- 9th February 2015
- Editors: Nisha Lilia Diu, Méabh Ritchie
In late 2005, when YouTube was just a few months old, one of its co-founders announced that the site’s users were consuming the equivalent of an entire Blockbuster store each month. Today, 300 hours of video are uploaded to the site every minute. And Blockbuster… Well, kids, Blockbuster was a video rental shop offering films on DVD and VHS. VHS tapes were like giant cassettes. Cassettes were… Oh, never mind.
The online video behemoth has become the world’s third most-visited website, after Google and Facebook. According to Jawed Karim, he and two of his PayPal colleagues, Chad Hurley and Steve Chen, launched the site after becoming frustrated that they couldn’t find footage of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami and, er, Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” at the Super Bowl the same year.
This high-and-low ethos is baked into YouTube’s culture. It’s been lauded for promoting democracy and reenergising education, while being disparaged for its endless cat videos and nasty user comments.
What is beyond debate is YouTube’s influence (spotted by a far-sighted Google in 2006, when it bought the site for $1.65 billion). Almost anyone can upload almost anything to YouTube, for free, and be in with a chance of reaching its one billion monthly users – whether they’re activists, terrorists, politicians or pop stars (or just the proud owner of a “mutant giant spider dog”). It has changed our world.
The 40-year old MP for Witney scrapes plates into a bin, while his wife helps their children get ready for school in their handsome kitchen.
“Watch out BBC, ITV, Channel 4. We’re the new competition. We’re a bit wobbly, but this is one of the ways we want to communicate with people properly,” says David Cameron. It is October 2006 and WebCameron, a new YouTube channel, is born.
Ten months earlier Cameron had won the Conservative leadership on a platform of reaching the voters others could not. The expenses scandal was brewing and Steve Hilton, his top adviser, realised the new website offered a chance to by-pass the television broadcasters and win over voters who’d never touched the Tories.
In the eight years since, YouTube has become a raucous town square for those who aspire to power, good and evil. Isil and KKK propaganda videos jostle for attention alongside English town council candidates and teenage pranksters. The veteran Middle East reporter, Jeffrey Goldberg, recently wrote that extremists no longer bother meeting with journalists. “They don’t need a middleman anymore. Journalists have been replaced by YouTube”.
re-election campaign included 30 staff working on YouTube
Many politicians have attempted to ride the YouTube tiger. Some reached the highest office in the world. Others have been eaten alive. In April 2009, when the expenses scandal lit a fire under Westminster, Gordon Brown, then Labour Prime Minister, posted a call for reform to YouTube, wearing a glazed grin throughout. “It just reassured the public of their worst suspicion: that he was a total loser,” says Harry Cole, the news editor of the politics blog, Guido Fawkes.
In September 2012, Nick Clegg uploaded an apology for breaking a vow on tuition fees to YouTube. It was shot in soft focus before a set of French windows. “There’s no easy way to say it. I’m sorry.” The response? An autotuned remix, cycling the words “so, so, sorry”, earning 2.8 million views.
YouTube has lifted the veil on politicians, effectively placing them under 24 hour scrutiny, with every slip at risk of being captured and endlessly replayed. (One of Guido’s most viewed clips is Brown picking his nose.)
From the anarchy, a new generation of politicians has emerged. Before 2009, few outside Brussels knew of Daniel Hannan, the Conservative MEP for South East England. Then, with the financial crisis in full-swing, came a blistering dress-down for Gordon Brown in the chamber of the European Parliament.
Speeches were once written with an ear for the gallery sketchwriters, but Hannan’s was cut to 3 minutes 29 – the length of a pop single – and uploaded to his YouTube channel. It was watched nearly three million times.
Hannan’s radical libertarian politics have since found a global audience thanks to his early recognition of YouTube’s potential. But it was Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign that really showed how powerful the platform had become.
Matthew McGregor and Stephen Muller worked on the president’s online campaign. (Their company, Blue State Digital, is now advising the Labour Party.)
In a corner of Obama’s Chicago “war-room”, they would snatch clips of Republican Mitt Romney’s speeches, cut them up into attack ads and push them out within hours, wrecking Romney’s news cycle.
The aim was to force Romney’s head below water and depict him as a wealthy, free market fundamentalist divorced from the concerns of middle class Americans.
The team realised YouTube is not like television – a megaphone for a single message – but a way of nudging carefully identified groups into changing their behaviour. Certain videos were aimed at journalists to shape their reports. Others were emailed to motivate an army of door-knockers.
“If you’re just focussed on getting as many views as possible, you’re missing the point,” says Muller. “It’s about deeper metrics: what are they doing after they watch that video?”
Obama’s victory cost over $1 billion. The online team comprised 300 online staff, including 30 on YouTube alone. Had YouTube broadened democracy? Or had it simply shifted power away from the old television ad gurus to a new generation?
“Money still counts,” concedes McGregor. “But the rules about who is in a position to persuade people to register to vote, donate, volunteer – YouTube changes that fundamentally.”
So far, the campaign videos released by Labour and the Tories, made on far smaller budgets, are cruder and less frequent. But the medium will be a “big part” of the 2015 general election, McGregor forecasts.
Jamal Edwards, a 23-year-old from a London council estate who is now worth £8 million, posted his first YouTube videos aged 15. He began shooting up-and-coming musicians and now makes vast sums from advertising on his SBTV channel.
He has recently stepped into politics, working with Bite the Ballot, the charity that hosted YouTube debates with Nick Clegg, Ed Miliband and Nigel Farage. (The Prime Minister is yet to appear.) Edwards believes it’s an essential platform for reaching a younger audience.
He also believes Cameron’s successors will be discovered on YouTube, bypassing the printed press and television channels. He thinks MPs, mistrusted and scorned by the public, should use it to rebuild their relationship with voters. “I would love to follow MPs for the day. I had a day with Ed Vaizey, and I would like to see more. That transparency will help build people’s trust.” That would be transformative indeed.
Justin Bieber looks into the camera, raises his eyebrows and says, “I was found on YouTube.” He narrows his eyes. “I think I was detrimental to my own career.”
This footage, of the teen star’s statement in an assault case filed against him by a paparazzo, was uploaded to YouTube by fans in March 2014.
Although his lawyer corrected Bieber’s “detrimental” for “instrumental”, the slip was fitting: Bieber, once the prodigal Canadian talent discovered on YouTube aged 12, had become gossip column fodder.
Back in 2010, three years after his mother posted a video of him performing in a local talent contest, the doe-eyed, floppy-haired Bieber sold out New York’s Madison Square Garden in 22 minutes.
Innumerable artists have since followed Bieber’s lead, using YouTube to share their work directly with an online audience, leaving talent agents and other traditional gatekeepers to fame scrambling to catch up. The once-mighty film studios and A&R men have had to get used to a celebrity landscape in which they are no longer the all-powerful star-makers.
By nurturing a devoted audience on YouTube – the so-called Beliebers – Bieber also paved the way for a new breed of celebrity: the intensely accessible and ‘normal’ person who can earn a six figure salary by sharing their thoughts and hobbies online.
Zoe Sugg, better known as Zoella, launched her YouTube channel in 2009. She was a “haul girl”, a genre of YouTubers that unveil their new clothing and beauty buys from their bedrooms, like a best friend. Now 24, Sugg has more than 7.6 million subscribers across two YouTube channels. They helped make her 2014 novel, Girl Online, the highest-selling for a debut author since records began.
The first YouTube celebrities emerged from viral one-hit-wonder videos, like Charlie Davies-Carr, the baby who famously bit his brother’s finger in 2007 and earned his parents more than £300,000 from advertising revenue and merchandise in the process. Tabatha Bundesen gave up her day job to manage her pet,Grumpy Cat. The animal earned more than Gwyneth Paltrow last year.
There are YouTube celebrities in all manner of niche fields. DC Toys Collector is an “unboxer”; she unwraps new toys. Her video of five Angry Birds eggs being opened has been viewed 90 million times. Tanya Burr has earned 2.7 million subscribers by giving make-up tips. Nearly half a million people have watched Abby Vapes showing how to smoke an e-cigarette like a dragon. Others, such as the blue-eyed Briton Marcus Butler, (3.3 million subscribers), and American LGBT advocate, Tyler Oakley (6.2 million), are famous just for talking.
Beneath the often goofy personas – 23-year-old Butler’s most popular video involves him and Oakley sucking on helium balloons – lies steely business sense and an indomitable work ethic.
“YouTubers are the most diligent, hardworking people you could meet, who have doggedly pursued a creative outlet that has turned into a huge media concern over many, many years,” explains Dom Smales, founder of Gleam Talent agency which looks after Suggs, Butler and other social media stars.
While the music industry used to be sniffy about YouTube talent, record labels now fight over musicians that can effortlessly shift records to their online fanbases. “They’ve done the work, they have the fans and they’re super powerful,” explains Meridith Valiando Rojas, who co-founded DigiTours Media after leaving traditional A&R. “If you have the audience, you have all the leverage.”
Scooter Braun, the agent who discovered Justin Bieber at 13, toured tiny local radio stations where the 15-year-old Bieber would play live on air, updating his fledgling fanbase on Twitter. Bieber’s manager Allison Kaye says his fans “feel a certain ownership of him, because they feel like they found him even before Scooter found him.”
But, just as YouTube launched Bieber, it was ready and willing to bring about his downfall. TMZ, the Hollywood gossip site, has released videos of nearly all of Bieber’s misdemeanours on its YouTube channel: him urinating in a restaurant kitchen, getting arrested, even footage from inside his prison cell.
The 24/7 scrutiny of modern celebrities has been driven in large part by YouTube, where anybody with a smartphone can upload footage of the famous. The competition for exclusive imagery among paparazzi has consequently become savage. In 2013, a photographer was fatally run over trying to get a shot of Bieber after his Ferrari was pulled over by police.
“The unfortunate thing with that guy,” says the celebrity photographer Giles Harrison (who leaned out of a helicopter to photograph Brooke Shields’ marriage to Andre Agassi in 1997), “is he died trying to get a shot that probably wouldn’t have gotten a lot of money anyway. Some days,” he says, “I wonder why we still bother.”
YouTube may have increased the range and pace of celebrity careers, but it suggests that the public’s relationship with the famous has stayed the same: we build people only to tear them down again.
And the lure of the new is as intoxicating as ever. Some believe the stars of Vine, an app that allows users to upload six second videos, are leaving YouTubers in the dust.
Andrew Bachelor, known to his 10.2 million Vine followers as King Bach, is a New York Film Academy drop-out. His slapstick videos have landed him a role on MTV 2′s improvised comedy show Wild n’ Out. Meanwhile, Jack & Jack, two 18-year-old rappers from Nebraska without a record deal, routinely dominate the iTunes download charts thanks to their five million followers on Vine.
Shane Dawson, a veteran YouTube comedian with 6 million subscribers and a burgeoning music and film career, complained to The New Yorker recently: “Vine makes me kind of sad – I’m nervous that will turn into what content is.”
YouTube may have transformed what it means to be a celebrity, but the next big thing is surely just around the corner.
Ten years ago, few predicted that gamers would be the most followed people on the fledgling video site. But YouTube’s most popular channel of all is that of PewDiePie —aka Felix Kjellberg— a 25 year-old Swede who offers profane, hyperactive commentary while playing horror and comedy games. PewDiePie’s channel has 33 million subscribers and counting. To put that in context: if you combined Rihanna and One Direction’s subscribers —the two most popular music acts on the website— you would still be four million teeny-boppers short of PewDiePie’s “Bro Army”.
The concept —watching other people playing video games— has many baffled. But, as Mark Turpin, the CEO of the Yogscast (21 million subscribers) points out, “video is the best way to find out about a video game – to watch it being played. The layer on top of that is the personalities – entertainers – that people want to spend time with.”
When the Yogstcast’s founders, Lewis Brindley and Simon Lane, started making video guides to the World of Warcraft game in 2008, cultivating a multi-million pound media empire collecting over 120 million views a month wasn’t part of the plan.
But YouTube’s gamers engage their audience as if they were friends. And their audience love them for it, regardless of what Variety, the entertainment industry magazine, may think. (It called PewDiePie “aggressively stupid”.)
The rise of video streaming on YouTube has lead to a major re-think in new game consoles. Both Sony’s PlayStation 4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One now offer the ability to share gameplay online at the touch of a button.
PewDiePie has more followers than Rihanna and One Direction combined
The industry is becoming more savvy about using YouTube to its advantage. PlayStation Access, for example, is a YouTube channel offering irreverent videos such as “Six multiplayer games that will tear your friendship apart”, largely free of the corporate stuffiness you might expect from an “official” source. They’re a clear attempt at capturing the spirit of gamer channels.
Game trailers have also emerged as an important part of a publisher’s strategy. They are producing more —and more expensive— trailers than ever before as a means of keeping interest in a game bubbling throughout the lengthy gap between announcement and release. And it’s working. “Game trailers have even eclipsed blockbuster movies in view count,” says Xbox Marketing Director Harvey Eagle.
YouTubers have gravitated towards Minecraft and other games that allow players to create their own content. Comedy, horror and open-world action games, which are perfect for simply goofing off, are also popular.
Getting featured on a prominent YouTube channel can catapult obscure games to mainstream success. In 2012 the British independent developer Mike Bithell released Thomas Was Alone, a minimalist puzzle-platform game that saw reasonable sales. Then it was featured by YouTube channels NerdCubed and TotalBiscuit. “In one week it had doubled the amount of money the game had made,” says Bithell, taking it “from a hobby to quit-the-day job type stuff”.
When Bithell moved onto his new project, Volume, did he think about making the game “YouTube-friendly”? “Yeah, I think it would be pretty foolish to make a game nowadays without at least considering it,” says Bithell.
Arguably because of PewDiePie’s influence, there has been a small boom in independently developed comedy games —see Goat Simulator— while the industry at large looks to be embracing horror again. Creative Assembly’s Alien: Isolation is a first-person chiller with a distinct lack of guns. Publisher Sega will have been well aware of the genre’s rise on YouTube when green-lighting such a big break from blockbuster norms.
For all their influence, YouTubers inhabit a grey space in the industry. In 2014, it emerged that a marketing agency working for Warner Bros. had approached YouTubers about the Middle-Earth fantasy game, Shadow of Mordor. They offered pre-release copies with a draconian set of conditions, including only talking positively about the game and ensuring no bugs were mentioned.
The incident raised questions over whether YouTubers should be regarded as entertainers or critics that answer to a journalistic code. “The Yogscast have a policy that we make it clear when there has been a commercial aspect to any coverage – both in the video itself and in the description,” says Turpin. “Guidelines are changing all the time, though.” Indeed, a landmark ruling by the Advertising Standards Authority in November 2014, told video bloggers that they must inform their audience when a video is paid for by advertisers.
One YouTuber who had commercial sponsorships severed in 2013 is Olajide Olatunji, better known as KSI. He had posted a video of himself bothering women at the Eurogamer Expo show earlier that year – one example, among many, of the sexism that blights the gaming community. In 2014, the so-called “Gamergate” saga erupted when a group of gamers started harassing women such as the independent games developers Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu.
Female gamers are fighting back. Anita Sarkeesian, target of some of the most vitriolic abuse, continues posting her influential YouTube series, “Tropes vs Women in Video Games”. Joss Whedon, the writer of The Avengers, has been outspoken in his support for her. YouTube’s lawlessness may allow the worst people in gaming a platform, but its egalitarianism means there’s space for other voices on there, too.
If this does not blow your mind, then you have no emotion,” says Salman Khan. It’s a suitably provocative come-on from a YouTube superstar. But he’s talking about a maths equation.
Khan is on a mission to bring a world-class, customised education to anyone, anywhere, for free. To do that, he has spent a good part of the last decade in the closet – literally – making around 5,000 videos about maths and science.
A decade ago, he was a young hedge fund analyst with a 12-year-old cousin who had fallen behind in maths. He was in Boston, she was in New Orleans, so he began tutoring her remotely, using Yahoo!’s Doodle notepad.
Soon, he started making videos. In them, Khan talks through a concept – perhaps fractions or long division – with the aid of bright numbers on a black screen. His voice is earnest yet informal, the videos are spare and efficient; none is longer than 10 minutes. They feel exactly like getting a private lesson from a whizz of an older brother.
His cousin loved them. “When you’re trying to get your brain around a new concept, the very last thing you need is another human being saying: ‘Do you understand this?’” he says. On video, his cousin could pause the lesson, or re-watch the parts she didn’t understand.
In 2006, a friend convinced him to post his videos on YouTube. Within weeks, strangers were watching the videos, too. “I was getting letters from people all over the planet, saying how my videos had changed their life – you could hear the tears in their letters sometimes,” he says.
Five years later, he quit his job to work full-time on Khan Academy, the non-profit he founded off the back of his YouTube success. The 75-strong team is now based in Mountain View. The lesson style hasn’t changed much, but Khan Academy now includes videos by experts in the humanities, too.
Today, Khan Academy has 15 million registered students in 190 countries. The YouTube channel has racked up over 500 million views. Khan’s vision for the future has been endorsed by everyone from Bill Gates to Barack Obama; he’s working with institutions like Stanford University and the Tate.
While Khan is perhaps YouTube’s biggest success in the field of learning, the platform is saturated with instructional videos. There are YouTube tutorials for changing a light bulb, assembling baby buggies, learning the guitar. Shawn Mendes, the 16-year-old Canadian singer hailed as the “next Justin Bieber” taught himself guitar entirely via YouTube.
It’s easy to see the appeal: instead of puzzling over an instruction manual written in 15 languages, you can just watch someone show you. “Our toilet got stuck the other day,” Khan tells me. “Normally, you would hire a plumber. But I watched a YouTube video, which said this was a case where you need an auger – I’d never heard of that – and I went to the hardware store and bought one and I was able to fix it.”
Watching a video isn’t just quicker than decoding a manual – according to Khan, it’s making us smarter. He argues that, by giving us a basic level of knowledge, they help us get more out of experts.
For example, he says: “In the old days, your doctor had to give you all your information. Nowadays, if you think you have something, you spend an hour on some combination of YouTube and Google, and you become pretty smart on the material, so when you go to your doctors, it’s you saying, ‘Look, I saw this one video, and it mentioned the role of this hormone – is that true? Or can you tell me more about it?””
Increasingly, traditional educational establishments are embracing YouTube, too. Universities around the world are experimenting with video-based learning via massive open online courses, or Moocs. While there has been some debate over whether the availability of lectures online devalues universities, almost everyone agrees that video tutorials have a role to play in teaching.
“It’s another way to help students engage with the excellent content that UK universities have to offer,” says Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive of the Universities UK.
Khan believes that by teaching basic concepts ahead of classroom time, videos free teachers to focus on individual students. And by studying the data Khan Academy gathers on each student – where they pause or re-watch a video – teachers can keep track of how much their students understand. This, says Khan, is the future of education: “empowering personalisation”.
To those who protest that sitting alone, watching something on a screen dehumanises learning, Khan says this: “The way to humanise a classroom is that when the humans come into the room together, they should interact with each other. What keeps it from humanising is the lecture.”
Driving the lecture out of the classroom – as Khan would like – is hardly a move towards hypermodernity, he argues. Rather, it takes us back to the Socratic method of tutorials, prizing critical thinking over rote learning. Who would have thought it? YouTube promoting the classical education.
The internet was meant to kill off advertising. Instead of sitting through annoying commercials during television broadcasts, we’d go online to watch uninterrupted dramas, comedies and silly clips. Curiously, though, last year’s ten most-watched (non-music) videos on YouTube included four adverts.
We appear to actively seek out adverts on YouTube, be it the titillating50 Shades of Grey trailer (48 million views and counting), the tear-jerking John Lewis Christmas special (22 million) or, occasionally, the homemade so-bad-they’re-good ones.
Great adverts have always been loved. But YouTube has not just become a repository for the best commercials, it has actually changed the nature of marketing.
“The truth is, on YouTube, people are not interested in brands at all,” says George Prest, executive creative director at the ad agency R/GA London, and the man who created John Lewis’s first ever TV advert back in 2007. “The clever brands have worked out that to connect with people on YouTube you have to find a shared passion with them – Red Bull with their extreme sports, for example, or Nike with football.”
The 30 second TV spot has morphed into a three minute online film
One of the most viewed adverts on YouTube (49 million views) is a Pepsi one featuring Jeff Gordon, a professional NASCAR racing driver. In it he disguises himself as an ordinary bloke visiting a car showroom and takes an unsuspecting dealer on a hair-raising ride in a Camaro sports car. It is a 3 minute prank full of stunt driving tricks, filmed on a camera hidden in a Pepsi can.
The fact that it later emerged everyone was in on the stunt did not seem to bother viewers. They continued to share the advert with friends online, passing it around the internet, collecting hits. Prest says: “In the old days, you would put something on TV and pretty much force people to watch it. These days you have to pull people towards it, which they will only do if they find it engaging.”
Bizarrely, considering our supposed shortening attention spans, adverts on YouTube are longer – the 30 second TV spot has morphed into a three minute online film, with some brands, such as John Lewis and Sainsbury’s, hosting lavish dinners to celebrate its unveiling. The TV ad has, in effect, become a trailer for the longer online version. In some instances brands, such as Evian, make adverts exclusively for the internet.
The so-called millennial generation watches far less television than their parents, in large part thanks to platforms like YouTube. And that makes YouTube critical for reaching them.
The company Unruly helps ad agencies reach this “missing generation”. Scott Button, its chief executive, says: “It does come down to content quality, in particular the emotional impact of the advert.
“Three or four years ago, humour was the category that was most prevalent in branded content. But it’s the hardest to succeed with, especially with a global brand, because responses to humour vary so much. If you look at content today, you’ll see a lot more warmth, happiness, inspiration, exhilaration.”
Some brands have more or less abandoned traditional adverts in favour of partnering with video bloggers on YouTube. These teenagers and twenty-somethings uploading homemade videos offer advertisers guaranteed audiences that dwarf what they’d reach on their own. For example, major beauty brands have achieved a collective 511 million video views – a fraction of the 14.9 billion racked up by beauty vloggers.
No wonder TopShop partnered with Zoella (7 million subscribers) last year. When she suggested her viewers click on the TopShop ad in her video for a chance to win a £500 gift voucher, 40 per cent of her viewers clicked. The click-through rate on a traditional banner advert is about 0.1 per cent.
But traditional adverts can still do well. One of the most viewed adverts of all time on YouTube is Evian’s “Rollerbabies” – racking up over 100 million views in a year. It is part of a long-running campaign by the bottled water company that started in the late 1990s, before YouTube even existed.
Fortuitously, the baby campaign ticks some key online boxes – it is funny, it is cute and it is global (no one ever speaks, babies just gurgle or dance).
However, YouTube’s dominance is waning. According to ComScore, YouTube had 38.7 million unique UK visitors in September 2013, but that fell to 36.2 million in September 2014.
When Danone launched its “Rollerbaby” advert online in 2009 it got 115 million views with 99 per cent of those on YouTube. Last year’s Baby and Me advert received 160 million (and counting), but only 61 per cent were watched onYouTube.
Advertisers are increasingly looking at other social media platforms. But Prest, like many, thinks YouTube has been a force for good within the ad industry.
He says: “YouTube has forced people to be more entertaining and to listen to customers more.”
Rather than kill off the ad industry, it has given it an injection of new life.
- 9th February 2015
- Editors: Nisha Lilia Diu, Méabh Ritchie
- Video: Chris Stone, Tom Pietrasik, Matthew Pendergas, Kat Hayes
- Animation: James Armstrong
- Designer: Ellen Carpenter
- Developer: Jack Kempster