In late 2011, I was in desperate need of a distraction. Things were changing all around me and I needed something to stop thinking about it.
I didn’t want to turn on the TV or listen to music, so I went to YouTube. I figured I could watch stupid viral videos to mindlessly pass the time until something better came along. A cheap laugh is still a laugh.
I can’t remember exactly what video introduced me to the world beyond cat videos and Ridiculousness submissions, but I do know it was a Grace Helbig video. At the time she had a show called Daily Grace on the My Damn Channel Network. She worked as a host and star of videos that she would post every Monday through Friday. When I’d try to explain why these videos were so funny, it was difficult. Mostly, they were all just about a regular girl in her regular Brooklyn apartment commenting on life’s most random things. But they helped build an entire community.
The videos worked because Helbig worked. And I was all in.
From her videos, I was introduced to a network of creators from across the world. No two creators were alike, but they were all great in their own way. And they were a refreshing break from the staleness of TV.
Day by day my list of subscribed channels grew larger. I spent hours consuming videos old and new. There were memories and stories I needed to catch up on so that I could catch every inside joke in new videos and comments from other fans.
YouTube was my new favorite place on the internet back then.
But 2011 YouTube was a very different place than 2018 YouTube. For one, no one was rich. At least, not as rich as they would be. Back then, Zoella, who now has 12 million subscribers and broke J.K Rowling’s record for first week sales by a debut novel, lived at home with her dad and her little brother, Joe, who had yet to create a channel (one that now has 8 million subscribers).
No one was making movies or Netlfix shows. No one worried about being brand friendly and you definitely didn’t need to put clickbait disclaimers in your video titles. All you needed was a few friends to collaborate with and dedicate your time to engaging with your audience.
Where we are today, of course, is adpocolypse frustrating users and creators, a trending page full of talk show hosts and dead bodies in video thumbnails. The core of what brought YouTube to this point, the content creators who believe in the platform and cultivated the community it allowed are getting lost as YouTube tries to figure out who it is (and how it can make the biggest profit possible).
One YouTuber who found their success early on, Kingsley, explained the new era of YouTube on his Twitter this weekend, saying “YouTube is nothing more than a representation of the greater corporate culture. Once people realize they can make money, that becomes the motivation. The reason you guys connect with older YouTubers is cuz none of us knew we would make money. “YouTube famous” wasn’t a thing. “
He explained, “No YouTubers in 2010 were showing off their million dollar mansions or hanging out with celebs and brands trying to promote their shit. And tbh nothing is wrong with that. But it’s clearly not relatable or what anyone subscribed for. And that’s why we are where we are today.”
Getting lost isn’t specific to YouTube. It happens with young companies all the time. Facebook became a news hub. Amazon became a grocery store. Uber became a food delivery service. Businesses start to see money come in and they want to figure out ways to make more of it. Sometimes that change is for the better, sometimes it’s for the worse, sometimes it spreads illegitimate news to billions of people that in a real way causes the election of the worst president in United States history.
What is specific to YouTube, however — what will ultimately make them the most vulnerable, is that the thing they are becoming, and the thing that they started as cannot exist simultaneously. They can be a thriving hub for engaged community and representation of diverse people plus videos about flipping water bottles. Or they can be the place with clickbait titles, irresponsible creators focused on money rather than community and celebrity gossip.
It can’t sustain both identities.
Hank Green of The VlogBrothers, one of YouTube’s (and online video) most important people, talked about his stance on the recent issues on YouTube and why he’s not quick to do anything about it yet. He said, “I’m sentimentally attached. Just like I’m not going to leave my country when things start to go bad, I just won’t abandon this platform to leave it to become a worse place without me.”
That sentiment is what YouTube is banking on. Much like TV before it, they don’t take their mistakes in user experience seriously, because where is anyone going to go? They have the market cornered. They are untouchable in the current landscape.
But users aren’t sentimentally attached to YouTube, just like they weren’t sentimentally attached to TV. People only wanted to watch Friends, so when Friends moved to Netflix (without commercials), they cut the cord without a second thought.
People follow the content, they go where their people are. They don’t care about how they get there. YouTube is acting like we haven’t all seen this before, like people have never changed habits before. YouTube forgot that it saw this very story play out on its own platform just 4 years ago.
In 2014, Helbig left My Damn Channel to start her own channel, It’s Grace. In a space dominated by people who were building small businesses that they owned entirely, she felt like a fraud. She wanted to be in charge of what happened in her business. So she made a huge leap of faith.
At the time, she had a couple million subscribers on Daily Grace, and just a few hundred thousand on the channel that became It’s Grace. Essentially, she chose to start over from scratch. It was something that scared her but she knew that owning her own content, her audience, and her career was the right choice.
In 22 days, the It’s Grace channel hit 1 million subscribers. It currently has more subscribers than Daily Grace ever had.
Her audience, as with most healthy, engaged YouTube audiences, will follow her anywhere. And eventually that may mean a platform beyond YouTube. One that values users over ad dollars. One like Patreon.
And sure, it takes a lot of guts to leave the place that’s safe. The place that you have a practical and sentimental loyalty to. But at a certain point, with things going the way they are, it’s going to be worth it. When creators lose too much agency over their own careers. When things become too unpredictable. When the trust is gone. Those are the kinds of things that force people to find something new, something that works.
No corporation is more important than the people who are creating. The whole thing falls apart without a product to distribute, without eyes to capitalize on. And that’s the important thing for all of us to remember.
The value is in the creator.