Can YouTubeStars be considered “Elites”?

Maybe they are just Opinion Leaders?

YouTube stars: people who post videos on YouTube and who are highly successful at it.

These people would be categorized by YouTube as one of their “Most Viewed”, “Most Favourited”, or “Most Discussed” YouTubers, and many of them are also notoriously wealthy, earning millions of dollars in revenue through advertising deals, the YouTube partnership program, and crowdfunding. They win awards of varying prestige and participate in events attended by famous people in the traditional media establishment.

Some YouTube stars sign contracts with broadcasters or movie studios, and certainly at least their sponsors believe that these people have the social capital to influence a large number of viewers: according to the 25 most popular YouTube stars each have over 12 million subscribers, and the most subscribed YouTuber (PiewDiePie) has over 42.2 million subscribers.


Subscribers: people who have opted to automatically receive (via email) each video the producer makes.

Of course, a subscriber doesn’t have to watch the videos — I regularly delete the email notifying me of my YouTube subscriptions’ new videos, but the email arrives, nevertheless, reminding me that at least once I thought that these producers had something interesting to say. Of course, I do check the topics of the new videos in case they are interesting, but I am usually too busy to watch them. However, looking at how many views each individual video has in these popular channels, it would seem that in the case of the YouTube stars many subscribers watch the videos that arrive in their inbox: in PewDiePie’s case, his top 28 most viewed videos have more than 20 million views, which is A LOT of views, but less than half of his subscription base.

Another very popular channel — which is not one of YouTube’s 25 most subscribed YouTube stars — is Enchufetv, which has ten million subscribers but their top 30 most viewed videos each have between 14.7 and 32.9 million views. This could indicate that many people view and share their videos but don’t subscribe. In fact, at the time of writing this article, Enchufetv is making two feature-length movies and regularly travels around the Spanish-speaking world to film sketches with well-known TV and movie personalities.


So… are these incredibly popular YouTube creators now members of the elite?

G20 leaders, Turkey 2015

The elite is a blurry term traditionally meant to refer to society’s powerful people: leaders of the military, in politics or business. These people pull the strings of society, don’t need to pay taxes (at least not in Canada), and they are the people that public opinion and political protesters try to sway. They have seats at international conferences, use publicly-funded police officers or army personnel as personal bodyguards and are often powerful in more than one country. Media has also become powerful, calling themselves “the fourth power”, but with the importance of corporate media and public media, I think it is safe to divide “media” in two and group each half with the business elite and the political elite. Most importantly, and as we have been reminded by the Panama Papers, the most powerful members of the elite are often not known to the mass public unless they run for office (or are royalty), which doesn’t always happen. Many rich and powerful people choose to stay out of the light, where they do not have to be accountable to public opinion and they can pull the political puppet strings in quiet comfort. So while some researchers and political scientists do include the media as a separate category of “elite” alongside politics and business, I do not agree that being a broadcast or film leader automatically makes you a member of society’s power elite. I think you also have to have business or political prestige, whereas a corporate or political leader does not also have to have media prestige to be a member of society’s power elite. YouTube stars then, despite making millions of dollars and being famous online, simply do not make the cut. To borrow a mechanical metaphor, they might have the horsepower, but they do not have the torque or the traction, and a real member of the elite needs all three.

Are YouTube stars opinion leaders, then?

Opinion leaders, according to Katz (1957), are people who are looked up to in their (virtual or face to face) social groups. They are not opinion leaders as a personal characteristic, but rather put on the “opinion leader hat” when their peers ask their advice on the topics in which they are considered competent. They usually have a personal or professional interest in the topics in which others ask for their advice (we all know someone to turn to find out what’s really going on in politics, or who might help us fix our computer). So, for example, an influencer who in her peer group is already known for being good at and knowledgeable about video games, might be inspired to start a YouTube channel about video games. If this person were charismatic, engaged and indeed competent, their channel would have a good chance at becoming very popular — the birth of a new YouTube star!

So I believe that in many cases, YouTube stars started out as opinion leaders in their domains in their own peer groups before expanding their influence exponentially on social media. They are not members of society’s powerful elite. Despite being “the most favorited”, they are still part of us, the 99%, when it comes to real power and influence in the world.