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.

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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.


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.


“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.


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.

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