YouTube was once uncharted territory, home to weird and wacky videos created for mild entertainment. Now it’s an empire of a whole community of creators and influencers producing wildly popular content. Hollie Geraghty asks why the mainstream media is reluctant to recognise them as celebrities
Last month, Birmingham city centre was brought to a standstill. Residents were stuck in traffic for hours and cars were abandoned. It was the doing of a teenager, James Charles – and his make-up palette – who was met by 8,000 screaming fans hoping get a glimpse of their favourite YouTuber. So why did the media have no idea who he was?
For the last decade, the mainstream media have fanned a somewhat futile conversation about where internet culture is going – how our narcissistic, ‘like’-obsessed mentality is rotting our brains and pushing us away from real-life human interaction. And as a result, internet personalities are looked down upon with scorn. YouTubers are the punching bag for generational frustration about Gen Z’s preference to traipse the internet for hours rather than, you know, do something productive.
A recent Ofcom report is a telling indication of just how much time young people in particular are spending on YouTube: 80 percent of children in the UK aged five to 15 have used YouTube, and nearly half of those between age eight to 15 prefer YouTube to TV; 52 percent of 12 to 15 year olds also claim to watch vloggers.
The 19-year-old phenomenon James Charles is one of the creators they’re tuning in for. Originally from Bethlehem, New York, the beauty guru has created an online movement and 14m-strong subscriber following of ‘sisters’. He’s collaborated with the Kardashians and is pals with Demi Lovato. At the end of January he appeared at Birmingham’s Bullring shopping centre to attend the opening of the second Morphe cosmetics store in the UK, a makeup brand he worked alongside to create his own palette.
The media response to Charles’ visit was an indication as to just how much contempt these mystery celebs are met with. The MailOnline called him a ‘virtually unknown US vlogger’, while LBC presenter James O’Brien got a phone call from Charles himself after ranting about his celebrity non-status.
A similar reaction was witnessed when vlogger and comedy YouTuber Joe Sugg was announced as a Strictly Come Dancing contestant last year. Social media and comment sections brimmed with with confusion and outrage as to why this ‘unknown’ was on a primetime dancing competition. He eventually became the runner-up, a result undoubtedly fuelled by his fandom, though it’s likely he also won over much of the British public – a growing fusion between traditional celebrity and online fame.
The response to James Charles’ first UK appearance is a pretty good indication as to how definitions of ‘celebrity’ are changing. 16-year-old Daniel Allen, a part-time hairdresser from Nottingham, won a highly sought -after meet-and-greet with Charles. “James is my idol – I really wouldn’t be me without him,” Allen tells NME. “He’s made it easier to come out and be who I am and to explain to my mum who I am. He’s breaking the norm.”
For such a huge fan, the unprecedented reaction to Charles’ visit was surprising. “He has 14 million followers, so I was confused and shocked as to how people didn’t know him.”
A 50-year-old make-up enthusiast and James Charles super-fan, Ruth Burtcher from Idaho, says it’s not necessarily a generational gap. “A YouTuber is the modern-day celebrity. I feel you get to know them more and they become more relatable rather than a person on-screen in a movie,” she tells NME.
However, it’s common for YouTubers to feel alienated by mainstream media outlets that don’t provide coverage of their success. “It actually blows my mind that so many news outlets refuse to recognise the success of youtubers,” Charles tweeted not long ago.
Commentary YouTuber Kavos, who has 1.1m subscribers, shares the sentiment. “The mainstream media don’t want to recognise YouTubers as legitimate celebrities because they are threatened,” they say. “The recent James Charles controversy proves how reluctant they are to accept YouTubers as celebrities and will even try to bring them down. YouTubers deserve the same recognition.”
But there are some seedy and toxic corners of YouTube stardom, which explains why parents are apprehensive to let their children get sucked into this world. American brothers Logan and Jake Paul are the most infamous of internet personalities, and neither is shy of controversy. Logan nearly ended his career after a vlog in the Japanese Suicide Forest in which he joked and filmed next to a suicide victim. Brother Jake has also been hit with criticism on more than one occasion, sparking anger last year after freestyling a rap using the n-word. They seem to be the epitome of the egocentric, banal YouTuber who coasts by on uninspired ideas and in-your-face content.
YouTube’s highest earning star PewDiePie also regularly runs into controversy, and has been accused of promoting anti-Semitic content and making racial slurs. It’s no surprise that parents are so sceptical of their children watching hours of virtually unpoliced content as a replacement for television. As child therapist Natasha Daniels puts it, “Would you let your young children walk down a seedy city street on their own? Probably not. Unfortunately, YouTube is a virtual seedy street.”
“James Charles has 14 million followers, so I was confused and shocked as to how people didn’t know him” – fan Daniel Allen
A child watching the Paul brothers can temporarily break the rules and live their rebellious ambitions through the videos of Hollywood millionaires who have more controversy attached to their careers than respect. And the scariest part for parents is how blissfully unaware they can be.
Though the press attempt to keep bigger creators accountable for near career-ending videos, it doesn’t prevent nor reverse the impact it has on viewers. We don’t really know if they’re doing it for shock factor or if that’s a part of the real person slipping through the filter, but either way, harmful content is readily available to easily-influenced children. As a result, YouTubers never struggle to make it into papers when they’ve done something wrong, and successes are rarely celebrated.
Chris Stokel-Walker, a freelance journalist specialising in technology and YouTube, who is due to publish a book about the platform later this year, believes deserving creators are neglected due to the fact that mainstream media is run by older editors.
“It’s something me and the literal handful of other journalists who cover YouTube with the respect and importance it deserves have been shouting about for a few years, but slowly attitudes are changing,” he told NME.
“It’s bizarre that people seem to think that YouTubers and online content creators still have a lesser job or do less work than celebrities. These are one-man or -woman bands juggling all kinds of different skills. They’re mini entrepreneurs who are handling both on-camera and off-camera responsibilities.”
Freelance journalist and author Rob McGibbon believes lack of media coverage of online personalities is a commercial decision. “It is based on what they think their readers know, and I think it’s probably a correct decision because most of the readers of the newspapers don’t have a clue as to who these YouTubers are. So why write about them?”
“They haven’t got that broad mass appeal to justify going into the newspapers. And what the newspapers are resisting is getting caught up in all the online hype that these YouTubers and influencers have – which actually, if you analyse it, is probably quite fickle, probably not that real,” he says. “These YouTubers can’t have it both ways. They can’t have an online fame and then expect the mainstream press to give them coverage.”
If the celebrities we connect with the most are the ones who have a personal impact on us and make us feel like we know them, there’s no denying people really feel like they know online personalities. Because of one YouTuber Daniel Allen felt like he could come out. Because of that same creator Ruth was able to explore her creativity and learn more about make-up at age 50.
It’s undeniable that YouTubers have had this effect on millions of people. But there’s credence in the argument that the quality of your average YouTuber’s output is not always much better than an overheard conversation on the bus. It is, after all, a mostly-unregulated platform where one video can teach you make-up and the next show you an idiot setting fire to his backyard for laughs.
Crucially, it’s allowed the people – and particularly young people – to pick their own idols, something that, for a generation growing up watching The X-Factor, is the perfectly natural thing to do. Ignoring this key platform, its stars its influence on a generation is only serving to widen a generation gap that – thanks to Brexit, among other things – is fast becoming a chasm.