Pauline Kael, famed film critic for The New Yorker, once said that movies are the most total and encompassing art form we have. But I’ve never been much for movies. They’re too long. For me, the full gamut of human emotion is contained within a type of YouTube video known as “storytime.”
Storytime videos are winding monologues about a salacious event in someone’s life. There’s a storytime video about nearly every experience that could ever happen to a person, from funny (“I Sexted Someone On Accident”) to serious (“My Roommate Committed Suicide”). Storytime videos are formulaic. The thumbnail is usually blocky and brightly colored, like a children’s book, and it always has a picture of the YouTuber with an over-the-top expression on their face. Despite the drama of the thumbnail, the video is always just someone sitting in their room, talking directly to the camera. Storytime videos are almost exclusively made by young women.
I have no data to back this up, but I’m going to say that the average length of a storytime video is 15 minutes, although some last up to 30 minutes. As the YouTubers occasionally warn you at the start of the videos, grab a snack and settle in, because it’s going to be a long ride. They don’t feel long, though. The appeal of storytime videos lies in their intimacy. They tap into the feeling of being at the lunch table in middle school listening to your friend’s juicy story from sleepaway camp. Watching storytime videos fills a small void in my life I didn’t know I had, a void normally filled by my close girl friends.
The recent masters of the form, and my most recent favorites, have been Trisha Paytas and Tana Mongeau, two women who are similarly unpolished but differently targeted. Trisha and Tana, both blonde and hot, play to the interests of their teen fanbases. But while Tana goes for more innocent stories of teenage mischief, Trisha goes for extreme shock value. Tana has “I Smoked Salvia & Hallucinated Terribly,” and Trisha has “I Had Sex With An Entire Baseball Team.” When they talk, it’s like you’re friends with them. No easy feat when you remember that they’re talking to an unfeeling camera, receiving no responses to the beats of their stories. Storytime is a one-woman show.
One of my favorite storytime videos is “The Pudding Bitch Mystery” by Sarah Baska, a 19-year-old from Oregon. It’s an 8-minute video where she masterfully recounts a mysterious childhood incident involving a classmate, a carpool, and a large amount of inexplicable pudding that ends up smeared all over the backseat of the car. In the comments, people theorize about the source of the pudding, the most common theory being that the classmate stuffed her bra with pudding and it exploded. I wonder along with everyone else. Where did the pudding come from? What makes it a successful storytime is the contagious joy Baska experiences from telling us the story.
I wonder along with everyone else. Where did the pudding come from?
Sometimes, the more serious storytime videos use tropes that seem inappropriately flippant given the content. MarissaVela’s video “I Walked In On My Friend Getting Raped | Storytime” has over 1 million views and a thumbnail typical of the genre: The word “raped” is red, bold, and in a font that looks like dripping blood, and there’s a picture of her, mouth agape in exaggerated horror, as if she’s staging walking in on her friend getting raped. In her introduction, she warns that this storytime is going to be more serious than her past ones. Her retelling is more well-meaning than you’d expect from the thumbnail. Well, at least as well-meaning as monetizing her friend’s sexual assault can be. She tells it without a hint of humor or melodrama, and she uses the last two minutes to offer her support to rape victims, saying that they can reach out to her if they want to talk to somebody. The thumbnail was just her way of playing the game: a necessary evil to get clicks.
Storytime videos have also been criticized by viewers for their misleading or melodramatic titles. “I was almost kidnapped” could turn out to be a 20-minute tale about the YouTuber’s Uber driver taking a long route. Simplynessa15’s video “I Was Almost Kidnapped | STORYTIME” features a thumbnail of her with her face edited to look beaten up. This fits in with the camp and gaudiness of storytime videos, though. Like The Jerry Springer Show, storytime videos are consciously sensationalist. Everyone loves it, even if they roll their eyes.
As YouTube has become oversaturated with beauty gurus and vloggers, the demands for videos have become increasingly high-end. Production values have skyrocketed, sponsorships are abundant, and teens have the editing knowledge of small production studios. Storytime videos hearken back to the early days of sitting in front of a camera and talking about the mundanities of your life. The recommendation algorithm gives you an endless path of storytimes. Finish one about a bomb threat at someone’s high school, you’re presented with five more fantastical tales from someone’s lifelong highlight reel. Get a snack, find a comfortable seat, and get ready for storytime.