Many YouTubers have two channels. One is their bread and butter—if you’re a BeautTuber, it’s where all your makeup tutorials are posted, if you’re a DIY blogger, it’s where all your hack videos can be found. On the side is a vlog channel—an account with considerably fewer followers dedicated to the more mundane aspects of your personality. It’s where the most loyal viewers can expect to get an intimate glimpse into the personal lives of their favorite YouTubers.
I mostly ignored those videos until recently, when I let them autoplay to serve as ambient noise as I worked. If you live alone, vlogs can fill your space with the same kind of innocuous conversations people with roommates or children must have all the time. It is opening the window to hear the sounds of people leading their lives, as Mitski sang on “Nobody.” I like having the background noise without having to participate in it. There’s something surprisingly soothing about hearing—but not quite listening—to someone talk about a recent trip to Target while I work. Others might use it to cook or clean.
So, whelp, it happened. I “like” vlogs now.
“Like” is probably too spirited a word. I no longer only “ironically” consume vlogs. It was an inevitability, placed on a fast-track during a period of self-isolation and social distancing. My relationship to YouTube prior to taking a job at Jezebel was minimal at best—I kept up with a few mid-tier influencers on the cusp of blowing up for a freelance gig, but I wasn’t an active participant in the culture, by any means. I had never “smashed that subscribe” button. It had never occurred to me to “like” a video. I could not name the members of David Dobrik’s illustrious Vlog Squad.
A few weeks into my time at this website, I decided that intense, obsessive YouTube analysis could be useful. In lieu of a single beat, I could teach myself the language of YouTube influencers (different and democratizing when compared to Instagram influencing, where you have to be untenably hot to succeed, or TikTok, where you have to be untenably hot and also white) and report on its happenings.
And then, of course, I started actively watching. Oooh boy.
I quickly learned that YouTubers have a shared and questionable code of ethics—broadcasting your incredible wealth is fine, so long as you spend a lot of your time pleading with the audience that you were once broke and/or working class. Lying is fine, as long as you keep the truth just obscured enough so dishonesty reads as hyperbole. Any curious person could see that performative authenticity is inherently false, but that doesn’t make the train wreck any less entertaining to watch. And when there isn’t a stunt to pull, some drama to clear up, or a try-on haul to post, YouTubers vlog.
Some of the biggest names use vlogs to humanize themselves, others vlog to feel closer to their fans. There’s an obvious distinction, but it’s not critical to the enjoyment of those videos. I know that because for the last six months or so, I’ve often found myself turning to YouTube instead of traditional television and movies. I imagine the shift is similar to how many people used to feel about reality television: that it was the lowest common denominator shit, tasteless and vulgar, and then when they sat down to watch The Real Housewives of Who Cares, suddenly they’re addicted. There’s a reason so much of popular culture is built around a particular kind of voyeurism. You could watch Say Yes to the Dress, or you could also watch someone try on David’s Bridal in their living room on YouTube. It’s all very similar, but the low production value of a vlog makes it feel more trustworthy.
As someone actively enraged by my inconsiderate neighbors, I found solace in “come thrift with me” influencer Carrie Dayton’s vlogs. If you’ve got like two hours to kill, you too can become enthralled with the nightmare exhibitionists who reside in her Los Angeles apartment building and treat it like a glorified dorm.) In the vlog format, when she reassures her fans that she is “not a Karen,” or a narc, it seems like she is being genuine. She recognizes her complaining is a little wack. But also, her neighbors are a nightmare and she never called the cops, so fuck them, you know?
In her orbit is another fashion/lifestyle influencer (there is a small but growing community of mid-size and plus-size YouTubers that all seem to hang out with one another) named Sierra Schultzzie, whose videos I avoided watching for a long time. She is very preppy and very Christian—married young, bought a house young, is essentially living a life wholly opposite to my own. Her life felt similar to the lives of girls I knew growing up on military bases, which I understand now to be an unfair judgment call. Her early vlogs stumbled; as time went on, it became clear that Schultzzie was becoming more assertive and vocal in her own corner of the body positive community, and I’d put on her videos while making lunch. I don’t know how many I had seen (or rather, heard) until she posted a vlog about her miscarriage last month. I felt sad for her, even though I only knew about her life on YouTube. She managed to articulate her grief in a way that felt considerably more honest than a lot of what’s popular on the platform. That’s when I realized why I let the vlogs autoplay in the first place: I enjoy learning about women who live lives so dramatically different from my own.
And while I still consider vlog-watching mostly passive interest, it is becoming more active—at least, when it can inspire a blog like this one.
I don’t think watching vlogs is particularly stimulating, or that it is making me smarter like a narrative program might. But I’ve always been more of a music and reading gal, anyway. When the screen is on, I want my brain off—a service no one can provide more immediately than a YouTuber, alone in their home, speaking directly into a camera.