Over the holidays, at a party at my mom's house, my cousin's 9-year-old daughter marched up to me and said, "Hey. Are you famous?" I laughed. "Not really. Maybe a little bit, on the internet. But I'm not, like, Brad Pitt or anything."
"Who's Brad Pitt?"
It was such a bizarre combination of words. She might as well have asked, "What's a cheeseburger?" I went downstairs to where the rest of the kids were watching TV. "Dude, you guys, Kelly doesn't know who Brad Pitt is—isn't that weird?"
Eight blank stares.
"Who's Brad Pitt?" my boyfriend's 12-year-old daughter asked. I still didn't understand the question.
"He's, like, the most famous movie star. You know, he's married to Angelina Jolie?"
Upon further investigation, I discovered that this group of children had also never heard of Ben Affleck, Tom Cruise, Jennifer Aniston, Ben Stiller, Johnny Depp, Ashton Kutcher (!!!), Cameron Diaz, or Tom Fucking Hanks. I'm sure the list goes on (and on and on), but at a certain point I just had to excuse myself and go pick out a coffin.
These kids aren't dumb, and they're not out of touch with pop culture. They consume tons of media—ravenously, obsessively, constantly. It's just that their media doesn't involve 50-year-old bearded dads who spend their time campaigning for sustainable housing and playing amusing supporting roles in Coen Brothers movies. Their media of choice has ne'er been touched by the furry forefinger of Harvey Weinstein.
Their shit is on YouTube. YOUTUBE IS CRAZY, YOU GUYS.
I know I sound like one of those moms who's suddenly transformed into a breathless human trend piece because she "discovered" Snapchat and twerking and needs to warn everyone about the 10 Signs that Your Child Is Doing Eyeball Shots of Jenkem While Car Surfing (it's like playing the Knockout Game...with your future!). But this isn't that, I swear. I make my living on the internet. I pay attention to stuff. I'm not that old. I've been aware that YouTube celebrities were a thing at least since Chris Crocker, and I did a whole comedy set on "What's in My Purse," like, five years ago. I am mildly on top of it.
But I didn't understand how much I didn't understand until this past summer, when my aforementioned 12-year-old ward asked me this impenetrable question: "Lindy, are you Team Lawlorff or Team Rickian?"
I eventually gathered, after much cross-examination, that there is a collective of six teenage boys on YouTube called O2L (or Our Second Life) and they make videos of themselves talking and "doing comedy" and eating cinnamon and then millions of pre-teen girls watch them and form teams and alliances based on which pairs of boys they believe should be non-romantic best friends IRL and make portmanteaus out of the chosen pairs' names in order to proclaim those allegiances to the world for some reason. Boyfriend's daughter is Team Lawlorff (Kian Lawley + Sam Pottorff), most of the time. Oh, and also one time Sam Pottorff dated this girl named Acacia and then Acacia became kind of a YouTube celebrity too and moved to California but now everyone says she's stuck up and calls her a slut but boyfriend's daughter actually met her once and she was pretty nice. So. Anyway, what did I think? Team Lawlorff? I should probably go with Lawlorff.
All of these people are "really really super famous," she assured me. Everyone she knows knows who they are.
"Like Jesus," I said.
(JK! She knows who Jesus is. Kind of.)
The more I looked into it—following her down the rabbit hole of Keegans and Brogens and and Drogons and Cragens—the more I wondered: Was this a bubble that was eventually going to pop? Or was I the old lady incapable of comprehending the next big thing?
Curious if any of these people had legs beyond the 12-year-old-girl-o-sphere (and maybe, possibly, could I actually make myself a fan?), I asked boyfriend's daughter for a sampling of some of the most popular YouTube stars and their representative videos. Then I interviewed her for some commentary. (Her selections skew pretty heavily toward the "cute boy" end of the spectrum, but you can still get the general picture.) I know this isn't news—I know it's been around for years, and anyway, you can't "discover" something with millions and millions of devotees—but what IS it? Where is it going? Why is it so huge? Will it infect me?
You may have already heard of Shane Dawson—he's been at this long enough that he sold a "workplace comedy" to NBC this year—and at 25 he isn't exactly the relatable teen sage you'd imagine 12-year-old girls feeling "close" to. But for people too young to have watched Martin, apparently the above racist horrorshow qualifies as cutting-edge comedy. It's old, but it's still hugely popular. It has more than four million views.
We've only just gotten started and I already don't get it. I mean...it's like he's copying Amanda Bynes at a table read. It's not even a good version of the thing that it is. (Also, it is racist.) A lot of YouTube celebrities seem to have sprung from the Bynes school of comedy—it doesn't really matter what words you say as long as they are LOUD and FAST and "RANDOM" and you ape the form and inflection of jokes.
But I guess that's kind of what you do as a kid. You mimic. You act silly. You get better. You're derivative until you become yourself. (I hope my kids do not become this.)
I mean, what fucking high horse am I on over here, anyway? When I was a kid they literally made TV shows out of commercials and we LOVED IT. I regularly played a Dominos Pizza-themed Nintendo game. Have you tried watching He-Man lately? It's like four minutes long and everyone is stupid—not exactly the sweeping epic I remembered.
As far as this video goes...um...at least the kids are listening to Michael Jackson?
If you can make it more than three minutes into this video, here, I stole all the Nobel prizes.
But whatever—I'm not supposed to like that video, because it is essentially a video simulation of what it's like to hang out with six teenage boys, and it would be weird if I liked it. I am not a complete creep. But if you're a pre-teen or a teen yourself, one advantage that YouTube has over TV is that these people feel accessible—like they really could be your friends someday (or your boyfriends) and you really could hang out with them someday.
"YouTube gives you the opportunity to interact with them directly," boyfriend's daughter explained, "and in the comments with other people who like them." The comments? YouTube comments? You hang out in there voluntarily? Are you okay? "It's not that bad. There are nice people too." I do not know what "YouTube" you're talking about here, but I will go ahead and assume it is some sort of teen code.
O2L, ranked by a 12-year-old (criteria undetermined, but probably cuteness): Connor Franta, Kian Lawley, Sam Pottorff, Ricky Dillon, JC Caylen, Trevor Moran.
Higa works clean to appeal to slightly younger kids. He's known for his series of videos called "Off the Pill," where he does stream-of-consciousness pinball rants after deliberately skipping his ADHD medication. I learned a lot during the Ryan Higa portion of the interview, actually:
12-Year-Old: You can also join a fandom. Do you know what a fandom is?
Me: Not really.
Her: A fandom is like a kingdom of fans. And you can't enter a fandom and leave mentally sane.
Her: Because you become OBSESSED with who you're obsessing about, and then you start to know everything about them, and then people are like, "Why are you so obsessed with them?" and then you take it as an offense and you'll be like, "I'm sorry, why are you obsessed with BREATHING!?" Nobody who's in a fandom is all right in the head.
Me: Are you in a fandom?
Her: Yes. I'm in several.
Me: Which ones?
Her: I am a Lawleypop (Kian Lawley fan), and...well, Connor Franta doesn't want to have a name for his fandom, so people just call themselves Connor Franta fans.
Me: They should call themselves—
Her: FRANATICS. I KNOW.
Me: Okay, what else are you?
Her: I'm also a Ryan Higa Lamp. He likes lamps, so he made this one video about why we're not fans, we're lamps, and how we light up his world and make every day better. It's not like you join an official group or anything—just sometimes if you comment on a video someone will be like, "Oh, I see you're a Ryan Higa fan!" and you'll be like "Oh yeah, I'm a lamp!"
He seems like a nice enough guy.
You may have already heard of Tyler Oakley too. He's the first one of the bunch who genuinely made me laugh on purpose. Make him an E! correspondent or something. Would watch. Into it. This video seems waaaaaaay too long to me, but, as I have to keep reminding myself: It's not about plowing through a quick video while procrastinating at work. It's about hanging out with boys.
Not totally sold on the kids recommending "motherfucker"-laden binge-drinking videos to me, but you can't shield them from reality, I suppose. You can just teach them how to be smart and safe and self-assured and not die.
This is literally just a topless dude lip-synching to Kristin Wiig sketches.
There's something comforting, I think, about admiring people whose greatness seems to be within your grasp. If somebody is famous and popular but they're maybe only a little bit cooler than you, that appeals to both your ambitious side and your lazy side. No music school, no tap-dancing lessons, no choir practice, just...whatever this is.
These are just ordinary teenagers, here and there in ordinary towns, with (at least at first) no particular training, no sophisticated equipment, no teams of writers, no management, no professional editors, and, somehow, literally millions of fans—fans rabid enough to form fandoms and rivalries and elaborate webs of platonic shipping. Fans who have never heard of Brad Pitt. It's an entire economy based on almost nothing but the thrill of saying/seeing whatever you want where your parents can't catch you—where you can be flamboyantly gay or ask embarrassing questions or carve out a social space for yourself or even be cruel to other kids because it makes you feel safe for a minute.
A friend of mine who's worked, peripherally, on trying to bring YouTube stars into the mainstream, said something I thought was perfect: "To kids, YouTube feels honest because it's so unregulated. It's also a reaction to children's media being over-processed. It's what happens when we take all the child murder out of fairy tales." My boyfriend's younger daughter, who's 10, is still content watching Too Cute. But her older sister wants to know some real shit. You can feel her craving and her tentativeness. You can feel how much it hurts to be 12.
In a world made by adults, kids generally have two choices: media made by adults for kids (i.e. the Disney Channel), or media made by adults for adults (i.e. all the good stuff). In the former, reality/metaphorical child murder is scrubbed out, and in the latter, you need an adult's life experience to understand what you're watching. YouTube celebrities are kids making media for kids. "You feel closer," the 12-year-old told me. "You can tell that all this advice the YouTubers give is genuinely real, but people on TV are just characters. YouTubers interpret the world the way we do, in a way that adults can't. Even if they're a little bit older, they remember." I asked if she gets most of her life advice from YouTube celebrities. She said definitely.
I wish desperately that I knew how to give her the right kind of advice. It's not that I don't remember the blistering confusion of 6th grade. I do. But my honest advice isn't what she needs. What I want to say is something like, "Just stop. When you're 25 you'll realize that you've wasted a shit-ton of your life worrying about boring gossip and being pretty enough and eating the 'right' number of calories and getting boys to like you and putting up with toxic friends, and then you'll decide not to do any of those things anymore and the world will open up like a fucking precious golden flower. Just do that now. Nobody cares about who Brogger asked to the Spring Dance—least of all you in ten years. STOP."
But that is TERRIBLE ADVICE FOR A CHILD. She doesn't need to hear that. She can't skip ahead. She needs validation and indulgence and the same grueling 20 years the rest of us took to learn all that crap. Parenting is hard because inherently you have to be what your kids aren't. So as much as I shudder at a 12-year-old girl taking "advice" from a 17-year-old boy (sample wisdom: "Connor Franta made a video and was like, 'If any of my fans commits suicide and I hear about it I'm not going to feel sorry for you, I'm going to be mad at you because you wasted all that beauty'"), YouTube celebrities are providing a thing that I can't provide. Silly, misguided, shallow, romantic, dramatic, goofy, fun, sympathetic bullshit.
It might be a bubble or it might be the next big thing, but I expect the reality is somewhere in between. Anything this new is a fucking mess. Right now it's so fresh that you don't have to be good, you just have to be there. It's hard to remember how new it is because it's so ubiquitous, but we haven't even really seen the first generation of adults who came up in this environment—with tiny television studios and massive audiences right in their bedrooms. But eventually people will get bored and standards will get higher. The garbage will die back, the prettiest ones will find their way to TV, a tiny few will become superstars a la Bieber, and the whole thing will become normal. An art form built by children. I don't get it, but I get it.