A few months ago, my birthday arrived and I turned an age that I absolutely, definitely cannot pass off as my ‘early twenties’ any more.
Around the same time, YouTube announced the launch of YouTube Red, a premium service where you can watch original shows that the site has commissioned. The first four of those shows launched this week, and this is a problem.
The problem is that it makes me feel old.
For the first time, a form of media has cropped up that I Just Don't Understand. It appeals to young people - teenagers, mostly - and I find it alienating and strange and I Don't Get It.
The biggest YouTube celebrities have millions of subscribers and earn millions of dollars, and I haven't even heard of the vast majority of them. A click through this Forbes list of last year's highest YouTube earners only produced three stars that I'm familiar with (and that's partly because I remember seeing one of their first ever videos on MySpace).
An accurate depiction of the blogger, who now refers to young people as 'whippersnappers'
Why are they doing this to me?
Kids these days spend more time on the internet than they do watching TV - YouTube is essentially replacing traditional telly for them. When we really look at what's going on with YouTube, however, it's not difficult to see why they like it so much. For a start, its stars are relatable. It's difficult to relate to a traditional celebrity who buys designer clothes and only surfaces when they have a new piece of artistic prowess to show off. But a YouTuber who swears at video games, or talks about his girlfriend, or readily shows herself with no make-up on? They come across as more of a friend than a celeb.
Variety's research into YouTube found exactly this. "Teens enjoy an intimate and authentic experience with YouTube celebrities," they said, "who aren't subject to image strategies carefully orchestrated by PR pros. Teens also say they appreciate YouTube stars' more candid sense of humour, lack of filter and risk-taking spirit, behaviours often curbed by Hollywood handlers."
One thing that's particularly interesting about YouTube is that it's the first form of video-based media where success is driven entirely by the whims of its userbase. Young people value the control it gives them - which makes sense, since I'm sure we all remember being teenagers who want everyone to stop trying to control my life, MOM.
Obviously the site is booming because millions of people are using it, but it goes deeper than that. Fans' opinions can literally make or break careers. On the one hand, young people are able to flock to content creators they genuinely love, and give more exposure to subjects they care about where traditional media would tread carefully - like Laci Green's sex education videos. And on the other hand, angering the YouTube masses is a sure-fire way to get your content buried, mocked, unsubscribed from and ultimately forgotten. Comebacks are pretty much unheard of.
The Fine Brothers got a taste of that earlier this month when they tried to trademark the 'Reaction' format that their videos are known for. In the world of TV it'd be a smart business decision, but it went against what a lot of YouTube fans believed in. After a few days of shedding subscribers by the hundreds of thousands, the pair were forced to go back on their plans.
Of course, as with all kinds of media that The Young People are consuming, there are some valid reasons to be concerned about it, but thanks to its own nature, the YouTube community seems to self-police remarkably well.
The lack of regulation and authority on the internet means that a lot of disturbing stuff can get past the radar. On YouTube, that came in the form of a sexual abuse scandal. And another. Oh, and another. And even more to boot. The fact that the stars seem so young and #relatable makes it horribly easy for them to cross some serious boundaries with their teenage fans. It's hardly the first industry to see this behaviour emerge, but fans make sure that dangerous YouTubers won't see work in the community again.
No grown-ups allowed
It's good that the community seems to be regulating itself without an outside authority, because, as Mark Mulligan points out, most adults simply don't understand how YouTube stardom works. And that's actually something else that appeals to young people. As the teenagers of yesteryear turned to rock 'n' roll music or punk fashion, so are today's youth cracking up at videos of rodents turning around very quickly.
#*!% you, I won't do what you tell me!
"A kid trying to explain to his mum why Stampy Does Minecraft is worth watching hours on end is simply a 21st century rerun of kids trying to convince their parents of the musical worth of Elvis, the Beatles, the Sex Pistols and so on," Mulligan says. "That is the entire point of a youth culture - older generations aren't meant to get it."
That hurts my newly adult self a little.
But, unfortunately for me, this is the way things go. It's a change I'll have to accept, just as my parents did with Facebook and my grandparents did with Monty Python. This is how media works. Besides, soon enough another trend will come along that alienates the YouTube fans, and then it'll be their turn to write a bitter blog post.