The Future

I am beginning to suspect that having a massive following on YouTube does not make people happy

YouTube’s dominance over the internet has immense implications for how we interact with and interpret the world.

In the beginning of her nearly two-hour YouTube video titled “Canceling,” the Baltimore-based vlogger ContraPoints plops down in a bathtub among bags of trash, wrestles with a 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor, and eloquently recites her script for the next 100 minutes. She tells the viewer that she’s recently faced criticism within her online community for collaborating with people harboring less-than-pristine politics, or at the very least, tweeted things they should have known not to tweet.

It’s difficult to explain to someone unfamiliar with ContraPoints why and how one might willingly sit through movie-length clips of a seemingly random (but very charismatic) woman from Baltimore simply talking. The YouTube personality, real name Natalie Wynn, specializes in using the rhetorical and technological tools of the online right to spread the ideas of the online left while refuting those of the right, which sounds like something anyone could hypothetically do. But ContraPoints, who has roughly 812,000 subscribers, makes this work in a way that is special. Somehow, I have spent hours watching and rewatching her videos, letting her soft voice glaze over me as I spin Tetris tiles into place on my phone, wash dishes with my computer propped up on a nearby shelf, or gazed into her enchanting eyes giving her my full attention.

The 100-minute run time of “Canceling” is long but not unheard of in the world of independent YouTubers. Shaun, a YouTube creator with nearly 300,000 subscribers, recently released a 160-minute-long dissection of the Charles Murray’s (very racist) book The Bell Curve; he previously released a nearly hour-long explanation of the 2017 Charlottesville Alt-Right rally, focusing on the town’s police gaffes and lesser-seen videos live streamed from the alt-right themselves. This style of clip resembles a TED Talk or an episode of a podcast, appealing to those who best process information when they hear it, and maybe want a visual aid to help it stick. For those who prefer the brevity of a news clip, or the freedom of pace offered by reading, these same qualities might be turnoffs. Yet just because you might not see the big deal doesn’t mean these videos don’t have appeal — they very much do, and the culture that YouTube has spawned, reaching far beyond the leftist bounds of Shaun and ContraPoints, has immense implications for how both content creators and consumers interact with and interpret the world.

There is an entirely different internet out there, and it may be bigger than our own. As the New York Times explained in an October 2019 profile of the vlogger PewDiePie:

One crucial thing to understand about YouTube is that there are really two of them. The first YouTube is the YouTube that everyone knows — the vast reference library filled with sports highlights, music videos and old Comedy Central roasts. But there’s a second YouTube inside that one. It is a self-contained universe with its own values and customs, its own incentive structures and market dynamics and its own fully developed celebrity culture that includes gamers, beauty vloggers, musicians, D.I.Y.ers, political commentators, artists and pranksters.

The world of YouTube creators grew like a mold for years before the larger world took notice around 2015ish, at which point it was impossible to contain. Within the larger YouTube community, the breakout stars — PewDiePie, Emma Chamberlain, James Charles — have bridged the gap from online famous to famous, full-stop. (Emma Chamberlain is on the most recent cover of Cosmopolitan magazine, being proclaimed “The most popular girl in the world.”)

Beneath YouTube’s mainstream lies an undercurrent of thousands of creator hopefuls revving up their iPhone cameras, rushing to create video after video in the hopes of unearthing the gold of attention and ad revenue. This is exhausting work. Even while I was getting my BFA in a writer/director program in a film conservatory (albeit at a state school), we had an entire year to write, direct and edit a 10- to 20-minute piece of narrative or documentary film. Student films are held to a different standard than YouTube videos, but both involve putting high-end editing equipment in the hands of 19-year-olds and telling them to go nuts. I can’t help but wonder if the rise of YouTube creators has influenced modern film programs in some way, if some kids enroll hoping that lectures on French New Wave and exercises extrapolated from Jonas Mekas seminars will somehow help them ascend the corporate streaming ladder.

Within the depths of YouTube are even more communities — for every one you see, you can multiply that number by whatever to imagine how many more are out there, kind of like cockroaches. If we haven’t completely removed the barrier to entry into the world of spoonfed video content, we’ve at least relaxed it considerably. We’re able to pull up a clip of any random person across the globe doing anything from offering play-by-plays of reality TV breakup scenes,advertising both paid and free, and tutorials for everyone in the family. All our hobbies have turned to dust as everyone is desperate to monetize their corner of the market, including when that includes being technically anti-market. Of course, this same mechanism also has allowed for a terrifying wave of conspiracy theories about the flat earth, Qanon, and god knows what else.

Among her arguments in the canceling video, ContraPoints notes the time it takes to process an event, especially a threatening or stressful conflict, and how necessary logging off and giving space is. She is correct; perhaps the hardest part of being online is not being online. “Logging off” is imbued with meaning and implications, projections of motivation and abdication of the conversation, or in some cases, evading accountability. We demand each other be online, often to a fault. We are each our older brothers, grabbing our arms and yelling “stop hitting yourself” as we check our screentime metrics, set up time limits and routinely break them without thinking. Everything is gamified except the success of logging off, with nothing much to show for it unless you log on to track how long you've logged off, maybe by marking another book read on Goodreads. In our culture of endless surveillance, we are each willing participants, enforcing an optional extra layer of policing our internet use, because the internet is now where all our conversations take place.

We’re told to log off, as if there is anything left to look at if we do. Should we switch to another screen, play video games for a while, maybe do a jigsaw puzzle on our iPad? We have created a reality in which we have no time for dreams or goals, but have all the time in the world to rewatch police procedurals on Netflix in the name of “self-care.” Or maybe the new self-care is gazing into our familiar computer screens investing deeper into our parasocial relationships. YouTube is, after all, arguably one of the platforms that most closest resembles an IRL hangout. Maybe that’s why there is a gravitational pull of both audience and creator to watch and record, to sit in an empty bathtub with a 40 and speak without anyone else interrupting.