British vlogger Zoella has just reached the milestone of 10m subscribers to her main YouTube channel, but she has a long way to go to catch its most popular creator PewDiePie, who is about to pass 42m.
They’re just two of the most prominent YouTube stars. In October 2015, online-video tracking firm Tubular Labs reported that there were more than 17,000 YouTube channels with more than 100,000 subscribers, and nearly 1,500 with more than 1m.
How have these YouTubers become so popular? It can seem baffling to people outside their main viewing demographic: smartphone-toting “millennials” who spend as much time (if not more) watching shortform video online as they do traditional TV shows.
Yet the top YouTube stars aren’t just popular: they are genuinely influential figures for their young fans. A fact that entertainment industry magazine Variety has been confronting its readers with since 2014.
That year, it published a survey of 13-18 year-olds in the US conducted by Jeetendr Sehdev of the University of Southern California, asking them to rate the 10 most popular English-language YouTubers and 10 of the most popular traditional celebrities across a range of qualities representing “influence”.
YouTubers took the top five places in the resulting chart, with Smosh, the Fine Bros, PewDiePie, KSI and Ryan Higa deemed more influential than Paul Walker, Jennifer Lawrence, Katy Perry and other celebrities.
When Sehdev ran the same survey again in 2015, YouTubers took the top six slots, ahead of stars including Bruno Mars and Taylor Swift.
The surveys provided some useful evidence on why the online stars are so popular.
“YouTubers were judged to be more engaging, extraordinary and relatable than mainstream stars, who were rated as being smarter and more reliable. In terms of sex appeal, the two types of celebs finished just about even,” explained Variety in 2014.
“Looking at survey comments and feedback, teens enjoy an intimate and authentic experience with YouTube celebrities, who aren’t subject to image strategies carefully orchestrated by PR pros. Teens also say they appreciate YouTube stars’ more candid sense of humour, lack of filter and risk-taking spirit, behaviours often curbed by Hollywood handlers.”
That’s one of the key things to understand about the popularity of YouTubers, if you’re struggling to see it in their content – for their fans, the contrast with stars from the world of music, film and television has been a big factor in their rise.
Their very ordinariness – their relatability – is what makes them so appealing. The “girl or boy next door” who is “just like us” is not an unusual trope in the entertainment world but on YouTube, it’s heightened.
Variety’s 2015 study suggested that teenagers’ emotional attachment to YouTube stars is “as much as seven times greater than that toward a traditional celebrity” for these reasons.
Many YouTube stars foster this sense of connection in the way they talk to their fans in videos, from the coming-out announcements of stars such as Connor Franta, Ingrid Nilsen and Shane Dawson to Zoella vlogging about her experience of anxiety attacks, or PewDiePie addressing speculation about his earnings.
There are technical aspects to this too. By necessity, vlogging started out as a format with a person talking into a webcam – and thus directly to the viewer – often close to the camera and filming in their bedroom.
It created a sense of intimacy, and one that many YouTube stars have tried to maintain even as they got better cameras and editing kit. But it even extends to how many of them address their audiences.
In December 2015, the Atlantic investigated the phenomenon that it dubbed “YouTube voice” – which relates to the linguistic characteristics shared by many top YouTube stars. It was parodied by the journalist Julie Beck, who wrote in the introduction to her article: “Hey guys! What’s up? It’s Julie. And today I want to talk about YouTube voice.”
The piece outlines how overstressed and long vowels; extra vowels inserted into words – “terraping” instead of “trapping” for example – and aspiration (audible breaths) are common to many popular YouTubers.
To non-fans, these tics can be irritating. The linguist Mark Liberman described them as an “intellectual used-car-salesman voice” akin to “high-energy sales pitches” or even a “carnival barker”.
But that’s another point about the popularity of YouTube’s stars: the way they divide fans from non-fans is a big part of their appeal too.
Music industry analyst Mark Mulligan explored exactly that idea in a blogpost in September 2015, explaining to labels why teenagers seemed to care more about YouTubers than musicians.
He suggested that teenagers struggle to “find music that they can own, that their mum and dad aren’t going to sing along to too” – but have realised that their parents probably won’t be quite as open to YouTubers.
“With no music subculture to cling to Generation Edge has instead gravitated to YouTube stars,” wrote Mulligan.
Generation Edge is one of the many phrases bandied around to describe “people younger than us” in recent years. See also: Generation X, Gen C and the ubiquitous “millennials.”
Mulligan wrote: “For those not in the target demographic, it can sometimes be difficult to grasp exactly what the creative value is of many YouTubers. But that generational inability to grasp the essence of YouTube talent is exactly the same dynamic that music always had when it was the spearhead for youth rebellion.
“A kid trying to explain to his mum why Stampy Does Minecraft is worth watching hours on end is simply a 21st century rerun of kids trying to convince their parents of the musical worth of Elvis, the Beatles, the Sex Pistols and so on. That is the entire point of a youth culture – older generations aren’t meant to get it,” he added.
To summarise, then: to their fans, YouTube stars feel more authentic and relatable than many traditional celebrities, and that’s something that is intrinsic to the videos they publish. The fact that this may annoy or baffle non-fans – parents in particular – is part of the appeal.
It may also be a pitfall in waiting, though, for any YouTubers whose fans perceive them to be drifting away from that authentic, relatable status.
Staying relatable when you’re earning a high six- or even seven-figure annual income is one challenge, albeit hardly unfamiliar from the traditional entertainment world. But there are other trends that could change the relationship some YouTubers have with their audiences.
Many are working more with brands to sponsor their videos, for example. The risk is less that fans think they’ve sold out – many YouTubers are refreshingly upfront about their reasons for taking the cash – and more that some may end up making bad branded videos that turn their viewers off.
One of Variety’s online influencers, the Fine Brothers, have been taking flak for another reason in early 2016: they attempted to trademark the word “react” and license out their reaction-video format to other creators.
Format licensing is standard practice in the television industry, but as the Fine Bros now know, it’s capable of sparking a backlash in the YouTube community. It also risks being seen as another step away from their roots.
In 2016, the distinction between YouTubers and traditional celebrities is becoming increasingly blurred, not least because the former are no longer flying below the radar of the mainstream media. Some will struggle to stay connected to their fans in that spotlight, but not all.
The key thing to understand about YouTube stars is that the content of their videos – whether it’s Let’s Play game commentaries, makeup tutorials or personal vlogs – is only one half of their appeal.
The connection to their audiences is the other: they have grown up with the tools to forge and strengthen that connection, and many will use that as their anchor to keep their feet on the ground.