It’s 2015 and YouTube has only been around for ten years, but already one wonders what a canny, creative teenager did on a slow suburban weekend before it came along. In the meantime, parents panic about the internet, fretting about stalkers and pornography and bullying, worried their kids will be brainwashed by fundamentalists – or, in our house, that their impressionable minds will be filled with fairy floss.
After what must have been a thousand hours of viewing, my 16-year-old daughter can apply liquid eyeliner in one deft sweep, unearth new music more swiftly than the A&R department at EMI, whip up a wholesome chia and granola pudding for breakfast and bake Christmas cake pops in the shape of reindeers.
Her father reckons she is frittering away her teenage years on stuff and nonsense, but I’m not so sure. For teenagers, YouTube is an extraordinary, democratic, libertarian medium. It’s a community of peers, much like the underground press was in the 1970s, but without an editor. It’s a free platform on which artists, actors, activists, the makers of cake pops and the knitters of onesies can exhibit their work.
All aspiring vloggers (video bloggers) need is a smart phone or a camera with video capability, and a simple edit program like iMovie. Uploading a video to YouTube is as easy as attaching a document to an email. The results might be approbation, love, sponsorship or the warm glow that comes from making even a tiny contribution to a better world.
Take the Australian pop punk quartet band 5 Seconds of Summer, the stuff of YouTube legend. These four lads from Riverstone, in Sydney’s far northwest, spent their weekends busking outside the local shopping centre and uploading cover versions to the web, and became a hit when a bunch of teenage girls stumbled upon their channel.
Word spread. Towards the end of 2011, there was an all-ages show at the Annandale Hotel in inner Sydney. It was the first time any of the band had been to a gig, let alone played one.
The music industry caught on belatedly. By then the band’s following had snowballed. They sold out their second show in five minutes flat. An EP and a support spot on One Direction’s world tour followed. Since then the band has hit No. 1 in Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and the UK (they made number two in the US) and headlined shows around the world. They’ve lived the dream that’s cherished by many of the creators of the 300 hours of video that are uploaded to YouTube every minute of every day.
The BBC has a YouTube channel. So does Giorgio Armani, the British monarchy, Russell Brand and the CIA.
YouTube has more than a billion monthly active users: roughly one in seven people on Earth. People watch hundreds of millions of hours of this stuff every day in 75 countries and 61 languages.
There’s a whole lot of mainstream programming on there, and a whole lot of rubbish. But there are obscure, brilliant, quirky gems too, and finding them offers membership to those in-the-know clubs that teenagers (and even adults) get a kick out of.
Abigail Harrison (Astronaut Abby) doesn’t want to shoot to stardom – she wants to shoot into space. “I was probably four or five years old when I first went outside at night, looked up at the stars and thought, ‘I want to go there some day,’” says Abby, now 17, and determined to be the first astronaut on Mars. She has a comprehensive website and a YouTube channel where she reports on science and space-related issues.
“There’s this incredible space community on social media,” she explains, and the ability to talk directly to real astronauts and engineers “just makes the whole thing feel more real and achievable”.
Teenagers constantly refer to this notion of community when talking about YouTube. Scarlett Curtis is a UK blogger, writer, student, baker and knitter. She struggled throughout her teens with chronic pain from a spinal operation and consequent depression. She dropped out of school and lost touch with friends, but she attributes her slow, sure recovery to the community of YouTubers who kept her company through long and sleepless nights.
Her favourites were Louise Pentland (Sprinkle of Glitter) and Tanya Burr. “These women talked to me,” Curtis wrote last December in The Guardian. “They talked in a way that most people had become too scared to, and for the first time in years I began to feel like a teenage girl again. When they laughed I felt happy, when they cried I felt sad, when they talked about their boyfriends, parents or new favourite lip gloss, I felt like I had a friend again.”
Pentland and Burr are two of Britain’s star vloggers. They post intimate chats, bringing their cameras (and thus their viewers) along on reassuringly ordinary days as well as special occasions, sharing tips on make-up, cooking or self-esteem.
“The skill, effort and intelligence that goes into making a person feel as if they are not alone, as if they are hanging out with a friend, as if they are safe, is immense,” says Curtis.
Which is perhaps why YouTube has become such a valuable resource in the LGBTIQ [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual, Intersexual and Questioning] community. Australian musician Troye Sivan’s coming out video has been viewed more than five million times and it is honest, hopeful, moving and reassuring.
The entertainment magazine Variety reports the most popular vloggers now have substantially bigger teenage fan bases than mainstream celebrities. Many young vloggers are using their YouTube fame to rally support for causes and charities. After reading John Green’s bestselling novel The Fault in Our Stars, Troye Sivan wrote a song about young people living with cancer and donated the proceeds to a hospital in Western Australia.
British lads Jacksgap rode across India in a tuk-tuk for the Teenage Cancer Trust and they’ve recently become advocates for greater understanding about mental health. British YouTube star, Zoella (whose channel has almost eight million subscribers), has shared her own struggle with anxiety and shared coping strategies.
Sprinkle of Glitter isn’t all fairy lights and cupcakes either. She’s posted an informative big-sister chat about self-harm. And Sarah Hawkinson is a Goth fashion and beauty vlogger who also studies psychology, speaks out against stigma and posts considered discussions of mental health.
British geek-girl Tyrannosauruslexxx mashes a Harry Potter obsession with a fondness for bath products and some serious feminist and human rights concerns. Her £100 Billion vlog is funny to boot. Kat Lazo is a New Yorker who grew up in a Colombian/Peruvian family and looked to the internet for answers to her questions about “machismo”. She stumbled upon sites like Feministing, F Bomb, The Crunk Feminist Collective and began watching Laci Green. “The internet,” she says, “was my The Feminine Mystique … and I realised that I could be the change I wanted to see in the world.”
Many young YouTubers see the platform more as a medium for self-expression than advocacy. It has been a boon for young artists like Andre Brimo, a 19-year-old Sydney-based media and arts production student who posts short horror films.
For 16-year-old Didda, YouTube is all about creative expression. Her whimsical, beautiful, funny films mix the hyper-reality of Icelandic (and sometimes Norwegian) landscapes with quirky special effects. Her world is a little like a hipster Narnia (without the preachiness). “I mostly make my videos to entertain people and make them laugh,” she says, and attributes her sense of humour to watching Donald Duck cartoons growing up.
Didda is convinced that YouTube means the end of mainstream TV, and to some extent she’s probably right, at least for the teenage demographic. Swedish gamer PewDiePie, YouTube’s most popular star, has more than 30 million subscribers and his most popular video has clocked up around 60 million views. By comparison, 8.1 million “legitimate viewers” watched the record-breaking fifth season finale of Game of Thrones and roughly 1.5 million tuned into the 2015 MTV Movie Awards. Traditional TV stations, managed by lumbering hierarchies, can’t compete with YouTube’s immediacy and intimacy.
“I often feel isolated in Iceland,” says Didda, “and YouTube is more personal than television. It helps me connect with the world’.”