For the past eight years Wired.co.uk has been quietly watching a community die. Almost a decade ago YouTube hosted a small group of content creators and consumers with a desire to communicate and experiment with the future of modern media. The “vloggers” of “YouTubia” provided a new and erratic video-sharing website with an initial purpose it didn’t know it had and an audience it didn’t know it could acquire. Along the way those involved saw their share of successes, failures, celebrities, scandals, fights, friendships, deaths and love affairs — but as the years passed, an inexorable autophagy took hold, destroying everything that gave life to a community that was responsible for begetting the YouTube we know today.
There’s so much power in being a video blogger because you’re believable and you’re authentic and when you say something, it matters
Paul Robinett, AKA Renetto
Thus spoke Renetto
Paul Robinett — one of YouTube’s first celebrities — began his YouTube career posting videos as “Renetto“, a bizarre and sometimes grotesque character he created to amuse his business partner at the time. Within days Paul was featured on the front page, having amassed hundreds of thousands of views. A later success was his “Diet Coke and Mentos” video, currently standing at 14 million views, in which he suggested he was seriously injured by ingesting large amounts of Coke and Mentos (an American sweet). Although these videos amused Paul, he soon realised he was wasting the potential to turn this platform into something more constructive, so he retired his Renetto character and began engaging with his audience. This, he tells me, was life changing.
“There’s so much power in being a video blogger because you’re believable and you’re authentic and when you say something, it matters. At its height, it was even more fun than I can explain. When I first started getting my comments and views coming in, I was shaking. It was like winning the lottery.”
Paul was not only hooked, he was convinced he was part of a new medium that would change the face of media, “It was like the whole world at our fingertips. We couldn’t even believe we were doing it. We knew that we were sitting on the platform and pushing the buttons and getting to be at the beginning stages of the future of media, not just social media, but media.”
As Paul’s YouTube career began to blossom, so did an emerging community of fans and contributors, all eager to share their lives with anyone who cared to listen. The average video contained very little content in the traditional sense. Video blogging was different and stood on almost entirely uncontested ground — no one knew what he or she was doing and there was no one to provide any real guidance. Vlogs were often 9 minutes long (the longest YouTube would allow for a single video), there was little to no editing, people frequently made mistakes, rambled and discussed nothing in particular. But like Seinfeld, the show about nothing, it was an unexpected success, drawing in a net audience of millions.
Some of the big movers and shakers at the time included the now forgotten Renetto, Paperlilies, Boh3m3, Kimberleigh,FilthyWhore, TheHill88, and Crossmack. A fierce, loyal and passionate community surrounded these personalities, whilst the then founders of YouTube, Chad Hurley and Steve Chen (who have sinced left the company), looked silently on, unsure of how to manage their website’s unpredicted course.
“I truly believe that Chad and Steve got the fuck out of YouTube Town as fast as they could because they had no i-fucking-dea what was going on.” Explained Paul, “They tried to sell it to dating sites, to eBay, you name it — which I think means they didn’t know what to do with it. Suddenly YouTube goes off in a whole different direction to one they were expecting and then a guy like me stands up and screams THIS IS A REVOLUTION and all of a sudden they’re like, ‘what he said!’”
Paul wasn’t alone in detecting the founders were perhaps as clueless as the bloggers. Bryony Matthewman, known asPaperlilies, was the first female celebrity YouTuber from the UK. Reflecting on her past fame, she felt similarly to Paul, “The thing is, the community was never expected. For us it was really exciting but for YouTube it was more like, oh, that’s cool, but who cares. But that’s what I loved about it, that it was so organic. It sounds so cheesy but I talk to people from back then and we talk about it as if it was the golden age of YouTube, but it really felt like it was.”
Whilst Bryony seemed to be becoming the UK voice of YouTube, often talking exclusively about British peculiarities, Paul became the unofficial spokesperson for the whole site. He was the everyman, constantly praising YouTube and encouraging others to get involved, he truly believed a revolution was just around the corner and it wasn’t long before hundreds of thousands joined him.
Revolution and the old media
Paul began receiving offers from TV shows, but he rejected them on the grounds that he had the potential to get higher viewing figures than Bill O’Reilly and Jon Stewart put together, “I got the fuckin’ internet!” he screams over Skype. For Paul, it’s the intimacy and authenticity that YouTube offered that made it so attractive to viewers.Whilst he admitted that the overall quality might not be as good, the authenticity was a key attraction: “Thanks to YouTube, you know me, so who the fuck do you want to get your news from?! BOOM. DONE. REVOLUTION.”
Ian Crossland, known as Crossmack at the time, also envisioned revolution. The frequently shirtless actor from LA achieved notoriety for his good looks, extreme flights of fancy and wild assertions, such as the Sun being made of salt water. His most viewed videos sit at half a million hits. “There’s this desire to help people in me,” explained Ian, “I came at it with a lot of extremity — my videos would get so real.” When Crossland broke up with his girlfriend she hit him; he continued making his videos with a black eye, against the wishes of his management team at CBS. CBS eventually dropped him.
“I remember feeling like I couldn’t make a video unless I was high, like, I wouldn’t be interesting or something”
Convinced YouTube was the right career path for him, Ian carried on undeterred. YouTube was his new Hollywood — it provided a bigger potential audience, allowed him to help people and encouraged healthy debate and communication, which he craved. However, what Ian wasn’t ready for was the negative fallout of his increasing fame and the constant hateful comments.
“Oh, it was horrible. Just horrible. I’ll still go back and watch an old video from 2007 or something and I’ll look at comments and I’ll see something like ‘fuck you faggot’ or ‘I wanna lick your pretty pink asshole’ and it just, I mean… what? That was the bad side of the community.”
Worse still, Ian was battling with a drug problem, which was fuelled and maintained by his YouTube fame, “Being in the spotlight whilst on YouTube was really taxing. I remember feeling like I couldn’t make a video unless I was high, like, I wouldn’t be interesting or something. And that was a slow decline into apathy.”
As Ian continued to attempt to help and engage with the community, and as Paul continued to encourage others to participate in the new media revolution, YouTube started having ideas of its own. Seeing the potential for audience sizes that would be unheard of in TV, YouTube invited stars from the old media to join the party. Oprah was first; the community was not happy.
“I remember Chad and Steve parading celebrities onto YouTube which made the community go fucking ape-shit,” said Paul. ”We completely mobbed their videos with shitty comments and the corporations said, fuck this! We’re out. The community for one second knew that we were YouTube. Everyone had to go through us, because we owned that bitch.” And for a very brief moment, that “bitch” was indeed owned by the content creators — until Chad and Steve sold YouTube to Google.
Google’s arrival, the BBC and ‘whoreish’ behaviour
“Google came in and said, well how are we gonna pay for all this?” explained Paul, “These are great pipe dreams and everything, but guys, we gotta clean this place up, or Oprah won’t ever come back. They were worried that anybody could say anything they wanted about any of their brands. They worried they might not even get as many views as me — some dumbass climbing up on his roof, blowing himself up with Diet Coke and Mentos.”
Google’s attempted to “clean the place up” by introducing its partner programme, which allowed channel owners to make money from advertising for the first time. This was something Paul occasionally flirted with, but making money from the community seemed to be a troubling notion for him and by the time he became comfortable with the idea, it was almost too late.
Other high profile users weren’t as hostile towards the idea of mixing with old media. Bryony was approached by Hat Trick Productions, which was looking to make an interactive show with BBC 3 aimed at a young audience. They came up with the idea of making a zombie movie out of small clips from individual YouTube users.
After several meetings, Bryony was offered £11,000 to do the show, the most money she had ever earned for a single job — she took it. It was agreed that she would be the star, but the show itself would rely on her YouTube fame to acquire short homemade zombie clips, which would be strung to together to make a zombie movie out of what was now a thriving community of video bloggers.
Unfortunately, too many people were enchanted by the prospect of working for the BBC, which attracted a semi-professional interest, destroying the DIY video blogging ideal that Bryony was so passionate about. “So we had this really impressive camera guy and a guy from a really expensive editing company who all offered to do it for free because it meant they’d get their name on a BBC show. It ended up being slightly too professional at the end and it wasn’t really what I, or anyone, wanted. I felt like I wasn’t in control of the whole thing really.”
When the production of the show ran into an already booked and paid-for holiday with her family and boyfriend, the editors were not kind, portraying Bryony as unreliable or fickle. “Whilst I was on holiday I had to set up a giant camera they gave me to record vlogs of my time. It was all really contrived. It wasn’t real and it was really depressing. I didn’t enjoy it at all. I think that was when I finally thought I just didn’t care about YouTube anymore.”
“It seemed to many involved that everything was moving backwards, vlogs were becoming monetised and videos were becoming more like TV again.”
This was a turning point for both Bryony and the wider YouTube community, who were becoming disenchanted with the direction the website was heading. It seemed to many involved that everything was moving backwards, vlogs were becoming monetised and videos were becoming more like TV again. Bryony’s videos were often sponsored by companies who would offer her up to £1000 for subtly mentioning their products a move she describes as “whoreish”: “I felt like I was really selling myself,” she said, adding that she found herself professing her love for products she didn’t actually like, “but I needed the money as I was really poor at that point. It was a bad time.”
In 2012 YouTube changed its slogan from “YouTube: Broadcast Yourself!” to simply “YouTube”. Bryony thinks this was “sad” but just “another straw on the camel’s back”. “Back in the old days, when I really cared about YouTube, I would have been upset, but now? I just don’t care. YouTube killed itself and now I don’t care.”
“I was the YouTube evangelist and when YouTube didn’t need an evangelist any longer, they didn’t need me”
Paul Robinett, aka Renetto
YouTube ignores the old community, embraces the new
By this point, YouTube had even started abandoning its evangelical supporter, Paul, who gave up his business to become a full-time video blogger and who regularly promoted the company with seemingly endless energy and entirely off his own back. His contemporaries who were happy to increase production quality, indulge in aggressive self-promotion and flirt with the old media were becoming increasingly successful, whilst his mode of blogging started to seem old and out-dated.
“What happened to me? Why were others successful and not me?” Paul asked himself, “I think I have the answer: I was the YouTube evangelist and when YouTube didn’t need an evangelist any longer, they didn’t need me. Mean time, all these other guys are going out there saying ‘SUBSCRIBE! RATE! COMMENT!’ and they’ve got theme songs and going full blast. But I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t do the transition and so I became irrelevant.”
Paul was so passionate about protecting his community that he sometimes lashed out, biting the hand and souring relations with the company, often goading the founders into deleting his channel as a form of self-sacrifice if he felt his viewers had been wronged.
But what frustrated Paul more than anything, he explained, was when people didn’t realise the extent to which he cared, and still does care, about YouTube. After a brief and impromptu meeting with a YouTube employee known by the community as “Big Joe“, Paul finally began to understand why the powers that be were keeping him at arm’s length. “So we start talking and Joe says, ‘You know who you are? You’re the Joseph Goebbels of YouTube’. And I said, what the fuck? He said ‘You’re a propaganda machine. Half the people at YouTube hate you. Half the people love you.’ And I’m sitting there thinking you have gotto be fucking with me. I mean, yeah I’m fuckin’ with YouTube but that’s because I fucking love it. If YouTube would have just given that much, that fuckin’ much… but they didn’t.”
The injustices, intentional or coincidental, kept on coming for Paul. The first YouTube awards show took place in 2007 — he wasn’t invited. “Nobody, stood up for me. Nobody invited me out to the show. I’ve never been asked to speak, talk, present, sit on a panel in any conference anywhere, ever. I felt completely forgotten.”
Paul had become surplus to requirement, even though he wasn’t done. He had a lot more to say, but there was, tragically, no one left to listen. “I want to carry on video blogging but how do I keep my authenticity and still achieve my dreams?” He asked Wired.co.uk as he began to break down. He describes sitting with his parents and reading out some of the positive messages he’d receive through YouTube from strangers saying things like “I wish I had a dad like you” or “your inspire me”. He pauses to hold back the tears. “Just the kind of good stuff you get when you put yourself out there,” he adds. As he’s reading them out, his father say to him, “If I ever did anything in my life and somebody cared that much about it, I wouldn’t have to think twice about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.”
Old media takes hold, YouTube kills off crucial features
As large production companies began to flood YouTube, Paul, Bryony, Ian and many others like them not only lost their fame, but far more importantly, they lost their community — video bloggers hadn’t died out, far from it, they were thriving like never before. But it was a new kind of video blogging and they couldn’t keep up. The new YouTube was business-driven, slick, meticulously planned and in bed with all the right people. I told Bryony that YouTube had recently removed the ability for users to post video responses to other users, one of the most treasured and crucial features of the “golden age” of YouTube, “Really?! Oh my god… really? That’s so sad. Oh. That’s really depressing.”
It seems that with the removal of the “Broadcast Yourself” slogan and the video response feature, YouTube decided that it cares more about a certain kind of video response, which means veteran users like Bryony don’t even bother to use the website anymore. “I really don’t watch a lot of YouTube video blogs anymore because they’re very specifically like a video blog. It has become a particular type of media that doesn’t really appeal to me. What I liked about YouTube was getting a sense that you were actually experiencing that person as a person, rather than it being a performance.”
Paul remained positive, but it was a difficult transition for him to make, one that he’s only just beginning to acclimatise to: “Here’s how it goes — social entertainment can’t work beyond social limitations. The future is everybody has their own audience. Every chef, every mechanic, everyone will have an audience of people that want to learn his or her trade from him or her. Because with wearable tech we are all going to become video bloggers.”
Ian is less optimistic about YouTube and has stopped making videos. He felt like he was getting out of touch with his surroundings, “I was so into the internet space that my relationships were suffering and I was like, what am I even doing with my life? My life became like a TV show and it was weird, it was so fucking weird.” He’s now thinking about getting the gang back together in June with his new company,Minds.com.
Bryony is perhaps the most pessimistic and has lost all interest. She says: “I went through a period of being really poor. I felt like I had given so much to YouTube, and then I’d spent all this time making crappy videos because I got paid for them before realising that even that wasn’t enough money to get by, so I had to try and find a regular job — I guess I sometimes felt like I threw my life away for YouTube. I kept asking myself what did I actually do? I should have just stayed in my job.”
“And I’m not the only one — look at TheHill88 [a popular YouTube celebrity at the time], she went to New York to make videos for a company over there and lived in a massive apartment that was like $4000 a month. She was living the dream! And now she’s back in Australia at university and working as a waitress. I think the same is maybe true for a few other YouTubers from back then.” Bryony went on to stress that TheHill88 (real name Caitlin) is probably completely happy with her current curcumstances and she wouldn’t want to make any assumptions. However, her story demonstrates perfectly the dramatic change of events that occured to some of the high profile YouTubers over a short period of time.
Google: Vlogging is a business, but there’s room for intimacy too
Wired.co.uk Spoke to Sara Mormino, director of YouTube Global Content Operations, about the issues voiced by Paul, Bryony, Ian and the community that once surrounded them. “To be honest I haven’t seen the changes that you’re describing. I still feel there’s a very strong sense of community. We’ve invested in educating them on how to develop better looking channels, how to brand themselves, how to grow and develop their audience and by introducing the Creator Space we’ve also helped them understand how to add more value on the production, editorial and programming side of things”
Sara explained that the community is quite demonstrably healthy and that we need only look at the frequent collaboration videos created by one or more partners to leverage each other’s audience to see this. “That’s an indication to me that the community is alive, thriving and supportive.”
But in order to collaborate and actively add more value to your content by using the creator space, you need to have a minimum of 5,000 subscribers. Doesn’t this suggest precisely the kind of elitism that the old YouTube community were so passionately against? “We could probably do a better job in terms of being more transparent about the resources and the opportunities that we provide partners.” Explained Sara, “the reason why we enforce 5,000 subscribers is we want partners and creators to showcase a certain commitment to the platform. You need to have demonstrated that you’re actually willing to engage.”
And what of the changes to features that were so fundamental to the older generation of YouTube content creators, such as video responses, anonymous commenting and the now defunct YouTube Slogan “Broadcast Yourself”? “First of all people have a hard time to adapt to change in general, hence when you take away something people are used to for a long time there’s always a reaction to it and sometimes it’s just a perception that you’ve taken something very important away from them. But in the instance of the video responses, it was actually one of the least used features from creators and users — so there was a lot of uproar but in reality it wasn’t used that much.”
A small percentage of users might not sound like much but when it apparently maintained something so crucial i.e. the ability to communicate with other video bloggers in a direct manner, it seems a shame to remove it. Its unofficial replacement, it was suggested, was the new comment system, “We removed video responses but we subsequently followed with the new commenting system. Arguably, the initial launch wasn’t executed very well, but the intent is to gain a lot more transparency and to provide both users and creators the ability to interact in a different matter”. Sara also explained that the logo had to change in order to “represent the variety of voices YouTube now hosts.”
But what of the “death” of the old style of video blogging and the community that went with it? Does YouTube see these early adopters as pioneers and do they feel they have abandoned them? “They definitely created it. They were definitely pioneers. This developed organically. YouTube as a platform with the characteristics it has, the commenting system, the ability to interact with audience, the simplicity of uploading videos, all this obviously enabled them to facilitate it, but it definitely is something that developed without us having any sort of intervention. Maybe the individuals that you spoke to are no longer as successful as they used to be, but vlogging is still very core to YouTube.”
“In terms of not recognising the pioneers, as you put it,” said Sara, as our meeting concluded, “I think the recognition is the fact that these formats that they pioneered are becoming increasingly successful on YouTube and continue to be successful. If they want to continue engaging with the platform, the opportunity is there for them, it’s still there.”
Vlogging is now without question a business first and a hobby second. There is nothing wrong with this and it’s crucial to highlight that there were countless members of the old community who don’t feel rejected and went on to huge success within the evolving framework, such as Charlie McDonnell,Philip DeFranco or Natalie Tran. But what happened to the intimacy? To the “DIY” feel of seven years ago and to the feeling that any dorky, lonely kid could pick up a camera and engage with a community of thousands? There’s still a place for that, says Google, but that’s not where the money is and money — it seems — comes first.
It remains true then, that many of early YouTubers who were once famous and core members of a significant online community were undoubtedly pioneers of a new medium. They made the bizarre notion of video blogging acceptable by simply being regular people who made mistakes and shared intimate moments of their lives with whomever cared to listen. YouTube was never originally designed for the community that appropriated it, a community whose success was partly responsible for its own undoing, paving the way for what is now a well refined and lucrative business. Left behind is the husk of a once substantial and influential collective; those who normalised what is now successfully monetised have since been thrown on the scrapheap — their methods old, outdated, clunky, ineffective — and there’s something terribly sad about them all becoming quite so resolutely irrelevant.