If the prowess of a teen phenomenon is judged on the volume of screams, Our 2nd Life is poised to be bigger than One Direction. And yet, if you’re not a YouTube-savvy teen, you probably don’t know who they are. As you start to learn the basics, you might misassign them to the boy band category, but once you dive deep enough, you’ll find they’re the epitome of the changing face of youth entertainment.
The teens that have known about them for two years already are rolling their eyes at you.
Our 2nd Life is a collaborative vlogging channel currently manned by five young men who met via the Internet but now live together in Los Angeles, creating digital content. They are Jc Caylen, Kian Lawley, Sam Pottorff, Trevor Moran, and Ricky Dillon, and they’ve mastered the YouTube ecosystem. Cumulatively, they boast more than 6.2 million YouTube subscribers—that’s more than Beyoncé, the Lonely Island, or Lady Gaga—and more than 290 million views.
Track every vlogger’s success, and you’ll see an easy trend emerging—collaboration. Sustained success at YouTube does not happen in a vacuum, and growth on the platform only comes from connection, both to audiences and to the other creators. The boys of O2L are far from the first to make a collaborative channel—in fact, they’re not even the first group of attractive young men who’ve found success with the model—but their relentless dedication to the culture of YouTube sets them apart as the reigning superstars of the medium for teen girls, even if Lawley is self-deprecating about their success.
“[O2L] is basically five kids who really think we’re funny, but we’re kind of not,” explained 18-year-old Lawley. “We just make a fool out of ourselves online. We all still continue our separate channels, but when we got together, we felt like if we joined forces it would just multiply. It would be a stronger connection if we all got together.”
“I describe them in the shortest way possible as YouTube’s Entourage with a fanboy mentality,” explained Andrew Graham, the group’s manager at Fullscreen, a YouTube-based media company. He might manage the boys, but there’s no Lou Pearlman-like svengali orchestrating this collaboration. Fullscreen didn’t enter the picture until a year after the guys began working together, when Graham started paying attention to their growing fanbase.
“I did not put the group together; Fullscreen did not put the group together. They found themselves, and they were friends at first, and that is what made this group so genuine,” explained Graham. “My social media director was watching engagement across channels on YouTube and he said, ‘Holy crap, you need to know what’s going on here.’ I started watching Connor’s videos and set up a call with him. I first started working with Connor and then started to work with Kian thereafter, and then Ricky and Jc, and they all started to roll under the [Fullscreen] family.
“It was very much a traditional manager courtship. I had only one other client at the time, Lohanthony, and I was in a position where I had room on my roster. I put my chips on the right talent, I think.”
O2L formed in 2012, when the group met up at that summer’s VidCon, the YouTube community’s annual convention, and shot their first collaborative video. The six boys had spent months watching one another’s videos from their own homes—Franta in Minnesota, Caylen in Texas, Pottorff and Lawley in southern California, and Dillon in the Southeast. While they maintain their independence as creators on their own channels, the intersection of their voices as O2L became a juggernaut in the YouTube space, with more than 2.4 million subscribers on their shared channel in just two years.
Their influence isn’t merely digital, either. The group has toured successfully across the country, worked as red carpet correspondents at the MTV Movie Awards, been filmed for an upcoming tour documentary, won a Teen Choice Award, and caused swarms at VidCon and other YouTuber events around the world. Graham cites one such incident when the group tweeted their location at a “middle of nowhere” Taco Bell that was not part of a brand-sponsored stunt, causing an overwhelming reaction captured in a video called “Trapped in Taco Bell.”
“They tweeted, and they shut down this entire parking lot,” Graham said. “Five hundred girls showed up for this event. That was an ‘aha’ moment for me, that there was this immediate intersection between offline and online. There’s a tweet, and then there’s a connection to an IRL action.
“What’s particularly exciting about O2L as a group is they’re six really good guys that have six very different ambitions that are willing to collaborate together to build one of the most relevant millennial brands that traditional entertainment stakeholders don’t even know that exist.”
Graham raises an interesting point: When the Beatles stormed America in 1963, it was national news, covered in all of the most relevant publications and television programs. Five decades later, O2L is having a similar effect on teen audiences, but they’ve done so entirely through online and predominantly independent channels.
The rise to fame on a platform that encouraged connection has caused friction, and the boys have had to realize they must relinquish some of that in-person connection for safety concerns. When they recently moved out of their old house into another, Lawley tweeted the address so fans could go pick up leftover merch outside. Social media erupted with reports of fans not only snagging all the merchandise but also breaking into the house and posing for pictures and breaking off chunks of the walls. Lawley documented the destruction on the messaging app Snapchat, which fans preserved on Tumblr.
It has to be more than just the collaborative nature of their channel, or their status as attractive men that incited such fevered fandom, especially among female fans. For many teenage girls, boys are a mysterious species during puberty, and YouTube has given them an unfiltered window into the lives and minds of boys, for better or for worse. In a recent video on his own channel, Lawley explicitly talks about masturbation and wet dreams and demonstrates his make-out skills on a skull sculpture. He’s wholly without filter, and that’s a point of pride for the vlogger.
“Everyone on YouTube says they’re real and they have nothing to hide,” Lawley explained. “Not many people on YouTube actually do that, not many people put their lives out on the Internet; they only show a portion of it and hide the rest. The more you want to connect and relate to your viewers, the more you have to put on the Internet, the more you have to know who you are. I know me and the guys of O2L—there’s nothing to hide. If anyone has a question, I am going to answer it truthfully, and to the best of my knowledge. I know the rest of the guys do that as well.”
Lawley says that realness is the key, and the connection it fosters is what keeps fans interested in following the careers of their favorite YouTube stars, even as their interests branch out. Two of the men of O2L, Dillon and Moran, are singers who want to work on albums. Jc plans to launch a retail line, and Lawley says he’s interested in pursuing acting and learning a different way to relate to a camera than the one he’s taught himself since he was 15. The key to the group, says Graham, is each boy finding his own personal ambitions and then seeing how the ambitions of O2L fit within that.
And when those ambitions are no longer compatible, there’s no harm in taking a step back. This summer, after the rush of VidCon, founding member Connor Franta stepped away from O2L. He’s not even the first member to take a step back; Ricardo Ordieres withdrew from the group in April 2013. However, O2L are no Menudo, and they don’t have plans to cycle in a “replacement” for Franta.
“It was pretty firm they did not want to replace or put another member in,” Graham said. “If you look back at that week in Connor’s departure, Ryan Seacrest’s blog put up a multiple choice about who should replace Connor. They ended up taking it down really quick and apologizing. The fans sort of rebelled at the thought that one of these members could somehow be replaced. The fandom is not going to accept someone replacing one of them. But this is the takeaway: O2L is still growing astronomically. What that tells me and the YouTube community is they’ve built a brand that’s much bigger than their individual components.
“No one member is bigger than O2L.”
The only thing bigger than O2L? The whims of teenagers, who, while fiercely loyal, are also at key identity-forming points in their lives. Often, teen phenomena, especially those in film, TV, and music, experience growing pains as they become adults and their fans don’t continue to grow with them. However, recent surveys have shown that digital stars are more influential in teenagers’ lives than traditional celebrities that dominate the older generations. That shift in thinking from years past is what Graham thinks will contribute to a group like O2L’s longevity, and why the worry of teenagers moving on has been, while not ignored, not a massive concern.
“If you look at the YouTube landscape, many of the creators that were popular in creating YouTube into the success it is today are still creating videos,” he said. “There hasn’t been an example of anyone leaving. Shane Dawson, instrumental, still around. Fine Bros., instrumental, and the second most popular YouTube channel to millennials. You’re not seeing someone leave the platform. Until you see some high-profile departures, that’s not even going to be a part of the dialogue.”
So far, O2L shows no signs of slowing down. The videos continue to roll out daily, members will appear at Fullscreen’s upcoming INTOUR live fan experience, and the fans keep flocking. They continue to be part of the force closing the divide between traditional and digital fame for young people.
And no, they’re still not a boy band.
Illustrations by J. Longo