YouTube in the Spotlight

Zoella aka Zoe Sugg, Britain - 2014

For somebody who has been a follower of a number of YouTube channels over the years, it is interesting to see the YouTuber industry being splashed across the headlines of mainstream media.

My tastes may have morphed over the years; from gaming videos, to vloggers like WheezyWaiter and charlieissocoollike, to fitness channels, and then back to vloggers. Nevertheless, I have always liked them for those five to ten minutes to indulge in another persons life and thoughts during the day, something that we will discuss further on.

As you are probably already aware, Zoella, or Zoe Sugg, is a YouTuber who has been making headlines this passed month. First, she broke JK Rowling’s first week sales record with her new book “Girl Online”, selling 78,109 copies.

Just a week or so later, she was being slammed by critics having her book ghostwritten for her, which basically means it was written by someone else, but sold in Sugg’s name. Not quite as glamorous you might say.

Perhaps because of this, the spotlight has been shone on the cave that some of us on the internet feel we have been in for a few years, with people asking questions about such authenticity, but also advertising, and misleading vulnerable members of their audience.

What sparked me to write this blog, though, was from a comment on Facebook, which criticised Zoella for being a “celeb”, attracting vulnerable people whilst having her books written for her, and selling products to them in order to make money.

I have been a YouTuber, if you type “Ross Brannigan” into YouTube I think about four channels pop up. Two which I was active on about two years ago, which were both vlogging-based, one which is just there and I do not know why, and another which I made recently about fitness. In total I would say my creative life on YouTube probably spans about a year and a half in total.

One thing I can tell you is it is absolutely not easy. You have to have a number of attributes: personality, something unique about yourself (be that a skill, hobby or interest), commitment, patience, a hard shell, creativity, and a bit of computer know-how.

The idea that the “celebrity” status is somehow achieved by some easy pathway is practically nonsense. Sure, you could pay somebody on YouTube to promote your videos, but to the vast majority of people who make videos on the website it is a case of really enjoying what you do and sticking with it.

For a long time at the start of a YT channel’s life there will be hardly anyone watching; few subscribers, few views, no audience interaction. It is a horribly slow process. Then when you do get attention, that is when internet trolls come along, and we all know how they can be.

Connotations we have of “celebs” often derive from singers. Accusations of songs not being original or written by them, or their voice being autotuned, gives people this idea that all celebs are like that, and all are able to exploit them to live a cushty life.


This could not be further from the truth. Being in the public spotlight is an incredibly “do or die” arena. You can be loved, or you can die out and no one will care about you. Talent and hard work are still, I feel, the indicators of success, regardless of the celebrity culture we now have. People become “celebrities” (note the quotation marks), do so because of society. We could go on to examine the media, and human perceptions of the “perfect life”, but we won’t. All that matters is we understand that celerity status is a social construct, and not all interpretations of celebrity will ultimately be the same.

On the matter of Sugg’s lack of authenticity in her book, what I say is “who cares”? It is a fictional book! We can see for ourselves Zoella’s creativity in her blog and YT channel. It is not a celebrity diary, or a book of fact, it is a novel.

Indeed, there are plenty of successful novelists who have made big money from stories that some would argue are not entirely of their own. Look at JK Rowling and the scrutiny she has received over the years of copying peoples’ ideas. Plus, I doubt Zoe’s ghostwriter is not making any money out of it.

Speaking of money, this moves us quite smoothly to the third issue I feel is with the whole criticism of YouTube: sponsorships and marketing.

We all dislike those adverts at the start of YouTube videos, especially the ones you cannot skip. What the issue is is the fact that some videos become sponsored. This could mean a YouTuber mentioning a product in the opening thirty seconds of a video, or the entire video being based on the product. Oreo did this recently with a number of channels.

Many would say that the fact people on YT receive products for free, and then make money out of it is somehow a terrible thing. I would then ask: “so is you owning a restaurant and promoting it criminal?” No. It is your job.

For a lot of people I have met on YT the idea that it would perhaps one day become their full-time job is a totally ludicrous notion. Yet, today, many people are. I know my reason for making videos was not for monetary gain, but for fun. If I had made money, and it required me to mention a few companies, get free stuff and money out of it – I do not think many of us would turn that down.

Of course these videos are irritating, but it is how some of those on the website make money, and we should appreciate that. But are they using their audiences for such gain?

Well, one of the arguments is that people who watch videos online, are marginalised, vulnerable and, perhaps, unstable individuals. YouTubers then take advantage of their trust by promoting products they know they will buy.

We cannot ignore the fact that a handful may do this, but I doubt the vast majority of them take advantage of this. I think it is quite obvious why vulnerable people tend to be attracted towards people on the internet – they are alone.

If you have loads of mates, are always out doing stuff, then I doubt you would be attracted to YT vloggers. But if you are a more introverted person, or feel alone, or misunderstood, or whatever, then you will be more inclined to watch YT videos. Even YouTubers themselves can start out with the intention of reaching out to people like them, and try to find a community online.

Whether they exploit their audiences or not is tough to tell. I doubt that is their motivation. I do not believe that they think “these sad kids will lap up this hair product”, but I would say that they take advantage of their audience regardless of who they are.

There is an option for YouTubers not to go down the route of product advertisement. Such a person is Charlie McDonnell, who I have still to see a product placement on, and yet he has an enormous following. But just like companies take advantage of the large number of televisions in the country, YouTubers naturally “exploit” their audience. More viewers = more hits = greater spread = more money. It really is that simple.

YouTube is a community; one filled with a lot of incredibly talented people, who do an excellent job at making you – the viewer, feel like you are their best friend. And that is the the most important thing about the social network. Sure, if some of them want to go off an “write” books, sell products, then that is their choice.

In the end, it is another way of people expressing themselves, finding people just like them, and providing opportunities for career development in the likes of filming, beauty and fashion, writing, whatever! How can that be a bad thing?


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