Young child watching YouTube

Book review: ‘YouTubers’ by Chris Stokel-Walker

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Journalist Chris Stokel-Walker really understands the influence and madness of YouTube in a way that few ‘grown-ups’ seem capable of.

YouTube, according to Chris Stokel-Walker, is a “kaleidoscope of visual and audio content that mimics the richness, quirkiness, beauty, and madness of human life”. In less than 15 years, the site has become the second most visited in the world. In the process, it has spawned its own communities, culture, celebrities, and a sector of employment which – if survey results are to be believed – is the most desired among school students today.

Stokel-Walker manages to tell the story behind this fast-moving and chaotic entity by dividing ‘YouTubers: How YouTube Shook Up TV and Created a New Generation of Stars’ (Canbury Press, £20, ISBN 9781912454211) into semi-standalone feature-like chapters rather than adhering strictly to chronology.

Key to YouTube’s success, he writes, is 'The Algorithm': the deep neural networks sifting through every user’s data to recommend the videos that most appeal to them, resulting in watch time on YouTube growing twenty-fold since its introduction. Stokel-Walker compares The Algorithm to the secretive Coca-Cola recipe or KFC spice mix.

The Algorithm may be every bit as irresistible as Coca-Cola and KFC, but it is also running dangerously out of control. The Algorithm was exploited on the YouTube Kids app to promote bizarre and disturbing videos mimicking popular content, while polarising videos by conspiracy theorists and extremists are frequently boosted, inadvertently leading viewers down radicalising clickholes. This problem is aggravated by YouTube's slowness to adopt clear policies on ‘borderline’ inappropriate content like far-right conspiracy theories.

“Social media has allowed such sowers of unreliable or hateful material to connect with previously isolated disgruntled individuals,” Stokel-Walker writes. He suggests that the vast social separation between the engineers managing the YouTube algorithm and the people watching this content could be a problem: do the engineers fail to recognise this content as a credible threat?

Stokel-Walker also dives into the sides of YouTube that are shaping culture, business, and behaviour in unpredictable (if not always dangerous) ways. He takes the reader on a whistle-stop tour of the hyper-consumerism encouraged by ‘haul’ videos, the extreme stunts, the mean-minded pranks, and the mostly-manufactured drama between YouTube celebrities. In one memorable chapter, Stokel-Walker discusses the commodification of ‘authenticity’ in the context of parasocial relationships, and proposes that Hollywood stars like Jennifer Lawrence are starting to make use of YouTube-style techniques to appear as open, accessible and relatable as YouTube creators.

“Authenticity (or at least the semblance of it) is the glue that binds YouTubers and fans together more powerfully than the traditional relationship between Hollywood stars and their fans,” he writes. “It’s the essential commodity of YouTube, even if imbued by someone very different.”

While much of what draws people to YouTube is authenticity and a DIY attitude, the platform is transforming into yet another of the top-down corporate entities to which it once offered an alternative. Creators struggle to support themselves on ad revenue alone, forcing them to flog merchandise and ask for direct donations through Patreon. Meanwhile, YouTube has been taking on competitors such as Amazon Prime and Netflix by commissioning its own content. YouTube’s ‘Rewind 2018’ – which gave prominence to stars like Will Smith over creators like PewDiePie – was a “lightning rod of popular opposition to the way in which YouTube has changed,” Stokel-Walker says. “YouTube viewers love their home-grown stars, and Will Smith is categorically not a home grown star. It all comes down to the creator-viewer relationship and the parasocial element behind it.”

Stokel-Walker concludes that: “If you take your hands off the wheel, the site’s algorithm dangerously veers off into the realm of fake far-right conspiracy theories. It is an engine of unabashed, environmentally destructive consumerism. Until recently, parts of its comment sections have been co-opted as an unchecked forum for child abuse rings.”

‘YouTubers’ feels like both a love letter to and critique of the platform. Stokel-Walker’s explanation of the language, communities, cultures, and celebrities of YouTube (which Gen Z has an innate understanding of) is combined with just the right amount of academic and investigative content. YouTube is such a spiralling, mad mess of a platform that it must be a challenge to write about coherently, but Stokel-Walker has managed it. In particular, I would recommend YouTubers to confused parents and all journalists too old to qualify for a Young Person's Railcard.

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