Sorry, Atlantic: Emma Chamberlain is not the most relatable YouTuber. That title should belong to — Iz Harris.
A couple days ago, The Atlantic published a polarizing article about emerging social media personality Emma Chamberlain, suggesting that the teen-aged Youtuber may be one of the most impactful influencers on the planet right now — and perhaps the most important creator on Google’s vaunted video platform.
Let’s first off preface this obvious rebuttal by saying that I have a lot of respect for The Atlantic, the entire history of their century old publication and their always indomitable writing staff. Though taking a position like Taylor Lorenz did in this piece is often highly subjective, wildly open for debate and obviously meticulously crafted for clicks and traffic ( I do have to say that the article is thoughtfully written and definitely falls well short of simply being “clickbait”) — I respectfully have to disagree.
Allow me to posit an equally subjective, highly debatable choice for the title of “most relatable” — a creator that has turned quite a few heads and earned some accolades over the last several years but still remains largely an obscurity, with many millions less followers or fans than Emma Chamberlain.
I’m talking about an ethereally creative, sarcastic, wise-cracking, adventurous and painfully self-aware mother of two: the vlogger Isabel “Iz” Harris.
Not to take anything away from Chamberlain.
Enjoying over 15 million combined followers and subscribers between her accounts on YouTube and Instagram, Chamberlain’s emergence has been nothing short of meteoric. She can now lay claim to being a social media star and influencer of the highest rank, able to command multi-thousand dollar sponsorships from brands all over the continent. Chamberlain is an “overnight sensation” lauded for her supernova rise among the online influencer set. She made a name for herself by spectacularly and indignantly eschewing the “norms” when it came to posting about her inner thoughts and personal life on social.
At a time when we are only now getting used to the fact that Hollywood-level gloss and production is no longer necessary for content to be well-received by online audiences, the people doing the lions share of the posting and the feeding of this social media beast — kids born in the 80s, 90s and 00s — typically make great efforts to showcase the most flattering moments from their lives, meticulously staging and curating a hyper-fantasized version of what they want people to see and feel about them.
Chamberlain went the opposite route — unafraid to post about herself during her lowest moments, her face adorned with the signature acne of adolescence, giving her viewers a window into episodes of defiance and irreverence, and an oftentimes downright caustic analysis of the world around her. Her vulnerable style gained her millions of views and legions of adoring teen-aged followers in a very short time. She is now touted as an ultimate representation of what young social media audiences are increasingly saying that they expect from top creators and influencers: content that showcases unapologetic authenticity, vulnerability and honesty.
The Atlantic’s Taylor Lorenz chose to explore the phenomenon of Chamberlain’s popularity through the lens of it being part of a burgeoning call from social audiences for “relatable” YouTube personalities. Increasingly, current audience insights and analysis is revealing to us that people are tuning in to consume content from people just like themselves — content that reflects the issues, obstacles, trials, tribulations and triumphs that they face in their own day-to-day lives.
I should also caveat that it’s not lost on me that as much as millennials and Gen Z-ers may be entering an existential “final battle” for dominion over the phenomenon that is 21st century social media communication — the media and entertainment complex has long been geared towards the young. A ton of academic research, countless marketing dollars and gallons of press ink has been spilled over my millennial generation in the last decade and a half — but one day, very soon, this generation will cede the limelight that comes with this attention to the generation nipping at our heels — the kids born in the two decades after 9/11. In the very same memorable way that Generation X slowly faded away to make room for the heyday of this millennial generation.
Already, as an 80s born millennial, I daily find myself engaged in a high-stakes game of wack-a-mole, finding out about some new trend or style or newly popular influencer — and kicking myself for not having known about it sooner. I have worked in online media and social marketing for well over a decade now, and my ability to stay on top of cultural movements is precisely what companies pay me to do. My agency painstakingly stays connected to the intersection of media, fashion, art and the street so that our clients don’t have to.
In this ever-changing, constantly morphing digital information zeitgeist that our society currently finds itself in on the doorstep to the 2020s — pardon my French — it’s really fucking difficult, and oftentimes virtually impossible for most people to keep up with it all. Our team works really, really hard at it. It requires otherworldly levels of curiosity, empathy and humanity — and an almost diabolical ability to embrace humility, realize with every passing day you will know even less about what’s going on, situate yourself at the feet of people born in the year 2004, and listen intently to their sage musings.
They may be young – but they already have so much knowledge to impart to the rest of us.
Taylor Lorenz quotes Abby Adesanya, an executive at New York’s Bustle Digital Group, as saying:
“Millennials are so curated, and Gen Z is very not … Millennials used social media as a highlight reel … Gen Z is like, ‘Hey, this is what I’m doing right now, this is what I look like right now.”
It’s a revealing quote, one that underlines a fascinating cultural debate taking place right now, squarely pitting millennials and Gen Z against each other — who is really getting this social media thing right? Who of the two generations is actually communicating and messaging on these platforms in the most effective manner?
It seems like a battle for the very heart of social media itself — a battle in a war that is only now getting underway.
Which brings us to Iz Harris.
We have established the now irrefutable power and importance of the post-year 2000 babies — but let’s not forget that billions of other people still exist on this planet, people older than millennials, people born in the 70s, the 60s, the 50s and yes, even some who were born in the 1930s (which increasingly seems like a weird concept, as we hurtle forward at breakneck speed into the unknown future).
All of these people can’t simply be dismissed as fossils and Luddites living in caves, existing in abject denial about the fast-changing times swirling around them, merely digging grave plots waiting to die. The age of the internet and technology has necessitated a fascinatingly unifying shared inter-generational dialogue that centers around the omni-presence of modern technology in our lives — news websites and apps and streaming platforms – that everyone, young and old, is consuming the same way on their smartphones. What I’m getting at is this — YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and social media writ large are no longer merely the purview of the teen-aged, the young or the savvy.
People in their 60s and 70s are now regularly watching YouTube and posting updates on Instagram.
We must ask ourselves more and more as time passes — what does influence mean to them, and what do they find relatable?
Iz Harris caught my attention several months ago as I started delving even more deeply into the worlds of the online influencers and social media creators that my agency communicates with and catalogues. Apart from the service of influencer marketing (matchmaking influential online personalities with brands and product campaigns) that New Copy has provided to companies over the last several years, we have found ourselves forced into the overlapping content marketing spheres of video production, YouTube channel management, photography and video editing. I myself will be debuting two YouTube channels later in 2019, sharing marketing and brand management tutorials on our agency channel — while simultaneously on my personal channel delving into documentary-style explorations of social issues, entrepreneurship and thought leadership, and featuring interviews with founders, designers and artists about their approaches to productivity, fitness, growth mindset and mental health.
We find ourselves now so deeply entrenched in this golden age of video production that six months ago I was forced to send out a stern but necessary missive to our entire executive team that our agency no longer had any choice or option on the matter— we would effective immediately begin offering digital storytelling and video creation services to our clients. The changing landscape had become very evident to me, and thankfully our team all agreed that it was imperative to begin creating a content studio, and aggressively investing in film-making equipment.
Like many social marketing agencies, the last five years had seen us create a giant database of relationships — or at the very least – a CRM that houses contact information for thousands of influential personalities with engaged audiences on mostly three platforms: YouTube, Instagram and Twitter.
Though, for instance, we have never had the pleasure of working with megastar YouTubers like Casey Neistat or Peter McKinnon or Sara Dietschy — we know exactly who they are, and how to get in touch with them should we need to. Just these three influencers alone enjoy amazing levels of social proof and clout, and are great examples of the exact type of brilliant, hardworking and hyper-entrepreneurial creatives that most brands today are tripping over themselves to align and associate with.
But there are countless others that I don’t have the time to mention here – hundreds of smaller creators that are telling stories and creating thought leadership content with such eye-popping talent and attention to detail that after several hours of immersion in their channels, you would wonder aloud how you ever possibly agreed to exist in a paradigm where Paramount Pictures and Twentieth Century Fox sold you mediocre, recycled media content – and on top of that — several times a year, you bundled your family out to a cold, air-conditioned movie theatre and sat and laughed and cried alongside complete strangers while eating crazily overpriced junk food.
Which brings us back to — Iz Harris.
Talk about relatable.
The early-30s mother of two is a force of nature, a gifted storyteller and a deft video editor, creating quality vlog content that arguably deserves to be award-winning fare the subject of business school case studies for decades to come. Teaming up and collaborating with her equally talented husband, Vox Media executive producer Johnny Harris (who has also cultivated quite a following for himself), Iz Harris meticulously storyboards and scripts gorgeously color-graded digital stories, detailing everything from the couple’s travel adventures with their young children all the way to filmmaking tutorials, whimsical cooking demonstrations, poetic musings, personal reflections and gripping emotional explorations on mental health, depression, anxiety and productivity.
Her on-camera persona sparkles with dynamism, toggling through a myriad of personalities sometimes in just a single episode— ranging from riotously funny to defensively sarcastic to intensely maternal through to preternaturally creative. Her talent for video editing really shows itself in the quick cuts and music choices she makes, as scenes flow into one another effortlessly, seeming like an entire team of Hollywood studio colorists, sound FX technicians and set producers collaborated for months before releasing each of the approximately 8–14 minute videos on her channel.
She seems to possess a deep awareness of the uniqueness of her storytelling gifts, often deliberately allowing her audience intimate access into the “movie magic” she is creating — under-the-hood, behind the curtain peaks into the why and the how of her choices for the scenes and songs she weaves together like an orchestral maestro. She often playfully toys with her viewers, breaking the fourth wall and cutting through the stoic seriousness of some of the more serious subjects she explores by interjecting her videos with moments of brilliant comic relief — flipping into nervous laughter, nasally jester voices and weaselly characters, wading into hilariously witty and sometimes cruelly sardonic banter with her perfectly disgruntled but ever-loving sidekick of a husband Johnny Harris, as she attempts to navigate a chaotic creative life that she makes no pretense to the viewer as being particularly easy or charmed.
This is all really hard work — and that should be obvious to the viewer, even though she makes great efforts to let them in on how the secret sauce is made. There are frequent moments of abject vulnerability and angst and despair – and Harris does a sterling job of acting as a conduit for the emotion and honesty she captures on her camera, deliriously peeling back layer upon layer of her life story that she clearly long ago decided is the very currency that she has to share with the world.
Her YouTube channel is simply an Olympian effort of content creation, a epic spectacle to behold for even the most casual of viewers.
When I read the Taylor Lorenz piece this week in The Atlantic and thought to myself about who could possibly be more deserving of the label of “most relatable” or most important creator/influencer/YouTuber — Iz Harris was top of mind.
Yes, not everyone is a 30-something white American woman, or hails from the Midwest (both Iz and Johnny are originally from Oregon). Yes, not everyone is a fortunate enough to be a camera-comfortable, technologically savvy digital storyteller like Iz Harris. But she is simultaneously so many things that a great many people born before the year 2000 can relate to and see in themselves: she is a hardworking parent, wife, employee, entrepreneur, caretaker, creator, artist, dreamer and philosopher — waking up day after day after day, having to create brand new adventures and opportunities for her family.
Mothers don’t get to take days off, for the most part. Iz Harris clearly takes very few days off — and thankfully she has created a powerful visual archive of content that will long give us a window into an example of what it meant to be a millennial woman in the early 21st century.
In other words, she is ultimately very accessible, and very — human. And I can’t help but think that her body of work better qualifies her for the title of most relatable, her number of followers and fans notwithstanding.
By the way — Emma Chamberlain is also very human, and clearly very accessible to millions of people, and obviously incredibly talented. But one day, sooner than she realizes, Chamberlain will also be an adult woman in her 30s — forced to engage and grapple with the very same questions of aging and familial responsibility and existentialism, wrestling with the anxieties and despair and broken dreams and morphing ambitions that Iz Harris and many adult women have to.
We live in a modern Western society obsessed with youth. Many cultures and languages on the planet do not even have an equivalent word for “teenager” the way we define it in the English language. But no matter where we are on this planet, we all have to grow up one day, and as we tumble into our twenties and then hurtle into our thirties and beyond, we all are faced with an obvious truth — you will live the vast majority of your life beyond the age of 20.
You will still yet be forced to find meaning and purpose, plant your flag, carve out your niche and come to grips with what exactly you can do on a daily basis to make yourself feel valuable and productive during what is a relatively short time on this crazy rock in the universe called Earth.