey trailers (73 million views) or, occasionally, the homemade so-bad-they’re-good variety.
Great ads have always been loved. But YouTube has not only become a repository for the best commercials, it has changed the nature of marketing. “On YouTube, people are not interested in brands,” says George Prest, executive creative director at ad agency R/GA London. “The clever brands have worked out that to connect with people on YouTube, you have to find a shared passion – Red Bull with its extreme sports, for example. In the old days you’d put something on TV and pretty much force people to watch it. These days you have to pull people in, which they will only do if they find it engaging.”
Bizarrely, considering our supposed shortening attention spans, ads on YouTube are longer – the 30-second TV spot has morphed into a three-minute online film. The television ad has, in effect, become a trailer for the longer online version. And big brands’ ads are often broadcast on TV only once or twice; in some instances brands, such as Evian, make advertisements exclusively for the internet.
The so-called millennial generation watches far less television than their parents, thanks to online platforms, which makes YouTube critical for reaching them. The company Unruly helps advertising agencies communicate with this “missing generation”. Chief executive Scott Button says: “It comes down to content, in particular the emotional impact of the ad. Three or four years ago, humour was the most prevalent element in branded content. But it’s the hardest to succeed with, especially with a global brand, because responses to humour vary so much. Today, you’ll see a lot more warmth, happiness, inspiration, exhilaration.”
Some brands have more or less abandoned traditional ads in favour of partnering with video bloggers. These teenagers and twenty-somethings uploading homemade videos offer advertisers guaranteed audiences that dwarf what they would reach on their own. For example, major beauty brands have achieved a collective 511 million video views – a fraction of the 14 billion views racked up by beauty bloggers. But traditional commercials can still do well. One of the most viewed ads on YouTube is Evian’s Roller Babies – which has racked up more than 100 million views. It is part of a long-running campaign by Evian that started in the late 1990s, before YouTube existed. Fortuitously, the baby campaign ticks some key online boxes – it is funny, it is cute and it is global (no-one ever speaks; babies just gurgle).
But YouTube’s dominance may be waning. Since hitting one billion monthly unique worldwide users in March 2013, growth has slowed. When Evian launched its Roller Babies ad online in 2009, 99 per cent of its views came from YouTube users. The 2013 advertisement, Baby & Me, received 160 million views, but only 61 per cent of these were watched on YouTube. R/GA’s Prest, like many, thinks YouTube has been a game-changer: “[It] has forced people to be more entertaining and to listen to customers more.” Rather than killing off the advertising industry, YouTube has given it an injection of new life.
“If this does not blow your mind, then you have no emotion,” Salman Khan says. It is a suitably provocative come-on from a YouTube superstar. But he is talking about a maths equation. Khan is on a mission to bring a free world-class, customised education to anyone, anywhere. To do that he has spent a good part of the past decade making about 5000 videos on maths and science.
Eleven years ago he was a young hedge-fund analyst with a 12-year-old cousin, Nadia, who had fallen behind in maths. He was in Boston, she was in New Orleans, so he began tutoring her remotely, using Yahoo!’s Doodle notepad. Soon he started making videos. In them, Khan talks through a concept – perhaps fractions or long division – with the aid of bright numbers on a black screen. His voice is earnest yet informal. The videos are no longer than ten minutes and it feels like you’re getting a private lesson from a whiz of an older brother. His cousin loved them. “When you’re trying to get your brain around a new concept, the last thing you need is another human being saying, ‘Do you understand this?’” Khan says. His cousin could pause the lesson, or re-watch the parts she didn’t understand.
In 2006, a friend convinced him to post his videos on YouTube. “[Then] I was getting letters from people
‘If you’re just focused on getting as many views as possible, you’re missing the point. It’s about deeper metrics – what are they doing after they watch that video?’
all over the world, saying how my videos had changed their life,” he says. Five years later, he quit his job to work full-time on Khan Academy, the non-profit company he founded off the back of his YouTube success. A 75-strong team is now based in Palo Alto in California’s Silicon Valley. The channel has had more than 500 million views. Khan’s vision has been endorsed by everyone from Bill Gates to Barack Obama, and he is working with institutions such as Stanford University.
While Khan is perhaps YouTube’s biggest success in the field of education, the platform is saturated with instructional videos. Shawn Mendes, the 16-year-old Canadian singer hailed as the “next Justin Bieber”, taught himself guitar entirely via YouTube. According to Khan, watching videos makes us smarter. He argues that, by giving us a basic level of knowledge, they help us get more out of experts.
Traditional educational establishments are embracing YouTube too. Universities worldwide are experimenting with video-based learning via “massive open online courses”. While there has been some debate over whether the availability of lectures online devalues universities, almost everyone agrees that video tutorials have a role to play in teaching. Khan believes that by teaching basic concepts ahead of class time, videos free teachers to focus on individual students. And by examining the data Khan Academy gathers on the study habits of each student – where they pause or re-watch a video – teachers can keep track of how much their students understand.
To those who say that sitting alone and watching something on a screen dehumanises learning, Khan says this: “The way to humanise a classroom is that the humans should interact with each other. What inhibits that is the lecture.” Driving the lecture out of the classroom is hardly a move towards hypermodernity, Khan argues. Rather, it takes us back to the Socratic method of tutorials, prizing critical thinking over rote learning. Who’d have thought it? YouTube promoting the classical education.
POLITICS OR PROPAGANDA
YouTube is now a raucous town square for those who aspire to power, good and evil. ISIL and KKK propaganda videos compete for views alongside those of local council candidates and teenage pranksters. Reflecting on his meetings with terrorists in the early 2000s, American veteran Middle East reporter Jeffrey Goldberg recently commented, “Journalists have been replaced by YouTube.”
Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign showed just how powerful the platform had become. Matthew McGregor and Stephen Muller worked on the US president’s online campaign. They would snatch clips of the Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s speeches, cut them up into attack ads and push them out within hours, wrecking Romney’s news cycle. The aim was to define the election as a choice between a moderate who built a recovery, and a wealthy, free-market fundamentalist divorced from the concerns of middle-class Americans. The team realised YouTube was a way of nudging carefully identified groups into changing their behaviour. Certain videos were aimed at journalists to shape their reports. Others were emailed to motivate door-knockers. “If you’re just focused on getting as many views as possible, you’re missing the point,” Muller says. “It’s about deeper metrics – what are they doing after they watch that video?”
The presidential campaign cost about $US1 billion ($1.32b in today’s terms). Obama’s online team had 300 staff, including 30 on YouTube alone. Had YouTube broadened democracy? Or had it simply shifted power to a new, smarter generation? “Money still counts,” McGregor concedes. “But the rules about who’s in a position to persuade people to register to vote, donate, volunteer – YouTube changes that fundamentally.”
Extras …( from top) Gamer Felix Kjellberg, aka PewDiePie; Charlie & Harry (the reaction shot); maths whiz Salman Khan; ( opposite page) Fifty Shades of Grey trailer; Justin Bieber today.