Streampunks is a quick guide to everything that you wanted to know about that Internet revolution called YouTube, told in an anecdotal and fascinating way.
What do Tyler Oakley, Lilly Singh aka Superwoman, PewDiePie and Sami Slimani have in common? Well, you’d be forgiven if you’ve never heard any of these names in the first place. While Oakley is a podcast personality, Canada-based Singh rose to fame by embracing her immigrant origins and impersonating her Indian parents in sketch videos. Swedish comedian PewDiePie is known for his Let’s Play commentaries and vlogs; and Slimani is a lifestyle guru with Tunisian roots. And all of them are tied by one common thread: YouTube. They may not turn out to be your traditional actors or musicians, but they are an incredibly talented lot of creators and entrepreneurs who have used YouTube to reach the pinnacles of success and popularity. They have millions of followers—some of them even draw audiences larger than those of hit television shows. Some of them have also become extremely successful businesspeople. In a nutshell, they are some of the most popular and influential celebrities of new media. Just to give a little bit of context, Canadian singing sensation Justin Bieber has over 32 million subscribers to his YouTube channel. The figure is not small, but he has a long way to go if he wants to catch up with PewDiePie’s 58 million subscribers. Interestingly, even Bieber was discovered on YouTube by American talent manager Scooter Braun through his video songs in 2008. In Streampunks, author Robert Kyncl documents the life and times of these influential new celebrities.
These creators are making content that you wouldn’t normally expect to see in your average television line-up. Vloggers like Casey Neistat are commanding mammoth audiences, unlike any TV pattern we’ve seen so far, by sharing scenes from their daily lives, while giving out their viewpoints straight to the camera. Gadget pundits like Lewis Hilsenteger run channels that “give fans a taste of consumer gratification without having to open their wallets by revealing—or ‘unboxing’—the latest tech products.” If you’re wondering, Hilsenteger’s channel Unbox Therapy averages a million views per video. These celebrities run channels across a variety of genres—some of which are unprecedented. Nobody, including officials at YouTube, would have guessed that these genres would become so popular one day. Kyncl is the chief business officer of YouTube. As an insider, he has done an excellent job in writing an interesting book about YouTube and his role within it. In 2011, when he left Netflix to join YouTube, around 40 hours of video were being uploaded every minute. In 2017, that figure has grown over tenfold. Today, some 1.5 billion-odd people call YouTube their entertainment home. They come to watch viral hits, music videos or late-night clips. Some come onboard to catch up on sporting events or the latest news. Others view it to learn something, or simply watch advertisements. Yes, YouTube showed marketers that transforming commercial ads into content didn’t have to be a publicity stunt or a prestige marketing ploy.
A case in point, writes Kyncl, is Touch of Gold, the first video of branded content to ever go viral on YouTube. A grainy footage shows soccer star Ronaldinho hitting the crossbar no less than four times without the ball touching the floor. The product on display is the Nike R10 football boot. The video is just over two-and-a-half minutes long, but it drove millions of interested viewers to the campaign online and was the most forwarded video that year. Sadly, the video wasn’t real, but it changed the rules of the advertising game forever. For many people, YouTube is simply a platform that lets users film things and upload them to garner views. But did you know that YouTube deposits money into millions of creators’ accounts around the world through its revenue-sharing programmes, an effort that Kyncl calls the “democratisation of the job of an Internet content creator”? Of course, YouTube’s partner payments model is another story. It has helped anchor the growth of several new media properties, from Vice to BuzzFeed, besides bolstering the bottomlines of traditional media companies and music labels.
Then there’s something called the ‘YouTube Creator Summit’, where YouTube invites some of the best and brightest talents on the platform for a few days in New York and lets them socialise with one another, while hearing inspirational talks from the leading voices in entertainment. The author calls it “Davos for the digital set”. There are many more such interesting aspects to YouTube. In fact, this book is about more than just YouTube. It doesn’t provide another origin story of a social media giant, neither does it portray the profile of a Silicon Valley project that is ‘disrupting the industry’ or ‘rewriting the rules’. It’s about you and me, and people like us who have used YouTube to do some amazing things. The book will make you feel part of a growing movement and, in that, it connects.
Kunal Doley is a freelancer