In the 90s and noughties everyone wanted to be a pop star, but now you’re more likely to find teenagers staring down the barrel of a digital camera in the hope of becoming the next big thing.
That’s all thanks to the “Superstar Vloggers”, a group of enterprising young people who have turned their daily lives and hobbies into some of the most watched video content on the planet, inspiring a hoard of wannabes to follow in their footsteps.
Eager to give the world an insight into what happens on the other side of the camera, vlogger (that’s video blogger to you and I) Jim Chapman is fronting a new BBC3 documentary. Rise of The Superstar Vloggers takes us inside the world of YouTube’s biggest stars, revealing how much pulling power an online audience wields and exploring the darker side of their new-found fame.
Chapman is one of a small number of prominent British vloggers who have gone on to turn their hobby into a lucrative day job. He counts media favourite Zoella and her other half, fellow vlogger and author Alfie Deyes, among his ever expanding circle of YouTube friends, and he recently married YouTube beauty expert Tanya Burr.
“I think now we’re kind of in a weird situation where people see what’s happened for us guys”, says Chapman. “When we first started we were the losers in our bedrooms and now suddenly we’re the cool kids. I think people see that and go ‘ooh, I wonder if I start making videos if I could be on TV, and if I could do this and do that’?”
Their rise to superstardom has been just as baffling for these YouTube creators as it is for those who dismiss them as “vain” or “vacuous” individuals pursuing fame and fortune on the internet. In fact, Chapman’s adamant that anyone who takes to YouTube for that reason – to become the next big thing – shouldn’t even bother picking up a camera.
“I think pretty much everyone who I spoke to in the documentary, we all started because we wanted to do something. It was a hobby, we wanted to be heard”, he explains.
And they didn’t clock up monthly viewing figures in the region of millions overnight: Chapman (who now boasts 2.5 million subscribers) posted his first video in 2010, while Zoella’s first offering dates back to 2009, when the prospect of billions of views seemed utterly unfathomable.
“It’s bananas,” says Chapman of the media and fan furore that now surrounds his circle of YouTube pals. “I remember when I first started it’d be every once in a blue moon. Now, every time we leave the house, it’s just constant. People shouting at you on the street, running up to you to get a photo. The whole thing has completely changed.”
And, much like a band on the rise from obscurity to world-wide fame, their success has affected their ability to interact with the communities of fans who’ve helped put them in an increasingly influential position in showbusiness.
“Quite honestly, we can’t now do what we used to do which was tweet ‘guys, I’m going to be here, come along let’s have a meet up’ because we break the place where we’re going. So many people turn up it gets dangerous so now we have to do it on a stage or in a situation like that because it has to be controlled, otherwise people could get hurt.”
The power of those audiences isn’t to be underestimated – and nobody knows it better than the advertising executives who are eager to sponsor content, and the management companies who are happy to guide the bright-eyed young stars.
Zoella’s been known to rack up an alleged £20,000 for an advertising slot and £4,000 for a mention. And she’s just one of a number of lucrative personalities on the books at social talent firm, Gleam Futures, which helps manage the careers of some of Britain’s biggest online stars.
“That nowadays it can be a full time job for people, that’s game-changing” says Tyler Oakley. Perhaps YouTube’s most famous bleach blond LGBT activist, this 26-year-old American has found himself in the White House advising President Obama on healthcare thanks to the power his online audience affords him.
“It really puts the control in anybody’s hands to get their message out there”, explains Oakley.
As their power and influence rises, YouTubers trade bedrooms for the bright lights of production studios, dedicated filming spaces, and presenting gigs at film premieres and in TV studios: Chapman even hosted the red carpet coverage at the European premiere of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens back in December.
“I had no idea I was capable of doing that sort of stuff or how I’d get into it even if I was. Now suddenly I am doing it and it’s almost been because I cast myself into it. It’s all about the personality and people find you.”
“With that number of people watching you it’s kind of no wonder these things come along because there’s always someone, or someone’s son or daughter who knows someone who makes decisions so it’s certainly interesting for sure.”
Oakley describes his online home as a different kind of casting service, offering an alternative to the mainstream route: “I think it’s an incredible opportunity. I mean, for me it’s one of those things where it’s one of the first times the consumer really gets to cast the creator. You get to watch who you want to watch on your own time and it’s really up to you who becomes successful and who gets a platform.”
He says YouTube helps those who wouldn’t fit the conventional “cookie cutter” mould to break through: “A lot of disenfranchised voices can have a chance to have a platform and to reach people they wouldn’t have been able to on TV or in real life.”
And he has a point. Take KSI, for example. The 22-year-old British video game commentator turned rapper and actor from Watford was the only UK YouTuber to make Forbes’ list of The World’s Top-Earning YouTube Stars in 2015, racking up an estimated £3.13 million across his various YouTube channels and music releases.
And where could Tyler Oakley have discussed the trials and tribulations of coming out? Or fashion blogger Samantha Maria have shared her tale of domestic violence?
That’s not to say YouTube is the “perfect” platform: 10 years in it’s still something of a Wild West. London School of Economics-based media psychologist Ellen Helsper points out that they’re the pioneers, attempting to establish the etiquette.
But the power of YouTube is growing and it is changing the face of media consumption – it’s been doing so for years now.
“We are no longer operating in a world where someone has to decide if they are an actor, director, producer or writer – these days kids growing up on YouTube can be all these things,” Kevin Spacey noted during his Mactaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh TV back in 2013. “We have to persuade them there is a home for them in the mainstream.”
“People are migrating on to the internet and they’re growing up with me”, says Chapman. His audience is now mostly 18- to 24-year-olds, who counted themselves among YouTube’s early ‘underground’ following.
“As I’ve got older so have they. I don’t see that they’re suddenly going to reach 30 and go ‘Oh, you know what, I’m going to go back to TV now’, because that’s not how they consume their media any more. Whether they’re watching me or not, they’re always going to be watching something online.”
And with that in mind, he can understand why the very channel his documentary is being broadcast on – BBC3 – will soon be an online service.
“It’s no wonder that BBC3 is going online and that a lot of TV programmes have an online aspect to them” says Chapman, “because that’s what a lot of people watch now.” He doesn’t think traditional TV will ever disappear, but he does believe it needs to be more internet-savvy.
“TV has to think about what’s happening, step up its game a little bit or think differently”, says Chapman.
And as Zoella clocks up her 10 millionth subscriber and on-demand continues to be in demand, we can’t help but think that’s one piece of advice well worth taking.
Rise of The Superstar Vloggers airs on BBC3 at 9pm