YouTube: Populism and the Commodity of the Authentic
Utilizing video platforms to promote populist movements are on the rise on YouTube. YouTubers and influencers have motivated followers using the techniques and tools that YouTube promotes and encourages. This is a critical approach to online personalities and brands.
Originally presented at the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change, August 2017.
It’s been over 12 years since the first video was posted on YouTube. The first video featured a young Jawad Karim, hair tussled, speaking about his banal visit to the zoo. He speaks about the elephant’s features behind him and turns to make direct eye contact with the audience and says “and that’s pretty much all there is to say.”
The video establishes YouTube as the place to upload nothing and everything. Content, video and clips and segments that have no grounding in context with video or television material. It also establishes the parameters of communication with the viewer: direct eye contact and authentic storytelling.
Now over a decade in, the YouTuber (also known as personality or influencer or gamer) is one of the most influential icons of our mass media present. And yet they still exist in the underground, a place where they can be more recognizable than movie stars and simultaneously unknown to the majority of the traditional media audience. They garner support, advance causes, engage politically, and intentionally create chaos.
YouTube’s history, a site and community that shifted toward commodification, has allowed users to feel they are watching authentic original content produced by amateurs. In reality, the evolution of the YouTuber follows a path to understanding the personal brand, delivery of specific messaging, and the verisimilitude of authenticity.
Although a video site, YouTube often acts as memetic space. The community that supports YouTubers connect with them through their marketplace of ideas and vision rather than that of storyline or unfolding plot. The evolution of the populist YouTuber can be framed around the commodification of reference and destruction of signifiers. I use the framework Matt Applegate and I established in our article Communicating Graphically: Mimesis, Visual Language, and Commodification as Culture (2017) to support this point. Our research is is framed on Johanna Drucker’s (2010) approach to meaning: “Information can be understood and read as culturally coded expressions of knowledge with their own epistemological and historical lineage.”
In a test of how references are made and meaning is codified in digital spaces, I asked a group of 83 students at the Salzburg Academy what these dead plants refer to and nearly a quarter were able to recognize the original reference to shoes. The question to ask is “how do you know this”? The same answer applies to the quality of fame many YouTuber’s benefit from. To know PewDiePie or Tyler Oakley, you have to know they exist as referential material, originating in and of themselves, with the power to rearrange meaning and create new signifiers.
In the rise of YouTube as an alternative media distribution site, there is a reorganization of accountability and authority as the concept of gatekeeping is repurposed from community to commodity. In an effort to benefit from these personalities, YouTube encourages users engage with the tools and techniques of existing influencers to become active participants on the platform.
Early YouTubers created the visual aesthetic of vlogging. In Geriatric1927’s “first try (5 August 2006) Peter Oakley describes how he “became addicted to YouTube” and desires to use the platform to tell his stories. His presentation is framed on a familiar style: radio. He speaks off camera, uses introduction music, and speaks without hesitation. Lonelygirl15’s “First Blog/Dorkiness Prevails” (16 June 2006) uses the technique of direct eye contact and includes the “authentic diary” style vloggers come to employ. Her videos were fictional, an early webseries using the style of vloggers that inhabited the space.
One of the most influential personalities to define the space is Tyler Oakley. He arrived at YouTube as a diary vlogger, speaking to his friends at home after he left for college. On his first few videos, he noticed a view count that exceeded his familiar viewers. For his 7th video, he posted “Raindrops” (1 October 2007), a video made for general audiences.
In that video, the Tyler Oakley that existed previous to “Raindrops” simply ceases to exist, replaced by the YouTuber version of Tyler Oakley, the one “made for tv” and his audience. Unlike traditional media, Tyler Oakley, the character, lives both on screen and off — it’s not an act, it’s Tyler Oakley.
The aesthetics are unique to YouTube. Tyler Oakley’s intervention into vlogging codifies the method. It’s about the setting, the jumpcuts, and most importantly, the voice. These are the tools of the YouTuber. [In the YouTuber class I teach at Molloy College, we focus most specifically on the voice and the delivery.]
Tyler Oakley is an influencer, his cult of personality connects brands directly to the audience. His dedicated audience listens to him, not just for entertainment, but for advice, guidance, and consumer choices. Both Tyler Oakley and YouTube benefit from Tyler’s success. The partner program developed by YouTube pays personalities who allow advertising on their channel. The more content that is created, the more the subscribers, the more income flows. As with most YouTubers, Tyler’s main source of income does not come directly from YouTube’s ad payout, but rather from the endorsement deals he signs. He’s a brand icon for Warby Parker and Audible and many more.
But who is Tyler Oakley? How is it possible that a young man interested in sharing his day with his friends has become an icon featured in Time Magazine?
As Katy Steinmetz writes (2017) for Time, Tyler Oakley builds a virtual empire by “being himself”. There’s an interest in Tyler the person and his way of seeing the world. His viewers are attached to his delivery and his following continues to grow.
By watching just a of few of Tyler’s videos you can see he has “it”, the natural ability to attract viewers. Listen to his voice when he starts his videos:
“Well hello everybody!” or “Hey Guys!” — it isn’t just a hello, it’s a sing-songy tone that both attracts and irritates and acts as an ear worm. You have to keep watching, each sentence leads to the next and your interest in his ordinary life continues.
Tyler is capable of telling stories from his college personal life to acting politically and satirically. To continue his relationship with his audience, regardless of his content, requires Tyler to remain consistent in his brand.
Populism around YouTubers grows from here. YouTubers have a cult approach to content creation. At a certain point, YouTubers codify their approach and prioritize their on screen personality. Once there, they can move to stronger opinions as they know their audience will not leave.
The Partner Program eventually evolved into the foundation of Multichannel Networks (MCNs). Multichannel Networks are small corporations that act as profit-sharing studios of YouTubers. The better YouTubers do as a team, supports an entire group of talent. YouTube, as a platform, was increasingly influential as a site for young people’s consumer decisions. In 2014, President Obama assembled a team of YouTubers to act as an advisory board for digital media advertising. Obama’s goals was to figure out how to sell the ACA to millennials.
The advisory board encouraged Obama to participate in the digital environment and to reach millennials in their space. As a result, Obama was featured on Funny or Die’s “Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifinakis”.
The advice provided by the YouTubers worked. The episode and Funny or Die increased visits to Healthcare.gov by over 40%. What this method provides is a glaring reality of the YouTuber model: multiple level embedded advertising. The delivery method obfuscates the amount of brand delivery in web video and vlogging. Though the students were savvy enough to detect that this entire episode is an extended commercial for Healthcare.gov, the product is somewhat more complicated than that. The video also promotes the brands of Barack Obama and Zach Galifinakis and Funny or Die. Obama has to use his snark that is coherent to both his message and his reputation. The same is required of the clueless Galifinakis. The character — indistinguishable from the human — is also the product.
The Call to Action
The product as personality is part of the YouTuber technique. The goal is to convince the audience of the authenticity, not the reality of the campaign. At one point there may have been a distinction between sponsored content/native advertising and authentic original content, but today, that no longer exists. The YouTuber is the brand and the product. If successful, a larger brand will create a partnership beyond that of YouTube and have the influencer endorse actual products to their followers.
This is an outgrowth of the “gig economy” that enforces the ideal that a secondary hobby or skill can be commodified and capitalized. In a economic environment that lacks monetary maturity for young people, many with creative skills are encouraged to increase their “side-hustle” to success. The YouTube personality and influencer model has already shown returns (as has Instagram stars or Snapchat personalities). YouTube is a bit more unique as MCNs may profit share and advertising income may flow more directly.
Casey Neistat is one of the most successful YouTubers to fully commodify his approach and willingness to work with brands. A self-made personality who epitomizes the gig industry (he is a high school dropout and polymath), his trajectory and personality make him a flag bearer and icon of YouTuber success. Making short activist documentaries lead him to brand courtship. Casey makes it look fully authentic.
The skills are learnable and accessible. With a little care, attention, and persistence, anyone with a quality camera and audio and free editing software can learn how to say “Hey Guys!” with the right intonation, cut out their “ums”, upload their video and become a YouTuber. While the odds of six-figure success are extremely low, the return on likes and comments is high. In the political climate today, the audience value ranks nearly as high as monetary income for some creators. And in the end, whether it is money or likes, YouTube benefits.
Casey makes it look like magic — and in a way it is: You can’t see the agents, the managers, the publicists, the agency, the brand specialists. You see Casey, empowering you to do the same. He tells you to do what you can’t.
The Dark Side
Do What You Can’t. Simultaneously provocative and empowering. Casey’s call to action, while in reality a commercial for Samsung and YouTube Red, is inspiring and catchy. Thumping original music, fast paced edits, direct address to the audience. Anyone can be a YouTuber. And to an extent, that’s true.
Over the course of the last year, the political climate has shifted to populism, prioritizing the ideas of the common person. Political engagement is primarily driven by populist ideologies and even the most popular YouTubers have found themselves wrapped up in their success. In response, the users voraciously support their stars in intense fandoms. Take for example the recent cases of PewDiePie and Jake Paul.
Felix Kjellberg’s PewDiePie is the most-subscribed YouTuber on the platform. His role is a “Let’s Play” personality. PewDiePie is literally a gamer who let’s the others watch him play through picture in picture game play while he overlays his wry commentary. PewDiePie is wildly successful at this.
Being a YouTuber is not easy. The audience is fickle and there is literally hundreds of millions of other channels in competition. A successful YouTuber innovates and attempts at new and original content. Sometimes, this innovation requires pushing the boundaries of regular programming. This approach got PewDiePie in a bit of trouble earlier this year.
At issue was a series of recent comedy videos. In one, he found performers on the freelance site Fiverr willing to dance and hold up a sign of the client’s choosing. He asked them to write “Death to all Jews,” and they did; in his subsequent video, he expressed shock that the request had made it through. “It was a funny meme, and I didn’t think it would work,” he said, mock-begging news outlets not to make too much of his stunt. “I swear, I love Jews,” he said, “I love them,” before playing a few notes on a kazoo.
(YouTube’s Monster: PewDiePie and his Populist Revolt. John Herman. 16 February 2017)
In response, PewDiePie’s Multichannel Network, Maker Studios, decided to drop him from their company. Maker Studios is owned by Disney — yes, Disney, the mega media corporation purchased Maker in 2014 for half a billion dollars. This detail is not widely known outside the YouTube community. Disney’s investment in YouTubers is profitable because the content is cheap to produce and the return, especially in the case of recognition, is huge.
When YouTuber’s act inappropriately, YouTube’s only ability to control the content is through demonitization, lowering the advertising revenue a YouTube personality may make. Many times this has an adverse reaction as YouTubers revolt against the platform, threatening to leave to Twitch or Facebook. But in the end, the MCN may have the final say. Especially when the parent of your company (Google) may even answer to another (Disney).
Another YouTuber who recently received backlash from his MCN is Jake Paul, another one of the most popular YouTubers. Jake Paul’s antics on his channel continually pushed the limits. Delivering drama fueled content to agitate, Paul found his views increase from the tactic.
From another NY Times article published more recently, Jonah Engel Bromwhich writes (20 July 2017):
It is virtually impossible to know whether Mr. Paul’s personal drama is authentic. Like the characters on a reality show, the network of YouTube stars in which he exists thrives on soap-opera-style plotlines that may be exaggerated or entirely false…
But Mr. Paul’s antics disguise an ambitious entrepreneurial nature and an understanding of social video that allowed him to drop out of high school and move to Los Angeles when he was 17.
To become an online personality is now nearly a trope. A meme that fulfills the concept of the best of the gig economy. When web television was starting in the mid-2000s, several of my friends moved to LA to work on their webseries “We Need Girlfriends”. They wrote to me at the time and said that the entire town was filled with actors who were making webseries. Some like Felicia Day found success, many others continued and joined MCNs in the 2010s, many others went back to traditional gigs.
Today, the skills are available and the methods codified. To be a YouTuber is to mimic YouTubers. The reference has moved from traditional media to new media and there is no original, just a copy of a copy of a copy. All with what seems to be the best intentions of ordinary people.
The Populism Playbook
The tricks of the YouTuber are easy to mimic and hard to master, but with consistent practice and a willingness to improve, new personalities have emerged in the past few years that broadcast to audiences they feel are underserved by the mainstream media, or MSM, as they refer to it. The agitation that Jake Paul masters is now in the playbook for others to use. In doing so, those YouTubers have grown an audience as being the reliable authentic voice where they can find no others.
Take Josh Feuerstein for example. Feuerstein is an online personality and according to Colby Itkowitz for the Washington Post (2015), is a self-described “disciple of Jesus”. In the fall of 2015, a Starbucks non-controversy appeared and Feuerstein became a populist leader in response to the “politically correct culture” that was harming the spirit of Christmas.
The holiday red cups did not have the printed “Merry Christmas” on them and were accused of removing the text to appease secular audiences and support “PC culture”. (This was untrue, Starbucks never featured the text previously, but did include Christmas imagery.) Feuerstein asked his followers to go to Starbucks and say your name is “Merry Christmas” and then take a selfie with the cup. Feuerstein’s call to action was successful because he had learned from other personalities that being charismatic and directly addressing the audience garners results.
The video establishes Feuerstein as both a brand leader of his personal brand and one willing to work with companies. While not officially endorsed by Starbucks in any way, this sends a message to other companies that he’s willing to shill for them. He continues to be a controversial figure and support for him continues both on YouTube and Facebook.
The goal of the populist YouTuber is to garner support for their cause and to enhance their brand persona. Speaking as if they are the spokesperson for the silent commoner, they achieve brand awareness through their consistent messaging and willingness to go above and beyond the act of simply recording their message.
If you mix the YouTube Playbook method with populist rhetoric and include agitation (Tyler Oakley + Jake Paul + Josh Feuerstein), you can see a new model of activism rapidly appearing. In the run-up to Donald Trump’s presidency, these online persona’s were seen as the authentic voices, not burdened by the bias of mainstream media, untainted by corporate interests, and free to speak their minds.
As a result, you can see the truly dangerous aspects of this formula in YouTubers like Lauren Southern, the Canadian YouTuber who has become a self-funded warrior against migration, working alongside nationalists and “identarians” in Europe. Her goal is to expose the inadequacy of the local governments she feels are not protecting the citizens. In Ryan Broderick’s Buzzfeed report “Far-Right Activists Are Stealing Tricks From YouTubers And It’s Going To Get People Hurt” (22 June 2017), he writes “A small group of far-right activists have figured out how to manipulate the media with viral stunts — and it’s getting more and more dangerous.”
“They attacked us, they ripped up our signs, they shoved us. We got it all on film, and we got to see what it’s like, being in the protest and disagreeing with them.”…
Since then, she’s adopted that playbook for her stunts on the road — show up with a camera, antagonize people, build it up on social media as a live event that her fans can follow at home, and then release a summary of the whole thing on YouTube the next day. Her videos are slick. The one about her time in Italy is titled “HAVE I LOST MY MIND?” and it opens with 20 seconds of her riding around a boat full of flares with dubstep playing in the background.
At the outset of this video, Lauren, with her guest Martin Sellner, the Austria chapter leader of Europa Nostra, explains that she’s been accused of burning a migrant child. While she did not burn a child, the fact she has to defend herself against this horror means she has made some interesting life choices. The video is compelling and the technique is there — she’s charismatic, smiling, and speaks in the bubbly sing-song voice. She just happens to be speaking about her populist agenda of preventing migration.
Amplified by her desire to agitate on location, Southern’s tricks are derived from the YouTubers who established themselves on the medium, but her desire to increase the intensity is makes her iconic. Southern obfuscates her definitions, trying not to relate to anything mainstream or traditional. She rearranges her references in order to attempt at authenticity.
Ryan Broderick’s article continues: “Nailing down exactly what it is that Southern does is also tricky. She uses the term journalist, but acknowledges she’s not a traditional one. ‘A Hunter S. Thompson kind of thing, you know?’” Here is why I frame this talk and article around memetics. Southern’s strategy is to reconfigure meaning and reframe references. By simply saying “A Hunter S. Thompson kind of thing” she tells her audience that she is the authority. They know there is a Hunter S. Thompson, but likely know him as the Johnny Depp movie version rather than the extreme left journalist. As her audience has already followed her, their belief in her is codified — She’s the gonzo journalist they want to tell these stories.
Watching her videos you can see that she now truly believes what she espouses. Like Tyler Oakley’s Tyler Oakley, there is no Lauren Southern that exists before the Southern on screen. She is that person. Lauren Southern is not alone. There are dozens more examples of this story. With the fracturing of audiences and the rearrangement of authentic information delivery, YouTubers are increasingly aware of their role as delivery messengers.
This is dangerous on multiple levels. As companies “pivot to video” and YouTubers continue to market their methods, populists may have found the ultimate tool to garner support. And this is a worldwide issue. In Italy, the political figure and activist Luca Marsella streams himself walking down Rome’s beaches removing immigrants and those he feels do not belong. He does this to show the government that its in his hands, the spokesperson of the ordinary, to do the work.
In the end, who benefits from Southern or Marsella’s activism? Is it the citizens who appreciate their work? Or is it the audience who is entertained, rewarding them with views and likes?
The answer is obvious — YouTube benefits. Facebook benefits. Google benefits.
Conclusion: A New Media Literacy
What this calls for is a new media literacy that is introduced at all levels of education. Evaluating video is a main part of traditional media literacy. Examining framing and directorial decisions is crucial in determining the meaning that underlies what many people view. Being critical of media is tantamount to consuming content of any kind. Now, traditional methods are nowhere near enough in the populist shift. A media literacy of YouTubers is necessary to examine the layers of content delivered by online personalities who thrive off their community and bolster their fame through dangerous activism.
I call for a new approach and the following is just a start:
Platform — If you do not pay for it, you are the product (from The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You by Eli Pariser (2011))
Content — What is being advertised or promoted? How many layers of products are enmeshed in the video content?
Referential material — Are references used correctly? Are the messages being obfuscated and repurposed?
Meaning — What is the actual point of the video?
Value — What is to gain from the content?
Message — Who is the audience and how does the community react? Read the comments.
Intentionality — Does the creator use the tool intentionally to affect civic change?
I think people should be encouraged to try to make a YouTube video in the style of a YouTuber. Attempt at the “Well Helloooo Everybody” and see the difficulty in the process. Populism means that the ordinary people are prioritized and ordinary people can use their cell phones to record YouTube clips or livestream. This can be done intentionally and critically.
Eric Gordon’s approach to Civic Media is especially cogent here: “It’s not just happening upon a tool, or social media tool for instance, as a means of engaging with civic life. It’s that act of being aware that one’s media use is actually making a change in a community.”
By critically analyzing YouTube videos, we can approach the banal posts of YouTubers as populist media and commodified authenticity. What users and viewers watch passively, is always a commodity to the platform in which it is hosted and benefits the main product of the video — the personality or influencer talking directly to you.
In an era of disparate voices in a growing media environment, it is important to enhance critical media literacies. To critique YouTubers may have originally seemed unnecessary, but now we have the responsibility to hold those who use the new media platforms accountable. We all have the power to make change in our community, both digital and physical communities, and should be engaged as critical participants. The future literally depends on our role as responsible citizens.
The following is the original presentation presented at the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change delivered on 7 August 2017.
YouTube: Populism and the Commodity of the Authentic Jamie Cohen | #MolloyNewMedia | @NewandDigital A Critical Approach…docs.google.com
The following is the live Twitter thread from the presentation: