YouTube has created a generation of stars, but most of them aren’t talented enough to make it in the real entertainment industry.
It would be unfair to say that there aren’t talented YouTubers out there. Surely there are some people who post to YouTube that are excellent singers, musicians, comedians, knife-throwers and philosophers. However, what i’m mostly referring to here are the YouTube Superstars. Lele Pons, Felix Kjellberg (aka PewDiePie), Ethan and Hila Klein (H3H3 Productions), Gabbie Hanna, Lily Singh or any of the other million plus channels subscriber channels featured on the trending page each day. It’s a collection of well-intended entertainers
Most people remember Justin Bieber got his start on YouTube. That cute kid posting videos of himself singing songs ended up being a platform that launched him to world domination. But no one refers to Justin Bieber as a YouTuber today. He transcended the platform, which is what talented people do. The people who have made careers on YouTube and continue to generate a majority of their revenue there are a digital island of misfit toys. And thanks to a crippling algorithm that forces frequency, chances are they’re not going to get better.
YouTubers exist in a bubble. They became famous on the platform. Take Kjellberg, YouTube’s most popular personality, with nearly 80 million subscribers (#subscribetopewdiepie). He’s a charismatic guy who first achieved success doing ‘Live Plays’, which are long sessions of a personality playing a video game while the audience watches. Since then he’s transitioned into a sort of pop-culture aggregate who reviews memes and other popular internet content as well as offering commentary on whatever is currently in command of the YouTube zeitgeist.
Felix’s personality has evolved over the years, but his content hasn’t. It’s still an amusing guy talking directly to the camera for ten heavily-edited minutes trying to convince you to come back tomorrow. There aren’t any outside influences shaping Felix’s content. No producers or writers throwing out ideas and finely honing material before presenting it to the world. It’s a free form daily data dump.
There are YouTubers who try to present themselves as more than just a talking head. There are those who film comedy sketches or present themselves as lifestyle specialists. Some host their own podcasts, which is basically the long-form version of talking directly to the camera. And for some reason, lots of them fancy themselves as budding musicians. Some of them are inoffensive and fun (like Kjellberg’s diss-track parody ‘Bitch Lasanga’). Others are embarrassing, cringe-worthy audio assaults (like Gabbie Hanna’s hilarious ‘Monster’). Even the most polished musical tracks from popular YouTubers come across like ambitious amateurs (Anything that comes from Jake Paul, Logan Paul or Team 10).
The problem with YouTube is that the platform lacks any professionals or sense of professionalism. It’s people creating content, desperately trying to get your attention for 10 minutes a day and writing the rules as they go. Earlier this year YouTuber Shane Dawson did an eight part series on another hugely popular YouTube star, Jake Paul. The entire presentation was produced to feel like a Netflix Making of a Murderer type docu-series. Dawson posed the question ‘Is Jake Paul a sociopath?’ under the guise of trying to get inside ‘The mind of Jake Paul’. But Dawson lacked any real journalistic credentials or skills. He fumbled his way through what was (i guess) intended to be a serious examination of a very popular persona ending up presenting him in an extremely disingenuous way.
Dawson ended up concluding that Logan Paul wasn’t intentionally trying to be a bad person by influencing impressionable children to buy his merchandise. Something that was disproven by multiple outlets (including YouTube channel Nerd City) who presented segments of video from Jake Paul talking to businesses about being painfully aware of the kind of deceptive marketing practices he engages in every day. Shaw Dawson and his ‘The Mind of Jake Paul’ series perfectly exposes every flaw with the platform; it’s a bunch of creators pretending to be professionals. Dawson interviewed a dozen different people for his ‘documentary’, but apparently could he not be bothered with basic research.
Becoming a famous entertainer used to be a process of refinement. Someone with a modicum of talent worked hard to achieve a level of visibility. Eventually an opportunity would present itself they would get ‘their shot’ and those talents would be evaluated by professionals, often times with some degree of experience. Some would eventually take that shot and transition it into another… and another… and another until they achieved some modicum of success or ultimately failure in their chosen field.
YouTube doesn’t provide opportunities for creative growth. At least, not by outside influences. I’m sure there’s a natural sense of progression when you’re shooting and editing video every day, but it’s not exactly the kind of professional experience one gets working on a team. A stand-up comedian has to get onto the stage to work and re-work his routine to a razor sharpness. There are dozens of intangibles at play every time they perform. The constant changes force them to improve due to outside pressures. YouTube allows no such growth. You’ve got your view count and your like/dislike ration. All you know is whether or not people reacted to your content and how many did so. And much of the content these stars are creating is based on algorithms that dictate how and what they talk about to ensure the highest potential ad revenue.
It’s why so many popular YouTubers are doing the exact same thing they did when they started years ago. It’s a reason that even the platform’s biggest stars don’t find success outside of YouTube’s abusive algorithms. Even the most successful stars on the platform are usually relegated to long-form versions of their YouTube shtick, like Colleen Ballinger who took her hit character fro ‘Miranda Sings’ to the small screen with the cringe-inducing ‘Haters Back Off’. Or Logan Paul who can only seem to get acting roles in projects backed by YouTube, like his starring role in the YouTube feature ‘The Thinning’.
This is exactly why stars like Liza Koshy have given up making videos and are trying to integrate themselves into the entertainment industry using a more traditional route. At this point it should be painfully obvious that YouTube is an amazing platform to launch yourself from, but if you stay too long you are saddled with the label of ‘YouTube Sensation’ which roughly translate to ‘unable to achieve success outside the platform’.
I’m sure many creators are fine with that, for now. It’s hard to picture a 40 year old PewDiePie still doing Meme Review or Shane Dawson attempting more amateurish exposes into other YouTube stars as he inches ever-closer to middle age. I watched Ninja trying to get a New Year’s Eve crowd to ‘floss’ and thought ‘Does this guy have more than a couple of years before people stop caring?’ It feels like there’s no next act for these streamers and YouTube content creators who struggle to find success outside of the services that launched their career.
As a platform, YouTube inhibits creative growth. It offers almost no opportunity for creators to finely hone their material or improve their craft. It’s the equivalent of a megaphone that serves to amplify the best and worst of the creator while providing very little polish, professionalism or structure that other mediums require to achieve real success. For most creators and streamers, they have already peaked. They have achieved market saturation. The ending to these YouTube sensations almost always involve the creator or the audience becoming bored with the content. Others have become disenfranchised with plunging ad revenues and the draconian strike system that endangers their livelihood.
It’s fairly common these days to see YouTube creators making videos that detail the anxiety, depression and diminishing mental health due to the perpetual cycle of content creation needed to keep earning a decent revenue. The reality is they have ceded all control to the platform. The creators have no power, mostly because the content they create is so average. Almost anyone can (and will) do what they do. There is nothing exceptional about the content being produced on YouTube. It’s a medium for the painfully average. An aggregate that allows everyone their 15 minutes of fame… and the digital clock continues to tick.