Zoella. KSI. Joe Sugg. When you talk about the rise of YouTube superstardom in Britain, these are the names you’re most likely to see these days in stories about online stars making millions from their bedrooms.
But according to an exclusive Radio Times survey looking at who British teenagers look up to, one online name ranks higher than all the others: Thomas Ridgewell, AKA YouTube’s TomSka.
And the 26-year-old sketch comedy creator from Cambridge finds that very odd indeed.
“Just by the sheer numbers I would never thought that I’d have come out on top of anyone,” Ridgewell said. “It’s quite surreal. I’m thrilled whenever I just get acknowledged for something, let alone win anything.”
The self-titled internet “dinosaur” has been knocking around YouTube for more than a decade now, having set himself up on the video sharing platform when he was still doing his GCSEs.
10 years and more than 4 million subscribers later, he’s easily one of Britain’s longest serving and most successful YouTubers, with bombastic comedy sketches, both live-action and animated, and the stick man movie sensation ASDF (which now boasts more than 55 million views after eight years online) to his name.
It’s the kind of success that any British teen would dream of, and certainly not what the then 15-year-old was expecting when he began putting videos online.
“I didn’t really make a decision to do YouTube. It was very natural,” he says.
“I jumped on board pretty much as soon as the site really popped on my radar but I just wanted to make things that would make people laugh. There was no big dream of stardom.”
How did it happen then? How did Thomas Ridgewell become TomSka? And why would millions of 13-18 year-olds across the country put their faith in a guy who just wanted to get creative and give people a chuckle?
He says the relationship between creators and their viewers probably has a lot to do with it.
“We don’t really have bouncers, we don’t have private jets, most of us are still just one person making videos directly for our audience,” Ridgewell explains.
“At the top levels maybe you’ve got a couple of managers or PR people helping you filter things but really it’s just one person releasing content to their audience directly and we receive the feedback directly. I still haven’t met a YouTuber that doesn’t still read their comments.”
Ridgewell adds that if you’re in it solely to make money, chances are you’ll fall flat on your face – audiences on the platform just don’t buy into it.
“People can read your authenticity, and if you’re just in it to succeed and play the game, you have to be a special brand of sociopath to succeed, because your audience can read it almost instantly. So unless you are dangerously convincing, people are going to sniff it out.”
“I think creators stick with YouTube because there’s so much less bureaucracy,” Ridgewell says.
“We have one boss and its our audience, as opposed to when you work in traditional media where you’ve got a slew of middle men guessing what ‘The Kids’ are going to want to watch. Whereas we can just make something, see if it works and react accordingly. It’s that freedom and that direct connection with the people you’re making videos for.”
What advice would he give to the next generation of budding creators, then?
“I’d say if you’re starting YouTube now, go into it with sincerity in your heart because if you think that you can get away with just playing your audience then you’ve already failed because you’ve underestimated peoples’ ability to judge your authenticity.
“So like with anything, do it because you love it and you will succeed.
“Unless you’re really ugly,” he jokes.