YouTube is a merry-go-round of stars, scandal and skin care. It’s a magical place and Sarah Maria Griffin can’t keep away.
I have been tentatively writing about my relationship with the internet for months now, but one realm of the great online keeps calling me back in a way that I can’t really explain or justify. In the last two years, I’ve gotten really into YouTube. This is my secret shame, a private sphere of media that I consume alone – and because I consume it alone, I don’t really get to talk about what I watch in detail.[restrict]
I don’t get to critique it in any meaningful way that leans deep on the texture of what makes videos work, what makes content viral, what makes the celebrities that have flourished there so powerful. They tower in their influence from YouTube, even in the speed-viewing era of Tiktok where the champions are, I am deadly serious, fifteen actual years old. There are YouTubers online who have been turning the internet into their royal court for longer than Charli D’Amelio has been able to sit upright.
I desperately need to talk about this. I’m haunted by the ghosts of a thousand makeup tutorials and house tours and I am here to exorcise them, then hold them under a microscope and figure out what they’re made of.
YouTube has uncountable microcosms within the greater structure of the platform. The Beauty Community. Streaming, speedrunning, esports. Vlogs, reaction videos, video-format-memes. Mukbangs, the exotic animal community, drama channels. This is not to speak of conspiracy theories, pickup artists – the areas of YouTube aimed more towards radicalisation than entertainment, or some grotesque hybrid of both. Family-oriented channels, ASMR, old episodes of Bob Ross. Chill Lowfi Studio Ghibli Beats To Study To. None of these terms existed in my childhood: or when I got my undergrad in cultural studies. This wasn’t that long ago: new media just accelerated sharply in the years after I graduated. My learning of theory and media texts stopped before YouTube became an industry, became moneyed beyond belief- and this the form exploded.
To ignore YouTube is to turn away from a media advent that rivals the television itself – come at me, I will defend this to the end. We’re all looking at video content but are we really looking at Video Content? Not as some niche corner of the internet, some product Google turned out – but as a phenomenon consumed by entire generations without having assigned it a critical language, a canon – a Criterion Collection, even.
This doesn’t at all go to say that there aren’t people writing about YouTube. Journalists are producing incredible work about the culture of the platform – there are podcasts dedicated to YouTube channels so niche that approaching them requires learning a whole new lexicon. There are people doing good work in Ireland, too – recently for the Irish Times, Amy O’Conner looked closely at Tiktok and Ireland’s (mostly teenage) users on the platform. We are figuring out how to talk about video content: but I wonder is it possible to decide on a canon of YouTube videos? Because everyone’s YouTube experience is different, the videos you grew up watching on repeat are likely not at all the same as the videos I grew up watching on repeat. The Drama Channels you tune into are almost definitely not the same as the ones I watch.
The emphasis in YouTube falls on You. This speaks, inadvertently, to the parasocial nature of the form. I’ve written about parasocial relationships before, but I keep coming back to them because they are the biggest ghost in the internet machine: they are the intense, one-way emotional bonds we form around people in the media.
YouTube is rife with parasocial interaction: that almost intangible feeling of just knowing a person you watch online. That shadow-friendship. Podcasts are notorious for this too – and in some ways, it explains how beloved Radio hosts gain their hold and influence too. The root maybe, of all influence, is in that parasocial bond. A viewer feels like they just know a performer: they like them, they trust them, and entertainment feels like company. Which feels like friendship, which feels like love. And god, do people love YouTube.
So here at Rogue, I’m going to be unpacking YouTube. I’m going to develop my own Criterion Collection, wind the clock right back to a heavily pixelated Jenna Marbles helping you trick people into you’re good looking, and keep an eye on 2020’s darlings, too. I am not necessarily here for the drama but I will be looking at scandal, and the role the social phenomenon of cancellation holds in the economy of YouTube. As I type my browser is packed with windows on my first subject: The Bon Appetit Test Kitchen. I’ll be starting by looking at a phenomenon as it is happening: one of an unlikely crew of reality stars who test recipes for a living.
It was hard to know where to begin because YouTube is infinite and growing. Three hundred hours of video are uploaded to the platform every minute. YouTube swells and changes and rotates new stars year on year, though the brightest in the digital sky cannot ever be dimmed. And I just can’t stop looking at them.