Over the last decade as the digital revolution continues to unfold, it has become increasingly common for audience members of digital media to become producers of the same content. Audience is even an outdated term, as we’ve coined the term “publics” and “user” instead (Jenkins, 2013). The capability for a single person to create and share tailored, specialized content has drastically changed the landscape that new media finds itself in. New communication platforms and technology make it easy to create content daily on a small, affordable scale. The flow of media has changed: it flows from many sources to many recipients with interactivity between the two at the core. The vast access of these technologies and platforms was bound to result in specialization of content options. An audience member can easily become a creator. A creator is also an audience member of other media. Why not make a vlog about whatever you want, there’s bound to be someone interested in it, right? More and more of the internet is occupied with people sharing images and information created by themselves; whether that form is vlogging, blogging, podcasting, or curating a YouTube channel. So, what’s the deal with so much user-produced content? Why is it so successful? What makes one a winner on social media?
To address the reasons why vlogging and other depictions of self are so popular, I look to a TED talk by artist and educator Linda Hudson (2014) in which she makes a point that a selfie is an assertion by humans of their own presence. Hudson thinks that a big draw of selfies is learning to engage visually and engage in creative practices. Humans have long taken the practice of representing themselves through lasting images. So, in a way, the act of vlogging and capturing ourselves is not a new concept.
Kids, young adults, everyone loves to show themselves off; vlogging and social media are new forms in which these practices have resurfaced. Chareen Snelson (2013) found in her comprehensive study of vlogging that many young people create content out of a desire to alleviate boredom, connect with others and because they feel like their contributions matter when posted online. Research has found that podcasters also produce because they get audience feedback and feel self-important. (Markman, 2011). Social media is a source for people to find validation of self from multiple sources such as likes and comments on images of themselves. It’s like we’re saying, “I’m here, please like me”. We’re afforded the ability to feel like we’re part of a bigger conversation.
So, we have reasons that may explain why users love to produce content; but why do users love to consume a personality-heavy type of user-produced content? The Guardian writer Stuart Dredge (2016) explains that based on surveys of teenagers, authenticity is a huge reason YouTubers are so popular. It seems that a genuine personality and an intimate conversation-like experience is desired from a YouTuber. Vlogging is, out of necessity, a personal experience. You’re literally sharing your life, your personal image, in some cases close-ups of your face with the entire Internet and viewers are drawn to YouTuber’s vulnerability and ordinariness (Dredge, 2016). Because the content is produced by only a few individuals, the media is inherently more personal than traditional media produced by a network and team of professionals. The nature of social media entertainment manifests in two salient ways: the nature of the relationship between Youtuber and viewer, and the brand partnerships created with YouTubers. Understanding how differently a Youtuber communicates with their audience highlights the pivotal shift from traditional media to social media prevalence.
CONNECTING TO YOUR PUBLIC
One aspect of the interactive nature of many YouTube channels that contributes to their success is explained by the speech patterns implemented by many vloggers. Audience-oriented language, such as asking them how the audience is doing, to “comment below” what the viewers think of a specific topic, gearing everything to make the experience more conversational creates a more personal and thus desirable video (Snelson, 2013). In contrast to traditional media where there is a clear and obvious divide between what is happening on the screen and what is happening in real life, vloggers and many YouTubers seek to lower the barriers between themselves and the audience. The goal of many channels is to invite their viewers to “hang-out” with them in their home, further enhancing the fantasy of simply being with friends. I myself find it comforting to sit back and listen to a few people chit chat on YouTube and laugh along with them, as if they were hanging out with me in my room. Other research agrees that authenticity and community engagement are at the core of YouTube’s success. “These formats differ sharply from established film and television, and are constituted from intrinsically interactive audience-centricity and appeals to authenticity and community in a commercializing space,” (Cunningham & Craig, 2017). People want to feel like they are engaging socially by watching a screen and interacting with people on the other side of that screen. Let’s look at popular types of user-produced content that provide an interactive experience and how they achieve those feats.
Vlogging, gameplay streaming, and beauty gurus are the three types of easily produced content that are popular on the internet (Cunningham, 2017). The popular gaming platform, Twitch, averaged 1.7 million broadcasters of live-streamed games in 2015 which garnered them over 459,366 years of gameplay streams (Twitch.tv, 2015). That’s a lot of time for the world to be watching other people play video games. On these game streaming channels, you can purchase a song to play on the stream, or a shout out from the streamer, leave a comment or advice for how to play a level; an interactive feature. Beauty videos on YouTube account for 700 million views per month with 97 percent of those videos created by consumers (Sykes, 2014). Vlogs in general make up a huge portion of YouTube. Both beauty videos and vlogs rely on the conversational personality of the creator to encourage laughter and engagement from a viewer. Comment features and the use of multiple social media platforms allow for direct communication between viewers and content producers. Influencers can tailor their content daily according to different trends or current events. Many creators utilize Twitter to organize Q&A’s by tweeting out a request for questions to answer on their YouTube channel. If a new product gets released, all the beauty gurus have videos about it the next day. It no longer takes a week to see the character from your favorite podcast or vlog because they are on Instagram or Snapchat daily, updating and talking with their audience about their lives. With this new type of media gaining so much popularity, it only makes sense to question how the live-streamer or vlogger filming in his or her bedroom has an effect on other areas of the society. One sector that has taken notice of the power of a personality is brands.
All types of brands have started to notice that the influence that comes with a social media following holds great potential for marketing. “For brand exposure, growth in web traffic and increased sales, one little vlogger can do a lot. The social buzz they create can go a long way towards improving engagement across social channels and take a brand to the next level in a chosen demographic or region,” (Ivory Content, 2015). The change is that where traditional media and advertisements were trying to sneak their ads past our conscious minds, brand partnerships only work when the partnership is transparent with the viewers. It goes back to authenticity and community. Otherwise, viewers will clock the YouTuber for selling out and only promoting the product because they are getting paid.
I’ve seen branding happen all over the beauty vlogs. James Charles, a beauty vlogger with 2 million subscribers, has merchandise with his coupon code on it. He is basically advertising that he is advertising, and making money from it. Other vloggers will partner with a camera or toothpaste or any random brand that will send them on a trip, or send them products and pay them to mention their brand. It’s a development that allows high level creators to make more revenue and get their videos spread to more people on the internet. The partnerships are even more beneficial for the brands and YouTube. YouTube wants its users to excel because their views means more ad revenue for the company. Brands love to partner with users because they can find any type of person, or really channel, that fits their company’s narrative or demographic. Similar to traditional media, those brands get people that already have a loyal fanbase and proceed to get those fans to become fans of their own product.
For example, one beauty guru, Jackie Aina, tends to partner with brands that are black-owned. She sees the lack of beauty products designed for people of color as socially unacceptable and takes a stance through her partnership choices.
One prominent make-up brand, Too Faced Cosmetics, is partnering with Jackie to expand their own shade selections. Too Faced likely only created more shades because Jackie highlighted a demand and the brand was able to capitalize off of her narrative. Jackie’s partnership with Too Faced further enforces the interactive nature of vlogging. She hears input from her viewers about brands that she has reviewed, then collaborates with brands to create products that the same viewers will use at home. Jackie created a community that worked toward changing the norms of the beauty community. “Networked publics can ‘call out’ companies [or industries] they collectively perceive as acting counter to the community’s interest,” (Jenkins, 2013). The viewers voice had an impact on the direction of brand production. It’s a new medium of consumer feedback. Jackie’s story is one of countless influencers who have utilized brand partnership to rake in some dough, get views, and more importantly, guide brands towards catering to the consumers wants.
It will be interesting to see how the landscape of social media entertainment will continue to develop. Social media connection has been shown (Steinfield, 2008) to nurture social capital in young people. Will the trend of vlogging or having a YouTube channel help increase our ability to utilize our connections to people? Will consumers continue to stand by their “close friend, the YouTube star” despite being openly advertised to? Is personality-driven, user-produced content the future of brand engagement? Are we seeing a shift toward authenticity becoming more entertaining than a soap opera, perhaps so? Only time will tell where the viewers, and the advertisers, will follow.
Jenkins, H. M., Ford, S. M., & Green, J. (2013). What Constitutes Meaningful Participation In Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture (pp. 153–175). New York: New York University Press.
Steinfield, C., Ellison, N. B., & Lampe, C. (2008). Social capital, self-esteem, and use of online social network sites: A longitudinal analysis. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 29(6), 434-445.
Cunningham, S., Craig, D. (2017) Being ‘really real’ on YouTube: authenticity, community and brand culture in social media entertainment. Media International Australia, 164(1), 71- 81.
Ivory Content. (2015). Vlogs: The Rise and Rise of the Vlogger. Ivory Content. Retrieved from http://ivorycontent.com/vlogs-rise-rise-vlogger/
Snelson, C. (2013). Vlogging about school on YouTube: An exploratory study. New Media & Society, 17(3), 321-339.
Sykes, S. (2014). Making Sense of Beauty Vlogging. Theses, Research Showcase, paper 75.
Twitch TV, (2015) retrieved from https://www.twitch.tv/year/2015