The world of young YouTube vloggers points to the limitations of optimistic claims about ‘digital creativity’.
This week’s launch of a new magazine about young YouTube vloggers has been greeted with a flood of online sarcasm. Yet the ‘web celeb’ phenomenon has a lot to tell us about the changing shape of young people’s internet culture.
Oh My Vlog! is published by Egmont, a longstanding magazine publisher with extensive interests in the children’s and youth market. Costing a not-inconsiderable £3.99, it is a one-off pilot designed to test the market.
The magazine looks very much like other Egmont titles such as We Love Pop, and indeed much earlier teen girls’ magazines like Just Seventeen. It contains pictures, posters and stickers of celebrity vloggers; quizzes and puzzles; interviews, gossip and factoids; and plugs for books and other vlog-related merchandise. One of the highlights is a Top Trumps game in which leading vloggers are assessed for their ‘phwoarsomeness’ and their ‘LOLs ratings’.
The very existence of Oh My Vlog! reflects the remarkable rise of YouTube vlogging among its target readership. Another index would be the annual Summer in the City festival, to be held in London in a couple of weeks’ time. The event includes talks, screenings and ‘brand exhibitions’, as well as masterclasses and opportunities to meet and greet star vloggers. While most of the vloggers featured (there are almost 100 on the site thus far) look to be in their twenties, the key target audience – as for Oh My Vlog! – is early-to-mid teenagers, and seems to be largely female. A weekend ticket (including T-shirt) costs no less than £52, and you can bet the merchandise won’t be cheap either.
For the celebrities of this world, this is an exceptionally lucrative phenomenon. Zoella (Zoe) Sugg, aged 25, is probably the leading star in this firmament. She began her vlog in 2009, and now has over 7 million subscribers. According to an exceptionally reliable source (viz: an MTV slide show), she currently earns an estimated £300,000 a year. Although her main focus is fashion and beauty products, Zoella has growing interests in other media, including music, publishing and TV. Her brother, Joe Sugg, and her current boyfriend, Alfie Deyes, are also among the most successful YouTube vloggers.
The announcement of Oh My Vlog! provoked what one commentator called a ‘generational Twitter meltdown’. Although it’s always hard to tell, it seems that much of the sneering came from older people – perhaps the so-called ‘Generation Y’ who might previously have assumed that social media belonged to them.
Many of the tweets and journalistic responses (like this one in Vice and this in the Irish Examiner, or this Twitter parody) are about generational performance. In line with Pierre Bourdieu’s arguments about ‘distinction’, people use the display of media tastes and preferences to mark off their own generation from others, and thereby to construct and affirm their own generational identity. (I’ve written about this here.)
However, there’s often a good deal of self-conscious irony about this, as in this tweet from Lucy James. Wired magazine even ran a quiz designed to help its older readers assess if they were part of the magazine’s target audience (which, needless to say, I dismally failed).
Some commentators have expressed surprise that a digital phenomenon like vlogging would be covered by an old-fashioned print medium like a magazine – although, as today’s Guardian column pointed out, this is just another reflection of cross-media convergence. Indeed, it’s interesting that some of the leading celebrity vloggers have also published best-selling books – most notably Zoella’s Girl Online, apparently the fastest-selling title of 2014.
Set alongside the academic debate about young people and the internet, Oh My Vlog! and the world it represents raise some interesting questions. Many academics have been keen to proclaim the civic virtue of young people’s online ‘participatory culture’. The advent of social media is described by some as a form of empowerment, and a challenge to the dominance of mainstream media. Yet this argument may say more about those academics’ political (and generational) fantasies than it does about young people themselves.
In fact, what is proving so engaging for so many young people online is not political activism and debate, but shopping, fashion and celebrity gossip. This is self-evidently a commercial world, in which young people are competing not just to sell products but also to sell themselves as brands. If making is connecting (as some academics would have it), then sharing is advertising. This is not just promotional culture: it is self-promotional culture.
Flicking through the sites of the contributors to Summer in the City (and yes, there is a PhD project here…), it is hard to identify anything even remotely subversive. Some of it is quirky and satirical, but much of it is just vapid. This is a vanilla world; and certainly in the case of Oh My Vlog! (if not Summer in the City), it is also one that is predominantly white. It’s a long way from the forms of youth cultural resistance that caused left-wing academics to wax lyrical back in the day… (Please note the ironic display of generational identity here.)
On one level, the success of the YouTube vloggers might seem to support the idea that young people’s everyday digital creativity can lead on to paid employment. Yet as I have argued elsewhere, this is a possibility that is likely to be available for only a tiny minority. In this respect, Zoella and her cohorts are merely the latest elite of cultural producers, a kind of vlog dynasty – although arguably they retain much more control of their brands than celebrities in many other fields.
Oh My Vlog! gives the lie to many of the optimistic aspirations that surround debates about young people’s internet culture. It might seem to celebrate a world of unreal appearances, but we would do well to regard it as a reality check.