Storytime! A Decade On, Here’s What Life Looks Like For Career YouTubers
We went to VidCon Australia and talked to YouTuber veterans like Hannah Hart, Hank Green and Thomas Sanders about the weirdest job in the world.
At Vidcon Australia, I’m flung against the glass revolving doors as a pack of aggressive teens stampede past me. They think they’ve seen a famous YouTuber, and want to mob her with furious affection and awe. It is not a famous YouTuber however, it is just a tiny baffled looking blonde boy, and everyone is disappointed.
Later on that day, I exit the hotel after interviewing some of the VidCon celebrities, and a very tired mother points me out to her pre-teen daughter. Who knows how long they’d been waiting outside, hoping to catch sight of someone important.
“Is that a YouTuber?” she asks, wearily but with hope.
“Omg, no mum,” answered the daughter with infinite disdain.
“Oh, he just has the pants for it,” she answered.
It seems that everyone is looking for YouTubers — but as I discover over the weekend, maybe there’s maybe no such thing as a YouTuber. Not really. Not anymore.
But it’s fine! That sounded way too dramatic.
The Good Old Days
My idea of what constitutes a YouTuber is about ten years out of date.
YouTube as a medium started back in the fabled days of 2005, and anybody who uploaded videos of themselves at the zoo or falling over on the snow was technically a “YouTuber”. But by around 2010, there were a handful of regular users with widely followed channels, who were given the title of YouTubers. Some of them fell to the wayside or segued out into other careers, and others are still on the site today, still making videos.
There’s a very good chance you’d recognise some of them, even if you aren’t amongst their fan group — they have millions of followers and a whole bunch of viral content.
You probably have seen in passing some of the astronomically big names — the controversial people like Logan Paul or PewDieiePie, who individually can boast over 66 million followers, but if you’re not in that space, you could easily forget that there are thousands of other YouTube based celebrities making a career (and often a very good one at that).
“I guess it’s like I think the biggest misconception about YouTube is that people think it’s one thing,” Hannah Hart tells me.
Hannah is one of the vanguard YouTubers from the olden days, made famous for her excessively funny My Drunk Kitchen series, which she first started uploading in 2011. I used to watch it a lot, instead of doing my extremely repetitive captioning job at the time.
This sort of introduction makes her sound venerable and aged, but it’s not actually true. It’s just that she’s been using YouTube as a big part of her career for over seven years, and has kinda been watching the whole thing mutate and evolve to what it is today. Also, a lot of her newer peers on the medium are literally 16 years old or younger. YouTube is massive with the youth.
“Broad strokes, I feel like people refer to YouTube and ‘YouTubers’ as if they are a type. Now, you know, YouTube has become household, mainstream, and so, of course, we have all the same iterations as in mainstream pop media. You know, we have your superstars, your pranksters, your this-that, your musicians… like whatever, it’s just a different set of people using the same tool, I guess.”
YouTube is huge these days, and varied like Hannah says. There are multiple genres, from the million dollar makeup YouTubers to the insanely popular people who play games to an audience, to those people who open up boxes of things and earn money from it. Arguably, the only thing that connects them is a shared medium.
“There are lots of online video communities,” says Hank Green. I’ll explain who Hank Green is later. “It would be like saying, what’s going on in the music community this week. No, there’s no music community. Like, country western singers are different from hip-hop artists, and don’t hang out with each other.”
But that doesn’t particularly interest me — YouTube is a huge baffling multi-million dollar industry, filled with an upsetting number of rich talented teens who I don’t know.
What interests me is those early days, when YouTubing was only new, when you could list the rising stars of the medium on two hands and maybe an errant foot, when everything just seemed like a weird scrappy accident, and some video weirdos who did odd shit in their rooms suddenly found themselves with a weird career.
A Big Happy Accident
It’s Hannah Hart’s seven-year YouTube anniversary this year.
Her first video was simply called ‘My Drunk Kitchen’, and it was scrappily recorded on her Macbook’s Photobooth program, as a homesick way of saying hi to her friend back in San Francisco. It was halfway between a private joke and a parody of a cooking show. In it, Hannah paid homage to her habit of attempting to cook things by getting drunk and trying her best to cook a grilled cheese sandwich, without any cheese.
The results are a pretty spectacular mix of messy and hilarious. It’s very funny, and managed to hit that sweet spot of showcasing Hannah’s natural charm and wit in a cool and shareable idea. Whatever! The point is, she didn’t make the video in an attempt to become a viral YouTube hit.
It was a happy accident.
Those first few years of YouTube have this scrappy and DIY attitude that’s markedly different to today — nobody really knew what they were doing, and there was no established formula to follow. People were doing weird, funny things, without the wealth of trendsetters there are now. Hannah wasn’t even one of the first people doing it — but she is one of the older names recognisable in the community.
It seems that the idea of a “YouTuber” kinda grew organically, as soon as the tool became popular, became mainstream.
“It was just all collaborative, all just encouraging, all okay,” says Hannah Hart about those early years.
“Everybody was just like, ‘Oh, how cool that you’re doing something. How cool that you’re making something. What technique are you using for this? Oh, wow!'”
There was a spirit of collaboration, a sharing of how to use this strange new format. Hannah gives us an example:
“Beauty YouTubers brought the ring light to everybody, because they were the first ones to use ring lights in their videos for lighting.”
The ring light is a fairly established tool for lighting in Vlogging now, but it’s kinda indicative of the pioneering attitude to the entire YouTube process that happened. They were all finding out shit together.
“I don’t know, I guess I’m just really happy that I had the generation I had, because it was like we were all going to school together and we were all graduating. Nobody was watching, you know what I mean? Nobody was saying whether or not we were at a good college. There was no competition with each other at all. Nobody cared about being the number one YouTuber.”
There wasn’t as much scrutiny.
Don’t Let Your Dreams Just Be Dreams
While Hannah Hart didn’t start YouTubing with the intention of building a career, it was pretty quickly obvious that it was a thing that was happening.
She first noted that things got real “when I had reputable organisations like Time Magazine asking for interviews, that was really disorienting — I had like six videos out the first time that ever happened.”
Obviously, she had to adapt quickly.
“I paid a photographer to take a picture of me because I didn’t have any headshots or anything. I was like, literally — I’m not in entertainment.” Hannah worked three jobs at the time. The opportunities not only gave her the opportunity to eventually leave those, but also to work creatively, and to change her life.
“It’s insane to me, you know? It’s too good to be true and I feel like I cannot speak for any other creator, but for me, I feel like all of this privilege is responsibility. I choose to be … I’ve been given so much and I’ve got to be the best version of myself. You know what I mean? I’m like, ‘Oh my God, so wait, I’m sorry I get to pursue my dreams and I’m making more money than I ever thought I would make?'”
There still seems to be a problem of categorisation for YouTubers — at the time, it was particularly difficult for mainstream media and the hordes of offline folk to get their heads around the concept of an online celebrity, of a niche superstar.
Hank Green and his brother John Green basically helm an entire media empire now, including the popular Vlogbrothers channel.
They started off with the very popular Brotherhood 2.0 project late in 2006, which was a series based on the premise that the brothers would cease all text-based communication for one year and, instead, converse by video blogs every weekday. One of their first viral videos from the channel was a very cute ode to the final Harry Potter book (’twas the times) — the first Vlogbrothers video to make the front page of YouTube, and a starting point of the brothers’ success as Vloggers.
The Brotherhood 2.o project is a great example of their work — it’s funny, goofy and somehow personal, without giving too much away. You feel like you just picked sat down with two nerdy brothers having a nice chat.
It seems that even now, it’s that idea of connection with another person that drives the popularity of YouTubers.
Hank Green kickstarted his career from his YouTuber popularity, but for him, the happy accident was always in the back of his mind.
“Before we were getting paid, I felt like it was important and interesting and cool. I didn’t think it was a career. But I figured it would help me with my career, you know? Like if that was going to be, you know, working in media or consulting with magazines or online publications or whatever, this would be a good way. If I did this for a while and I had an audience, I’d be able to get a job. And then we started making money. That’s when it was like, oh, can I not have my other jobs? Can I stop freelancing? Can I just do this? And that was wonderful.”
This Is Such A Silly Job
YouTubers are entertainers first and foremost, and that means they spend most of their time doing really silly stuff.
Most of the people I talked to at VidCon worked in comedy or comedy adjacent video, so pretty stark examples of people who got to enjoy their jobs. But, even for people whose schtick is literally getting drunk on camera like Hannah Hart, it’s important to remember it is still a job.
“It’s a funny show but it’s also funny because of the rhythm, the timing and the editing. People are like, ‘Oh, my God how drunk do you get?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know, pretty drunk. Anyway, it takes me like four hours to edit. That’s not the important part!”
A career in YouTubing requires a massive amount of hours, some business savvy, a ton of creativity and talent. But one place where it differs from other jobs is in the weird opportunities it offers. I wanted to find out whether the sheer amount of fun that people imagine YouTubers have all the time actually happens. I asked everyone about it, and the answers were frankly quite uninteresting: yes, they have fun. All those videos we watch of them having fun? They’re fun.
“I’m literally so thankful that my silliness that I did on Vine and on YouTube has gotten me the opportunities like coming here to Australia. Which I never thought I would have that chance, in this capacity. And it is just a whirlwind of wonderfulness. There’s so much more of that good that outweighs any of the scariness or carelessness,” says Thomas Sanders, one of the worlds biggest Vine (RIP) and now YouTube stars.
He is a ball of sunshine, a real Labrador boy, and his content is generally wholesome and funny, as best evidenced by his ‘Storytime’ series, which could be best described as a concerted effort to make the world a better place.
During our interview, we’re cloistered off in the corner of the ‘Instagram Lounge’, a bizarrely curated playspace for influencers and stars (and the media) to get away from the fans. Literally, every corner of it is optimised for visual content and selfies, and we sit on a bench surrounded by a literal garden of emojis, bathed in flattering purple light.
He tells me a story about the time he filmed himself out the front of someone’s house while singing a jingle for one of his regular video series, and was questioned by the owner. Sanders found it difficult to not only explain exactly what he was doing at that moment, but also what he did in general.
“And I explained. Because I was like, this is pretty ridiculous. This is a very ridiculous thing. I know it. And I tried to explain it. I showed them as much as what I could, they went back to their house, and then shortly after, I’m at church. And I get a call from my mom and she’s like, ‘Thomas, we have two police officers here who say that you have been outside of somebody’s property acting sketchy.'”
“My parents tried to explain who I was, because my parents still, it’s hard for them to explain what I did. And so one of the cops was like, ‘Oh, Thomas Sanders. Oh, I know him.” He turns to his partner, is like, I watch his stuff. He’s a Viner.'”
But, as the famous saying goes, along with great silliness comes great responsibility. It’s not news that entertainment in all its glittering facets has the power to educate and inform, and YouTube is no different.
Six years ago, Hannah Hart posted a coming out video on her channel.
It was before the era of coming out videos as a kind of standard for Vloggers, and hers was a heartfelt, personal, beautiful thing. It meant a lot to me at the time, being a weirdly repressed, semi-closeted queer who didn’t want to talk to anyone about anything. I was able to relate to a stranger’s video somehow.
It’s an experience shared by lots of other people. YouTubers have a powerful ability to talk directly to fans, in ways that are more intimate and less curated than other mediums.
Ashly Perez explains to me that my experience isn’t really an outlier, that queer people are drawn to YouTube for a reason.
“The LGBTIQ community helped build so much of what YouTube is, because it’s a niche community and that’s why so many people went there. Tyler Oakley, Hannah Hart, all of these big first creators who were first there helped create that.”
Ashly Perez uses her platform to talk all things feminism, body-positivity, queerness and race among other things. She started out making sketch-based comedy videos with BuzzFeed, before leaving and focusing on her own channel, wanting to diversify out of just one medium. She is passionate about using a digital medium like YouTube to reach places like the queer community.
“Frankly, marginalised audiences need digital. It’s free, they have access to it, it’s global. I’m in Australia right now and I have so many fans here because I’m on YouTube and if I was on TV it might not be the same because you don’t know what the pick up’s gonna be.”
She also points out that as YouTube grows in popularity, it provides a larger platform to help spread social messages.
“The one thing I will say about causes and being political, particularly in America in this day and age, with Trump as our President, I do think that social has provided me with the best place to have a direct audience with people who are hurting right now and who don’t feel heard, and who don’t feel like their voice is being made a difference.”
That said, she also tells me that there are problems with YouTube doing shifty things like de-monetising and de-prioritising videos from creators with specific LGBTIQ content.
“And I think the thing for me too is, I have tried specifically to make content and to make things that are still positive and that remain positive in this environment and I think that’s the coolest thing about social. And, you know, even if I, I’m working on TV deals now and books and things that belong to the traditional world, but I’ll always, always make content for digital because there’s no audience like it.”
New Kids On The Block
These days, pretty much every long-term YouTuber is better described as an entertainer — they have multiple book deals, they have TV shows, they appear in films, they have podcasts and businesses. They’re highly diversified media stars.
Hannah Hart, for example, has two books and has appeared in two fan-funded feature films and had a show on the cooking channel. She’s working on a new project with Ellen Degeneres, as well as a really cute podcast called Hannahlyze This. YouTube is just one feather in their big flamboyant hats.
YouTube itself is only growing in popularity, but it’s skewing younger than ever before with its audience. According to this article, in March of 2018 alone YouTube drew 31.8 million US users aged 18 to 24, who spent an average of 10 hours, 15 minutes on the site. For this generation, you can argue that YouTube has replaced regular usage of most social media, as well as filling in for things like network television. It’s huge.
This is reflected not only in the median age of the people at VidCon, but also the extreme youth of the huge amount of wannabe YouTubers attending the conference. VidCon acts both as a venue for fans to meet their favourite creators, as well as a kind of professional pathways experience, with lessons from more experienced creators, with introductions to brand, with marketing and branding workshops.
YouTubing is seen not only as an extremely cool career option, but also a viable one. Whether or not that’s actually true is debatable, with statistics that show that more wannabe YouTubers are gonna live below the poverty line than make the desired millions, but that’s pretty true for all creative industries really. The dream is real, and young idealistic idiots are always gonna throw their hat into the ring (I can call them idiots because I WRITE for a living, like a fucking doofus).
The goal is to be a YouTube superstar.
As someone who’s been extremely involved in the rise of YouTubery as a career, Hank Green believes that the new fervour for the job can be dangerous:
“Yeah. People are working very hard and it is seen as a career. And especially for young people. It’s not just seen as a career, it’s seen as one of the most desirable careers. And so people will work very hard. And I worry about that. I worry about how hard people will work. And I worry about sort of like the things that they will do to get that.
“Whereas, for people in my generation, it was like, oh, this thing. This dumb hobby we had turned into a job. And there was a lot of complaining about not feeling legitimate, or not feeling recognised by the traditional media industry. But now that it is recognised by the traditional media industry, it’s actually much worse.”
“It’s just a lot harder. There’s a lot more pressure. And you have to not worry about whether you’re being recognised but how you’re being recognised by the media industry and what data points are they looking at, what matters to them. And so instead of being like, nobody’s paying attention, it’s like, they are paying attention. And it’s a pretty intense kind of scrutiny…”
But it’s not just about the danger of struggling and failing — the older YouTubers I speak to are worried about the cost of very young people trying to become famous online personalities.
“I don’t know, I get worried about the generations that are growing up having to define themselves,” says Hannah Hart. “I feel really lucky that I was in my early 20s when I started, because I got to have that. A lot of these kids they are sacrificing the privacy of their learning curve.”
I note that where once a coming out video like Hannah’s was a fairly new and revolutionary idea — something that really helped both the people posting their experience and the small community of queers who would see it, nowadays its almost expected for every gay personality to contribute to the form, to brand themselves through that format.
“I’m trying to be delicate because again I’m not trying to necessarily shit on it,” says Hannah. “The commodification of these moments, I think for me it’s like I would never share something because I should share it — I only share things because I want to share them.”
Daily Vlogging is not only the most popular form of YouTubing at the moment, but it’s also almost the only way to create enough video content to actually create a sustainable channel in terms of growing and retaining an audience, and getting those lucrative clickies. That means that a trend of sharing, revealing and above all commodifying your life and personality has become accepted and standard.
“They’re Truman showing themselves, it’s so weird. I mean not weird. It’s interesting but also that was kind of Livejournal for my generation. We all wrote embarrassing shit, posted it, thought we were geniuses, etc.”
I had a LiveJournal too. But we take a moment to relish in how easy it was to delete those, and how few people ever saw them.
Video Killed The Video Star
It’s unclear what the future holds for YouTubers (if they even truly exist anymore).
Some people are convinced that YouTube will die like Vine did, or suddenly get populated by every mum in the world like Facebook, and the children will flee onto other, hypothetical platforms. Perhaps Instagram will take over with a more intuitive video interface. Perhaps there will be a completely new social media platform. Perhaps swarms of the walking dead will rise up and eat our faces.
Or, recently there’s been a rise of massive media companies taking over from individual personalities, such as the behemoth T-Series company, who just may knock PewDiePie off his perch as most followed content creator. Perhaps conglomerates will be the death of the YouTuber.
Regardless, it’s clear that we’ve already passed through a certain era — the time of the accidental YouTuber, of the vanguard YouTube star. They’re obviously still around, still doing their thing, still being successful and making great work across new and exciting mediums — but everyone proceeding in their wake is an entirely different animal.
Not better or worse, but definitely different. It’s worth taking a moment to note exactly how weird and wonderful their whole business was.
Patrick Lenton is an author and staff writer at Junkee. He tweets @patricklenton.