After spending a few minutes scrolling to the bottom of my “Favorites” playlist on YouTube, I’ve discovered that I’ve been an active user on the site since at least early 2009. Despite it having been four years after their launch, I remember YouTube being the website of choice for many of my middle school classmates. Since then I’ve regularly visited the website and it is easily my preferred go-to spot for video entertainment.
With the launch of the YouTube Partner Program in December 2007 a new era began for YouTube in that users could now actually generate profits from the site through in-video advertisements. At the time I had no idea this was going on, but I still saw it’s effects on nearly every channel I frequented.
A channel called “Fred” run by Lucas Cruikshank partnered with Nickelodeon in 2012 to release both a movie and a one-season-long TV show after the success of his account. Vlogging YouTube family The Shaytards’ patriarch Shay Carl Butler co-founded Maker Studios, a production company created by Disney Studios aimed at giving YouTubers a more commercial platform for creating content. Ryan Higa, under the channel name “nigahiga,” has released numerous parody songs on iTunes, made multiple appearances in films, TV shows, and commercials, and is now planning to release a book in May 2017.
Having YouTube as a source of income allowed these creators to take their talents beyond the internet into the “real” world, introducing the concept of “YouTube stars” to the public. While many are not common household names, their high accessibility and online followings generate ratings and branding power that some TV stations can only dream of. The main appeal of these stars is that they are everyday people who make their content themselves and actually interact with their fanbases on a regular basis. Compared to the closed-off personas of elite celebrities they are able to generate loyal fanbases easily.
In an interview I conducted with computer science professor Nathan Prestopnik for the article “Against the clock: Students challenge typical gaming methods” he described this closeness perfectly:
“It’s like an alternative form of celebrity,” Prestopnik said. “The people on YouTube who do these streams are very ordinary. … They’re not super rich. They’re not super famous. So you get to feel like you know the person. They tell you about their lives, about what’s going on, what their dog is named. … That connection feels more real than it really is, but it’s powerful. A lot of people enjoy that kind of experience.”
To tie this in with the journalism world, an issue I commonly see with reporting on YouTube stars is the fascination with the monetary aspect of it all. PewDiePie, the most subscribed channel of all time with 54 million subscribers, only managed to draw headlines based on his yearly salary. In this Forbes article coverage of popular YouTubers, like video gaming channels Markiplier and PewDiePie, was limited to how much they profited from their videos. In reality, YouTube is not just about the personal profit for many of the big names. It has become increasingly common for YouTubers to start holding charity drives where their supporters are encouraged to donate to their charity of choice. Recently Markiplier helped raise over $100k for LGBT rights, and in late March around $250k towards Charity:Water. In 2015 PewDiePie helped raised over $450k towards Charity:Water as well.
The main point is that the fascination over how these people make money is overused and, frankly, boring to read about. While the concept of YouTube-ing and being a YouTube/social media star is brand-new, I believe that if they’re being covered it should be for things more noteworthy than their salaries. Making money off of advertising is something many people and companies do every day, YouTubers simply found a new way to do it.