Kaila Philo,  November 21

The Professional Friends of YouTube

The platform and its young celebrities have built a self-contained universe of political cluelessness

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I don’t know how it happened: one minute I was searching for reviews of Glossier Perfecting Skin Tint, the next I was watching a viral takedown of a teenage millionaire for his posting of racial slurs (and subsequent lying about it). This is YouTube’s lifeblood: one video leads to several the way one episode leads to a marathon, except the media is shorter, easier to digest (in a way), and only a click away. And it has the added value of offering disaffected teens surrogate bros to emulate and gal pals to gossip with.

One of the most popular of YouTube’s professional friends is nineteen-year-old Tana Mongeau. She has over 2.7 million subscribers.

Among the most popular of these professional friends, and an exemplar of teendom in the new economy, is nineteen-year-old Tana Mongeau, whose success isn’t all that surprising. Hair dyed cool blonde, nails sharpened and polished to kill, young enough to stay hip but old enough to exude sex appeal, Mongeau is recognizable as the most popular girl at your high school. She first launched her YouTube channel on April 30, 2015, when she specialized in “story-time videos,” in which the vlogger recites a personal story for her audience, often in the conversational style of a kiki. Mongeau exhibited considerable talent in this genre; her voice is pinched and intonates well throughout her stories. She’s graced with a specific kind of charisma that’s shameless in a way that benefits her: she holds little back, posting (in)famous stories about being fucked with a toothbrush or getting arrested at Coachella, offering just enough intimacy to make anyone feel welcome to—maybe even honored by—her friendship. Watching a Tana Mongeau video often feels like you’re sitting at the cool table, learning the juiciest drama from your own private It Girl.

Thanks to this effect, Mongeau has amassed over 2.7 million subscribers on YouTube, while inspiring an expanding cohort of teen girls to do the same. Now you can listen to any young ingénue’s salacious secrets while applying your BB cream, quietly agreeing or condemning the unfolding thoughts of whatever pretty girl happens to be on the screen. The most popular videos manage to rack up over a million views—or, often, more—and, if they’re monetized, the YouTubers can earn thousands of dollars in AdSense payout. This subgenre is distinct from most on YouTube, seeing as it requires largely less effort than the famous channels of yore; whereas the first generation of YouTubers—NigaHiga, Zoella, Smosh, Michelle Phan, et al—thrived by way of some discernible talent or aesthetic innovation, story-time YouTubers do not have to invest heavily in production value or high-end beauty products. Those like Tana Mongeau must only invest in themselves—and hope that their selves resonate with teens everywhere. Nevertheless, the ethic that holds for all successful YouTube genres echoes that of Jake Paul’s “MOTIVATIONAL VIDEO (MUST WATCH)”: “Grind! Every! Single! Day!”

Rise and Grind

In his new book Kids These Days, Malcolm Harris argues that YouTube-star phenomenon is just the result of teens adapting to late capitalism. The millennial ambition to evade the nine-to-five model is driven by very real anxieties relating to student debt and ever-worsening job prospects. A bachelor’s degree costs more now than ever while no longer serving as a professional safety net. “It’s harder to compete for a good job,” Harris writes, “the bad jobs you can hope to fall back on are worse than they used to be, and both good and bad jobs are less secure.” Platforms like YouTube, Instagram, and Vine have offered convenient escape routes from the typical work-life balance.

Branding oneself on the internet differs from conventional modes of celebrity by virtue of its perceived freedom from constraint and authority, a development that Harris touches upon in his book: “Building a brand is no longer the purview of slick besuited experts; it’s the individual responsibility of every voice that wants to ‘make it’.” However, Harris focuses his analysis on budding artists in the vain of Justin Bieber, rather than YouTubers who specialize in selling their personalities, which is a field that has expanded rapidly and broadly with the rise of social media. Famous personalities in the past—Kelly Ripa, Ryan Seacrest—built their brands through television production, with the idea of eventually hosting their own shows. And these aspirations evolved when reality shows offered relative unknowns, stars-in-the-making who lacked experience in media production, the chance to flaunt their personalities, or perhaps launch a makeup or skincare line. The goals of YouTube personalities, however, are amorphous; Mongeau and her ilk express no interest in joining reality vehicles or opening boutiques. Aside from a few tours, YouTube is their means and ends. Mongeau herself offered reservations about graduating to television in a recent video. She has, however, acted in the YouTubeRED series Escape the Night, alongside other famous YouTubers.

Rather than rely on advertising agents, YouTubers who only employ themselves are in full control of their image. The only other person involved in the Tana Mongeau machine is Jordan Worona, a talent manager who also oversees Christine Sydelko and Elijah Daniel of Elijah & Christine, etc. The rest—her own content, tweets, concert acts—is under Mongeau’s control. Unsurprisingly, as you might expect for any unsupervised teenager put before the eyes of a million tweens and teenagers, Mongeau’s brand came toppling down earlier this year because of a few stray utterances of the n-word. But to understand how this could happen, we must swim in the shallow politics of the platform.

Double Indemnity

Not much has been written about the politics of YouTube, a missed opportunity when you consider it ranges from lightly worn, brandable identity politics to far-right extremism (the latter less popular, but more strident). Because of its video medium, YouTube is a platform ripe for reaction—and therefore engagement—to the point that there are entire subgenres devoted to reacting: to funny clips, movie trailers, and popular vloggers. One such community resides on the platform’s fringes and consists of self-described “skeptics” who specialize in “political incorrectness,” or responding to experts they consider “social justice warriors” with their own personal opinions. Sargon of Akkad is among the most popular of these vloggers; he recently came under scrutiny for misunderstanding the Socratic method.

While the presence of such vloggers is marginal at best, their views pervade the site like a miasmic fog. YouTubers with much larger followings and less extreme views peddle politically incorrect rhetoric in a way that far supersedes the platform’s attempts at counterbalancing it. Even Felix Kjellberg (also known as PewDiePie), reigning supreme with over 57 million subscribers, has exhibited a growing disdain for PC culture—and the mainstream media—since the Wall Street Journal uncovered anti-Semitic jokes in several of his videos. Also among the machine-cogs these vloggers rail against are Buzzfeed; expressly political YouTubers, such as Franchesca Ramsey and Kat Blaque; and other YouTubers who dabble in social justice, such as Tana Mongeau.

It’s within this glass house that Mongeau threw a stone. On December 10, 2016, she tweeted the following to twenty-six-year-old Ian Carter, more widely known as iDubbbzTV:

@idubbbz so 3 million ppl subscribe to u and u openly say the n-word and retard???? Kill yourself

Carter was another popular commentator, one politically closer to PewDiePie than Akkad: he trafficked in “edgy” language, often using the n-word, r-word, and f-word—sometimes combining two for more comedic effect—under the misconception that, when repeatedly used for fun, such words exhaust their meanings. Still, this past January and February, Carter began to uncover old tweets and video footage from Mongeau’s tweendom, in which she referred to various friends as the n-word in a derogatory fashion. He then released a new entry to his “Content Cop” series, which features twenty- to thirty-minute videos that criticize a popular YouTuber’s content. In this example, he broadly called Mongeau out on her hypocrisy, seeing as she is a self-proclaimed Black Lives Matter activist, while bolstering his Beckett-lite decree that language means nothing so long as we just will it so.

A Foam of Solipsism

Despite the squabbling and occasional setbacks, the beat goes on, wildly fast and unmonitored by grown-ups. YouTube has meanwhile revamped stardom: all you need to do is turn on your webcam and talk to find an audience—at least in theory. What goes unnoticed, though, is the specialization, the platform expertise that bolsters the YouTube pantheon.

YouTubers invest most of their concern in controversies having to do with the platform itself.

To become a successful YouTuber, you must become well-versed in its content and stay up-to-date on the latest viral videos or makeup trends or controversies—depending on your preferred YouTube subgenre. You must also attend VidCon or PlaylistLive or VloggerFair, befriend the other comedians or beauty gurus, collaborate, organize tours or meet-and-greets. YouTube therefore becomes almost the only media you consume; it creates a small galaxy with room enough for a few planets and distant stars. In short, the deeper you delve into YouTube’s reality, the farther removed you become from our own.

This unseemly foam merges solipsisms, isolated bubbles of consumption and participation. It also explains YouTube’s reactionary, anti-PC humor, which thrives because YouTubers invest most of their concern in controversies having to do with the platform itself; meanwhile real-world issues are pushed to the background.

In this respect, the YouTube stars’ claims to activism are hard to accept; they amount to little more than a few tweets declaring that black lives matter and gender roles are bad; nor is there, in Mongeau’s case, an overtly political video in her catalog of 173 posts. Similarly, Carter appears to have only a tenuous grasp on the significance of slurs. He jokingly refers to himself as a “nigger faggot” despite being white and straight, and maintains that he’s stripping these words of meaning. It seems lost on him that bigotry does not begin with words, or that these words begin with bigotry.

Considering the media we consume informs our values—you are what you eat and whatnot—it’s troubling to see the degree to which the platform affects these eighteen- to twenty-five-year-old binge-watchers’ perceptions of the Real World. Late capitalism has created a cavalcade of young people searching for a way out, and YouTube provides a temporary shelter, one in perpetual danger of collapsing on itself.

Kaila Philo is a writer based in Baltimore. She writes largely about culture, technology, and the arts, and publishes a monthly column through Full Stop.

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