The week of July 19, 2015

Stare into YouTube and it also stares into you

By Jesse Hicks

YouTube, like the larger Internet, contains multitudes. It hosts the funny cat videos that make everyone squeal and the 9/11 truther documentaries that… have a much different audience. YouTube serves over a billion views a month, everything from a rant about Minions to “the weirdest video you’ll ever see.” It’s a sprawling, anarchic platform where professionally produced music videos sit alongside cellphone clips and popular vlogs. Only on the Internet could such a massive platform exist, with all its popular appeal and vast, underexplored hidden reaches.

Out of that all of that have emerged YouTube celebrities: people who, often with little to no professional training or access to traditional media channels, have earned an audience—sometimes numbering in the tens of millions. One theme running through this issue, whether it’s in Rae Votta’s profile of feminist vlogger Laci Green or in Carly Lanning’s interview with a cappella virtuoso Jon Cozart, is what follows that popularity.

For Green, it’s meant branching out into speaking engagements, trying to spread her sex-positive advice through other channels while still creating new work for her channel; Kingsley, never one to bite his tongue, thinks he’d like to try being less of a first-person presence—he mentions man-on-the-street interviews as a future possibility. Jon Cozart, meanwhile, is about to graduate with a film degree and promises to throw himself into making more videos.

Smosh: The Movie, a movie starring Smosh.

How YouTube helps those who want to leverage their celebrity into greater fame and fortune is part of the subject of Votta’s report on “The State of YouTube, 2015.” Suffice it to say: Going mainstream is tricky, and not all creators want to do it, but there are more and more sites offering them the tools to better manage their careers. Audra Schroeder looks at two upcoming films starring YouTubers—Bad Night, with Jenn McAllister and Lauren Luthringshausen, and Smosh: The Movie, a movie starring Smosh—and what they say about how studios are grooming online celebrities for the Hollywood mainstream.

Of course, not every YouTube personality is wrestling with fame—or is even necessarily human. Ratboy Genius is something of a cult phenomenon: a YouTube series, website, music project (and probably a few other things) featuring a yellow, computer-animated rat with a text-to-speech voice. Ratboy Genius videos are warmly enigmatic, the kind of strangely compelling artifact that you can only find on a platform as vast as YouTube. Their creator, Ryan Dorin, has spent years on the project, but rarely stepped out to claim credit or fame. Instead, he’s interested in producing art—and seeing how his audience reacts, from Birmingham, Alabama, to Bahrain.

All of this—and more!—is happening on YouTube right now. It’s a roiling, cacophonous place filled with all the wonder and folly that is humanity. Or, you know, a collection of cat videos. Maybe both.

Photo via mpclemens/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed