Three summers ago I sat in the passenger seat of a jet black BMW as its driver, a charismatic, lion-like Dutchman called Bastian Manintveld, sped down the highway out of Madrid. Bastian had been a TV executive who turned his eye towards YouTube when his children would suddenly go AWOL of an evening at his home. His family didn’t gather around the television after school as they used to. Instead his kids would take their iPad – or their father’s – and head to their rooms to watch their favourite YouTubers.
Since leaving the television industry, Bastian had built up a business managing children, teenagers and adults of all ages as they made it famous on YouTube, the video sharing website which is the world’s second most-visited (behind Google and ahead of Facebook). He was rich. And as the sandy brush on the roadside slipped away past the window in a blur, the former TV man was feeling boastful. ‘I want to give TV back their audience,’ he told me then.
A lot has changed in those three years. Bastian’s company has gone from strength to strength. Earlier this year it bought a Spanish-language YouTube sketch comedy troupe, called Enchufe.tv, for $7.5 million. Bastian’s new purchase came with some benefits, too: as well as millions of viewers on YouTube, making them one of the top 100 most popular people on the site, they had a traditional television programme broadcast across Latin America and a film in production released by Sony Pictures. What in 2016 had still been an interloper was now the media itself. And in 2019 Bastian not only planned to give TV back their audience; he also wanted to look more like TV and Hollywood than he first thought three years earlier.
I’d been fascinated by YouTube and technology for years, sneaking odd mentions into issues of Living North. After working during the day in the offices of the magazine, I’d go home and write stories about YouTube for national newspapers, magazines and global websites. And now – as YouTube reaches an inflection point in the mainstream, when businesses are changing hands for millions, when Joe Sugg (a YouTuber previously known as being famous for being famous) reaches the final of Strictly Come Dancing, and when newspaper headlines stress about the impact of YouTube on our children and society as a whole – I’ve completed a comprehensive book trying to explain the platform.
If you don’t already watch YouTube (and according to Ofcom statistics, we watch an average of half an hour a day), then your children or grandchildren probably do. If they’re toddlers, they’ll talk breathlessly about the likes of Tiana, an 11-year-old girl who is the most popular girl on all YouTube. She managed to bring 11,000 dedicated fans to a shopping centre for a pop-up shop last August, and at the end of this month [May] will have her own range of clothing stocked in more than 400 branches of Asda across the country. If they’re a little older, they’ll recount the latest videos by KSI, Zoella or PewDiePie.
And they’ll likely harbour ambitions of following their favourite creators online and in front of the camera. A third of British children aged between five and 13 want to become YouTubers when they grow up. You probably have your own opinions on whether that’s a good career choice or not: a survey of 3,000 adults I commissioned for my book shows that half of British adults say YouTubers aren’t good role models for children, and just 14 percent say they are. But it is a feasible option.
An eight-year-old boy called Ryan was the highest-earning YouTuber last year. He made $22 million. Instead of being X-Factor stars or Hollywood actors, children nowadays want to become YouTubers – moreso than doctors, nurses or journalists.
If it sounds astounding, that’s because it is. YouTube has only just entered its teenage years, founded in 2005 as a place for its inventors to upload a home video of them visiting the elephant enclosure at the San Diego zoo. And now it’s the second-biggest site on the entire internet, and by far the biggest media platform, far outstripping the reach of the BBC or any traditional TV channel. In the first two months of 2019, more than 12.7 million videos on YouTube were seen more than 1,000 times.
Compare it even to Netflix and there’s a vast gulf in reach and scale. More than 400 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. In the last three months of 2018, Netflix uploaded 781 hours of videos. Over the same time period, YouTube users posted 53 million hours. Watch all of Netflix’s new videos over that time period and it’d take you 35 days. It’d take until the year 8069 to watch the footage uploaded to YouTube in those three months.
For those reasons – the sheer scale, the insane amounts of money, and the possibility of being plucked from obscurity to a life of fame and fortune – YouTube is a big deal. It’s a modern media phenomenon, a freight train that has crashed into the entertainment industry. When I started writing my book, YouTube was an afterthought, a curio to be brought out and sneered at. As I put the final touches to it, there was barely a day when a national newspaper or international magazine didn’t include a headline about YouTube’s panoply of personalities or problems.
It’s tapped into the human algorithm: our brains; what we enjoy, we need. It reflects back our best aspects and our worst, amplifying them at the same time. It makes us laugh and cry. It’s maddening and enchanting. It’s YouTube, MeTube, UsTube. We can barely live with it, and yet we can’t imagine a life without it. But regardless, it’s here to stay. And we need to understand it – whether we want to live like a celebrity, or to warn off our children from pursuing a career as a YouTuber.
YouTubers: How YouTube hooked our children, shook up TV and made vloggers global stars is published by Canbury Press on May 2nd.
WHY AYE TUBERS
YouTubers don’t need to be based in London to reach the top of the site – many are local heroes
Subscribers: 1.5 million
Monthly views: 6.7 million
Brian Davis is a former oil rig worker and Newcastle United fan who came to fame for ranting about the performance of his favourite football team. He now hosts a weekly podcast on YouTube, where he’s interviewed celebrities like Ricky Gervais
Monthly views: 1.6 million
Twenty-two-year-old Demi Donnelly is best known for her beauty and fashion videos. She takes her camera – and as a result, her fans – along with her when she goes shopping.
Monthly views: 11,000
The Flamingo Family (mum Angela, dad Jason, daughter Madeline and son Freddie) invite viewers into their daily lives, showing people what life is like in Newcastle. They’re relative newcomers to the site, setting up their channel just over a year ago, but are growing quickly.