‘Vain and inane’? Meet the superstar vloggers

Waxing lyrical: Zoe Sugg and Alfie Deyes have been immortalised at Madame Tussauds. © PA

Last night, BBC3 delved into the world of YouTube vloggers. They reach billions of viewers by offering make up tutorials and narrating video games. Tediously boring? Or the future of media?

In April 2005, Jawed Karim uploaded a video that would change online media. Called Me at the zoo it lasted just 18 seconds. The cool thing about elephants, Jawed said, is that they have ‘really, really, really long trunks… And that’s pretty much all there is to say’.

The statement was not prophetic. This was the first video ever posted to YouTube, and it turned out that its users had a lot more to say. Today, more than a decade after the site’s launch, around 300 hours of video are uploaded every minute, reaching over one billion users each month. It is the third most popular site on the internet, and a vast industry where the top personalities earn up to £4.5m per year.

This is the world explored in a BBC3 documentary last night, as the vlogger Jim Chapman interviewed his fellow YouTube stars to find out how the rise to fame had changed their lives. Between them, the interviewees alone have racked up more than six billion views. ‘There is a lot of pressure to be always online,’ said the sex education vlogger Laci Green. ‘That’s a lot for one person.’

In the USA, YouTube stars are more popular with teenagers than mainstream celebrities, and with that popularity comes enormous influence. Three vloggers were given the chance to interview President Obama in January. Last year, the beauty guru Tanya Burr gave a talk at the United Nations. And in 2014, the vlogger and author of The Fault In Our Stars, John Green, was named one of Time‘s 100 most influential people in the world.

But not everyone is so enthralled with the YouTube revolution. The vlogging couple Alfie Deyes and Zoe Sugg (also known as Zoella) were described as ‘vain and inane’ by the Vice writer Joe Bish in 2014, part of a ‘pageantry of the boring’ in mainstream culture. ‘This isn’t where we should want entertainment to go,’ he concluded.

Against the stream

Perhaps Vice is right, say some. Allowing anyone to upload a video leads to a lot of painfully dull, self-absorbed content. Worse still, it increasingly involves promoting sponsored products, losing the authentic voice that YouTube once claimed would change the media forever. We must face the truth: when our biggest celebrities are known for playing video games and applying make up, society has taken a wrong turn.

Not so, fans respond. YouTube has been an incredible way for people to express themselves and find a sense of community. It has been used for some inspiring causes; John Green and his brother Hank raised over £1m for charity last year, while Zoella has helped to raise awareness about anxiety and mental health issues. YouTube is not just the future of media: it is the present, and it is more compassionate and democratic than ever.

You Decide

  1. Do you have a favourite YouTube celebrity? Who are they, and what do you like about them?
  2. Is vlogging a ‘vain’ career choice?

Activities

  1. Film a three-minute YouTube video on a subject that matters to you.
  2. Write 300 words about an inspirational celebrity — from YouTube or elsewhere — and what they have taught you.

Some People Say...

“YouTube is the most important form of media in the 21st century.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Isn’t this just a normal part of life?
It is now, but it’s easy to forget just how new YouTube is, and the ways in which it is changing aspects of our culture. Its stars are still trying to understand the ‘etiquette’. Businesses are learning how it can help them make money. Television channels are reflecting on its impact on more traditional entertainment. All of this makes it an exciting and vibrant part of the internet — but it is important to consider what we really want from it.
How can I be a vlogger?
Very easily — just record a video and post it to the site. But remember, anyone can see what you post. So make sure you don’t give personal details, and keep in mind that not everyone will like it. And don’t expect to make millions just yet — it’s a tough place to make it big.

Word Watch

£4.5m per year
This is the amount earned by the video game vlogger Felix Kjellberg (aka PewDiePie) in 2014. He currently has over 41 million subscribers, the highest number on YouTube.
Vlogger
A video blogger.
More popular
According to a survey by the magazine Variety in 2014, the five figures with the most influence on 13-18-year-olds were all YouTube stars.
United Nations
In 2015, the UN set 17 ‘Global Goals’, outlining 169 targets it hopes to achieve by 2030. It enlisted several celebrities to help promote the goals.
Sponsored
Brands sometimes pay YouTubers to endorse a certain product. Legally, they should make it clear when a video has been paid for by a third party.
£1m for charity
John and his brother Hank set up the first ‘Project For Awesome’ in 2007, a fundraiser which has been hosted on YouTube every year since. The funds go to the ‘Foundation to Decrease World Suck’, which allocates them to various charities.
Anxiety
Feelings of worry or fear. Although anxiety is a normal part of life, it can be classed as a mental health problem if it becomes overwhelming.

Subjects

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