Who is the real ‘You’ in YouTube?

By Christopher Carr

Recently one of my friends and I had been talking about starting up a YouTube channel and we joked about becoming famous for our comedy antics (believe me, tinfoil man is so much funnier after a couple of bottles of wine). However regardless of drunken conversations and skypes, where I may or may not have covered my head in tinfoil, over the summer break I was ardent about applying for an internship with the sociology department. I felt the experience would be so valuable for further study and future research; it would also be the perfect opportunity to gain professional experience with a lecturer in a field that interests me, plus the extra money would set me with tinfoil for life.

When Daniel Smith advertised for, and my application was successful, an internship studying sociological aspects of YouTube, it seemed like fate.
The general internship was divided into two parts; the first was analysing three YouTube vlogger celebrities’ video uploads that acknowledged their own sense of self-tragedy through fame and the struggles of production within YouTube. The second was concerned with the concept of ‘Imagining Others Complexly’ applied within the YouTube community for both celebrity and fan.

Frazer & Dutta, (2008) wrote: “Rarely a week goes by without news of another YouTube sensation rocketing to worldwide fame. The YouTube fame launch pad even has its own name “YouToo” as in you too can become famous.” But at what cost does being a ‘sensation’ or having YouTube celebrity status really hold?

The three vloggers Daniel chose to study were Charlie McDonnell (charlieissocoollike), with over two million subscribers, Chris Kendell (crabstickz) with over half a million subscribers and Benjamin Cook (ninebrassmonkeys) with over one hundred thousand subscribers.

Charlie’s video “I’m Scared” and Chris’ “Quitting YouTube” saw them speak of their struggle of what has come with celebrity status in producing entertaining videos, the lack of their own autonomy now over what they create and shift of power from author to consumer, similar to that of Ancient Greek polis where control is held by its the citizens, to what is considered worth watching and following.
Their struggle in manufacturing something, as part of a paid career, that will keep viewers interested brings with it tragic consequences as author turns to product.

The ‘You’ in YouTube can be questionable: is it the author, or is the consumer? One needs the other to succeed, but each have their hand in shaping the end product and keeping it alive.

Ben’s series slightly differs to the former two celebrities and in his documentary entitled ‘Becoming YouTube’, the one video focused on was “YouTube vs. The World”. The vlog features Ben in search of a song idea that will use his channel and celebrity status to produce an important message to change the world for the better (a potential influential power he believed was being wasted by YouTube celebrities), mid-episode he has an ‘off camera’ breakdown and unleashes his disgust in a rant suggesting that YouTube fans forget celebrities are real people, have nothing better to do than watch the ‘shit’ that is uploaded and in turn blaming the celebrities for producing it in the first place when they could be doing better things for society. From this outburst Ben realises that the YouTube celebrity life he had imagined (since he was young…ger), is actually not all it seemed. From this originates the song idea he had been initially looking for, “Becoming YouTube Was a Waste of Time”. It’s actually hilarious and definitely worth a watch!

Ben’s rant conveniently takes us to the second part of the internship.

Forgetting that celebrities are real people with a life that exists outside their five minute video upload once a week introduces the concept of ‘Imagining Others Complexly’. Inspired by another YouTube celebrity, John Green in his book ‘Paper Towns’, ‘imagining others complexly’ can be explained as how we only experience life as seen on our own perceptions and experiences, we go through our daily routines unaware of what is really going on in the minds and lives of people around us. We don’t know the real reason, the person scanning our shopping was so miserable or even take the time to find out, why should we? We don’t know them. But on the other hand why do we idolise celebrities, send them fan mail and gifts, follow them through social media, in magazines, ask for autographs and sometimes even obsess over them. We don’t really know them? We know a persona that they allow us to see.

We took ‘Imagining Others Complexly’ as a way to explore the YouTube community: when fan is introduced to celebrity on a face to face medium (camera/screen) it may deceptively personalise and cause a misinterpreted relationship in comparison to watching a film star or reading about them. The YouTube celebrity is in your house and vice versa, you meet their friends, their family, they make you think, laugh, get annoyed; you can like their video or tell them they’re a wanker. (As a research assistant and a sociology student I obviously and professionally abstained and censured such conduct, [don’t watch YouTube celebrity videos after a couple of glasses of wine, the temptation to comment is overpowering]).

Celebrities and fans all over the world started to debate on the concept of understanding others complexly and many celebrities talked of being overwhelmed by the attention and asked not to be idolised, requested respect of their privacy, as they were simply ‘normal’ people with normal lives, and that their persona on YouTube did not reflect their personal lives.
Alternatively some fans argued that they were aware of the difference and it was the celebrities that were misunderstanding their simple joy and excitement of a persona they enjoyed through YouTube.

The topic again raises the question: who actually is the real ‘You’ in YouTube? YouTube fan may only know YouTube celebrity from a short video, not what happens in their real life behind an edited and rehearsed set but respect that it is simply a persona. The celebrity, as Charlie McDonnell himself criticises in “Respecting Your Audience”, may only remember ‘the crazy fans’ that obsess over them and forget the fans who also have lives outside of YouTube.

To close, (if anyone is still reading, but really I could have written much more) I would like to add that what I anticipated to gain from the internship experience compared to what I actually gained exceeded any expectations. I learned about the dark aspects of celebrity culture and the way society can idolise or even hate a persona when knowing nothing about the individual. The tragedy, expectations and misunderstandings on both sides of the YouTube community often go unheard. There are dangers of living within a materialistic and celebrity driven culture where ANYTHING, even ‘You’ is for sale, disguise the real consequences of fame.

I personally would highly recommend students apply for an internship if they can, the experience alone will be considerably beneficial and if the opportunity arose for me again, I would jump at the chance (or at least apply). This study not only opened my eyes to another understanding of YouTube, but it gave me further knowledge of sociology, culture and society. More importantly though, does anyone want to buy an unwanted job lot of tinfoil?

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