First they built the ideal framework for sharing video online. Then they built a network of creators on the backs of this ‘millennial’ (or as unkindly put in a BBC radio documentary, ‘pack-horse’) generation—a demographic born with the internet yet economically impoverished by previous generations. Then they started messing with them in a way that looked suspiciously like they didn’t really know what they were doing.
That’s what happened on YouTube this year anyways. Up until now there had always seemed to be some sort of oblique strategy to the many moves in the YouTube playbook. This year those moves baffled even the most successful of the ‘content creators’ they coerced into making their living as mini content farms.
It all started with ‘clickbait’ and, by the end of the year, had morphed from straight-up drama into something now akin to the ‘fake news’ pandemic infecting any social media outlet reliant on old school (intrusive or classified style) advertising. The YouTube community being more self-aware than most communities online, began a large scale assessment of the issues concerned. This, in turn, became a swirling miasma of ‘YouTube is Broken’ videos intermingled with quitting YouTube announcements (mostly fake). The crux of the matter could have stemmed from the increasing age gap of said creators and the audience YouTube has moulded around them. Everyone wants a chance to grow up and become an adult but continuously vlogging to an average audience of hyper-critical eight to 14 year old fans has continued to prove problematic in many cases.
If I may now turn you attention to the most subscribed to YouTube creator in the whole of the world, PewDiePie. PewDiePie knows there’s a world outside of being a successful YouTuber, he just has trouble reaching it. When you’re not just making a living but making literal millions of dollars making vlogs and gameplay videos, what was once an innocent enough hobby becomes a hard habit to break. Sure, he’s had opportunities. There’s the Scare PewDiePie YouTube Red series—still, YouTube but televisual in it’s ambitions. There’s the app PewDiePie’s Tuber Simulator—a more successful app game thingy than his previous attempts (yes, there’s been more than one). There’s his YouTube creator network Revelmode where he… does something… who knows what… to help elevate other creators he approves of such as Jack Septic Eye, Markiplier and girlfriend CutiePieMarzia. Yet, if anything PewDiePie’s increasingly cynical choice of subject matter and recent semi melt-down—that happened midway through a recent attempt to vlog on a daily basis whilst filming in L.A. (a series that went by the whimsical name Birdabo)—only led to the impression that this is a guy trapped in a prison of his own (and YouTube’s) creation.
And that trapped feeling seem to spread as YouTubers such as Stephen Suptic and Josef Lincoln began lifting the lid on YouTube’s many foibles in a way that was kind of worthy and knowing but also fantastically entertaining. The most insightful commentary on life as a YouTuber and ‘online personality’ has to go to the channel that gave rise to Poppy. Poppy is, apart from being creepily bizarre, a near perfect interpretation of the manipulations YouTubers put themselves through in the pursuit of views. Poppy videos are often very short so the team behind them (which I’m guessing is the mysterious Poppy and collaborator Titanic Sinclair) so it’s not ‘watch time’ they’re concerned about. Concept is god here. In one video Poppy explains calmly that ‘I know one thing for sure, I love the internet and computers’ before asking if you know what’s happening and ‘have they told you?’. Some videos involve Poppy repeating mantras about how much she loves fans or asking if you’ve ever been triggered by a word or just clapping for 10 minutes. It’s hard to describe just how bizarre yet ‘on point’ these videos are without experiencing them first hand.
The drama churned up by the vloggers Poppy parodied so perfectly this year was compounded by the latest bizarro gameplay by YouTube instigated at the end of this year. A change to the site that saw it start to bury the idea of encouraging viewers to subscribe to their fave YouTubers to follow their particular brand of content, in favour of whichever videos get the most click throughs. Even if viewers then decide to not to watch the bulk of the video (i.e. clickbait). This sudden change saw many midweight YouTubers view counts almost halve.
Overnight there seemed to be new rules to play by and no one really knew what they were. Whether this was a glitch or a plan by YouTube to shift viewers around we’ll have to wait til next year to see. Rest assured, what’s happens from this year onward will be commented on and reacted to by this increasingly sceptical batch of content creators.
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