On Tuesday, Variety released a survey that revealed the five most influential figures among Americans ages 13-18 are all Youtube celebrities. These stars beat out mainstream stars (including the queen of relatability, Jennifer Lawrence), all without the help of studio budgets, national TV appearances, or PR teams.
That’s kind of the point.
Teens in Variety’s study found Youtube stars more ”engaging,” “relatable,” and even “smarter” and “more reliable” than mainstream stars (their relative sex appeal was about even), primarily because these internet celebrities provide an “intimate and authentic experience.” People who run Youtube channels speak directly with their fans, without a filter —or at least without perceptible filters.
As Variety points out in its cover story on YouTube stars (specifically Shane Dawson and Jenna Marbles, who are the 8th and 16th most influential ones according to its analysis), it’s possible to make a lot of money in this business. With subscribers in the dozens of millions, users can make millions in ad sales—not to mention from sponsored content and live events. The money comes, in part, because these people have developed rabid, dedicated fan bases.
How do they develop these fan bases? First of all, YouTubers produce an enormous amount of content—most make at least one clip a week, usually on a regular schedule. Users also don’t have to pay, or even leave their rooms, to check in with their favorite video-makers.
Then there’s the subject matter of those videos. In a piece for Jezebel, Lindy West observed that YouTube stars often give advice for struggling middle- and high-schoolers, the kind that adults simply can’t give. Caroline Siede at the A.V. Club trekked to VidCon (a sort of Comic-Con for the video-blogging world) and reported back on how vloggers ”fill a void between the sanitized entertainment of the Disney Channel and the over-sexed world of The CW: a glimpse at the fun, funny, often mundane world of adulthood.” John and Hank Green’s Nerdfighter series, for instance, is the embodiment of this trope, embracing a tone somewhere between Dear Abby and My So-Called Life.
But as Variety’s study proves, influence doesn’t necessarily come from acting like a sober older sibling. The magazine’s five top channels produce mostly comedy sketches rather than life advice. They have a communal, self-referential sensibility that builds off of the vlogging vibe—but the videos are more often about inside jokes than confessionals. These guys have a whole lot of charisma, and they’re not afraid to embarrass themselves. Most importantly, they respond directly to viewers’ interests and deliver what the people want.
(One quick note: Variety’s study’s top five YouTube stars are all men. While we’re focusing on them, we don’t mean to elide the huge success of female YouTubers, many of whom have immense followings in their own right.)
A tag-team production between Anthony Padilla and Ian Andrew Hecox, Smosh’s brand of video-game tinged comedy reaches 18.4 million subscribers. They’ve extended their reach beyond YouTube and into a separate site that collects everything from articles on Disney Channel stars to other viral videos, but their sense of humor remains the same—irreverent take downs of pop culture, quick cuts, and a focus on mass pop culture (so many Pokémon jokes!).
The Fine Bros. are a grown-up, slightly more polished variation on Smosh. Filmmakers Benny and Rafi Fine’s comedy is a little subdued (by YouTube standards, at least), and they’re off screen just as often as they’re on it. They’re also happy to parody YouTube itself (see the spoiler video above) in a way that turns their channel into a sort of hub between all sorts of YouTube worlds. And like most channels, the pair splits their own content into different series. One of them, “React”—in which the Fine Bros. film people encountering something outside their normal experience, e.g. kids and typewriters—has even been greenlit as a TV series.
Swedish user Felix Kjellberg (a.k.a. PewDiePie) has over 29.3 million subscribers, the most of any YouTube channel. He got most of them by playing video games. PewDiePie’s videos are typically footage of him playing a game (usually action or horror) while his talking head provides sarcastic commentary from the screen’s top right corner. There’s a lot to be said about how the videos strip typical YouTube and gamer humor down to its most basic level—but mostly, they focus on playing up a strange voice and making jokes about shooting people.
If PewDiePie is the nerd expression of YouTube’s id, then the British KSI is its madcap jock side. Soon to be featured on a Comedy Central roast, KSI’s made a name for himself with videos that probe the gross, taboo, and otherwise ridiculous. His most famous series involves asking NSFW questions about sex to everyone from strangers to family members. If you like it, it’s because KSI’s humor succeeds by brute force. He’s willing to take on topics like sex and race in a way that registers as authentic, if not subtle.
Ryan Higa’s videos approximate the confessional vlog format more closely than any of the other more comic channels in the top 5. He still produces a lot of parodies and music videos, but they’re tinged with a reigning sense of positivity and approachability. It helps that Higa frequently collaborates with other YouTube users, giving a sense that we’re all in it together—and that with enough luck, one day, you too could be a star.
In a New York magazine piece that profiled several different internet celebrities, Joe Coscarelli wrote that for internet celebrity, “as with modern art, the thought ‘I could do that too;’ is in many ways more compelling than ‘I could never do that.’” But one of the features of YouTube is that users are already part of the equation. Many of the videos on these people’s channels begin with a line that references subscribers’ comments—”everyone’s been asking for…” or “I’ve held off doing this for a long time, but….” There’s an organic sensibility to the whole business. With every video you watch—and every up or down vote you leave—you participate, pushing the creator in a new direction.
It’s hard to imagine Jennifer Lawrence, on the other hand, saying that she’s chosen a role in her next movie because the internet asked for it, or Katy Perry releasing a cover of a Disney song because enough people told her to on Twitter. Hollywood stars still serve their fans, but they’ve also got a wider net of concerns, including the demands of studios, global markets, and a lot more collaborators.
So when Variety talks about YouTube stars and their level of influence, that influence really runs both ways. After all, one of the studies’ metrics was relatability—a relatively new term that Rebecca Mead sent up in a blog post for the New Yorker. Something “relatable,” Mead wrote, is “somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer.” YouTube stars excel at those very metrics. As Jenna Marbles put it to Variety, “I have no tangible talent. My talent is (in) being an Internet friend.”
There’s more to be said about the problems of monetizing this role, or about how long YouTube celebrities can stay celebrities. But the reason people pay attention is almost tautological: You might not follow Smosh or KSI or PewDiePie, but if you do, you’re getting exactly what you expect.