‘Video is the internet’: meet the young Irish YouTubers
As YouTube celebrates its 10th birthday, Ireland’s vloggers discuss community, authenticity and the problems that come with putting their lives on show
‘Video is killing the internet,” says 17-year-old YouTube creator Eoin Corbett. He means “killing” in the sense of “doing very well on”. And he should know: he’s made a great little documentary about his own internet use.
“Video is what the internet is now,” he says. “What is Facebook trying to do? Steal YouTube. Video is what we want. If you write an article, people don’t want the effort of reading that. Video is like throwing the article at your face . . . Video is the internet. Video is where it’s at.”
For a generation of Irish people, superstars live not on television nor in the cinema but on YouTube. There you can find a parallel media universe of strange new genres: chirpy young women giving make-up tips, such as Zoella or Irish vlogger Melanie Murphy; cute, asymmetrically coiffured young men playing pranks on one another; people who document every detail of their lives, such as the Shaytards; pop-cultural philosophers who opine on the issues of the day; and wags who provide wacky commentaries over video-game graphics, such as PewDiePie. The most successful YouTuber of last year slowly and lovingly unboxes Disney toys.
At Google’s Dublin headquarters, I attend a community-building, content-generating exercise called the YouTube Irish Creators Day, to which YouTube has invited 300 creators, all of whom have their own YouTube channels. It’s the first gathering of its kind in Ireland. The YouTubers mill about interviewing one another and chatting as they wait for events with titles such as Fundamentals of Creative Strategy, Storytelling, Audience Development, and From Passion to Profession.
At one point a horde of aspiring young Irish YouTubers, led by a young man in a tiara, take the stage to sing along passionately to Disney’s Let it Go. Many are filming the proceedings, although if you’re older you might be struck by how some seem to point their phones at their own faces.
“I started by just pointing a camera at my face and talking,” says James Mitchell, the tiara-wearing choirmaster. On his channel he gives witty opinions on the issues of the day (registering to vote, Prince Harry, Eurovision) and makes funny comedy sketches. He’s speaking at an afternoon panel on “best practice for YouTube rising stars”, and if you’d told him 10 years ago he’d be dancing onstage in a tiara, he’d have been very surprised.
“I was 15, and if you said I had an outgoing personality I would have silently laughed, because even laughing out loud would have been too much,” he says.
Helped by YouTube
YouTube helped him, he says. “When I was younger, I wasn’t myself,” he says. “I wasn’t openly gay. I was very much hidden behind a persona. I think that’s why I gained an audience, because I was literally willing to say what I thought. YouTube helped me to become the person I am now.”
A sense of community is very important to YouTubers. They meet at YouTuber events, such as Craic Con, they challenge one another with the latest viral sensations, and YouTubers of note date one another and cameo in each other’s videos (the results are called “collabs”).
“There’s a strong social element to YouTubing,” says Mitchell’s friend, comedy writer Clare Cullen (aka Clisare) whose very funny video Shite Irish Girls Say went viral and now has a million and a half views. “You talk to each other on YouTube, and on Twitter and Facebook, and you can go to meet-ups and meet people in real life. And when you’re a YouTube viewer, you feel like you know the person. You get to see inside their life, meet their friends and see what they do at the weekends. Once, a guy gave out to me because I didn’t acknowledge him before he realised that I didn’t actually know him. He apologised and said, ‘But I feel like I know you.’ ”
Most successful YouTubers foster some sense of emotional intimacy. They take viewers into their confidence and thank their audience, without whom, they stress, they wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing. This seems to genuinely make people feel connected. For many fans, openness is synonymous with authenticity.
“With YouTube, you’re watching a real person,” says Áine Kerrisk, a 16-year-old from Kerry. “If you watch a YouTuber when they’re 15, and you’re 15 too, you grow up with them.”
“It’s not like reality TV,” says Oisín Fay, her 15-year-old friend from Dublin.
“You can tell when YouTubers aren’t being real,” says another friend, Caoilainn O’Callaghan, who lives in Kildare.
“A lot of them go through stuff, and you can see it their eyes,” says Kerrisk. “It’s hard for us to watch, but it’s good for us to watch, because you can see how they manage stress and stuff.”
“They might say, ‘I’m not going to lie to you, I’m having a bit of a down day’,” says O’Callaghan. “They don’t lie. They will say if they’re having a bad day. They might say, ‘I didn’t film yesterday because I had a bad day’. Plus the videos are only short, so it’s not like you have to sit there for an hour keeping concentrated. A three-minute video can make your day sometimes.”
Most successful Irish YouTubers
Two of the most successful Irish YouTubers are Seán Mclaughlin, aka Jack Septic Eye, and David Nagle, aka Daithi de Nogla. Both make “Let’s Play” videos, in which they play computer games and rant amusingly over the top, a hugely popular format on YouTube. Their clips regularly get hundreds of thousands of views. Mclaughlin, who has more than 3½ million subscribers, reckons that a vlogger would need at least half a million subscribers “to make a living”.
“But you won’t be living lavishly,” adds Nagle, who has more than two million subscribers.
They both seem slightly surprised that their game-playing hobby has turned into a job. (“It probably sounds mad to parents reading this,” says Nagle.) They’re scathing about YouTubers who cravenly chase popularity with clickbait, and they have no interest in leveraging their YouTube fame into a TV career. “Internet’s gone past TV in terms of this generation,” says Nagle. “I don’t see a point in going back.”
They’re quite reserved compared with some of the other YouTubers. At one point, Mclaughlin writes down his phone number for me rather than saying it aloud because he worries a stranger will hear it and call him. (Nagle just chuckles and says: “I like how you don’t use email.”)
“It’s weird to have all eyes on you,” says Mclaughlin. “In the comfort of your room, you don’t see the eyes. It’s weird to have the physical people actually there.”
“It’s all very odd,” says Nagle. “Growing up, I wasn’t a social type. Not much of a partier. Having all these people craving your attention can be pretty heavy going. We weren’t really trained to be YouTubers.”
Creators Day is training of a sort, but sometimes the businesslike YouTube employees running the event seem like they’re operating in a different world. While they talk about marketing and consistent uploading schedules, the questions from the attendees are about how to balance video creation with work, how to ignore the “haters”, how be true to one’s identity and how to deal with the practical difficulties that come with being so open to the world. (One student vlogger worries that she will have to give up YouTubing when she gets a job as a teacher.)
Some are less troubled by openness. Jason Garvey, a bear-like 25-year-old father of two with a treble-clef tattoo behind his ear, uploads a video every day for around 500 subscribers on his channel, JGTV. He is inspired by successful family-life vloggers, such as the Sacconejolys and the Shaytards. “I basically record my everyday life,” he says. “The whole day, 24-7. I am a shy person, but when I go shopping I’d be holding the camera.”
He started doing this two years ago, after his youngest child was born. “I didn’t get to film the birth,” he says, “which I regret because that would have been nice for the vlog.”
Why does he do it? “I left school at the age of 17 and all my life I was confused about what I was and wanted to do,” he says. “Then I came across other people doing this and saw they actually became successful, and I decided I’d give it a go.”
Why would people watch the minutiae of someone else’s life? “It’s interesting to see normal,” he says.
His partner has abstained from involvement in the videos, and his extended family doesn’t always approve, but Garvey argues that the constant self-documentation has made him “want to be my best self. By forcing yourself to be more positive, after a while you are more positive . . . It makes me a better person.” And, he adds: “I get to watch my life back whenever I want.”
Dave Kinsella, a former social care worker, documents his family’s everyday existence on his channel, The Kinsella Bunch. “I have seven children. [Vlogging is] making me a better dad because after number six you’re like: ‘Whatever. I’m tired. I just want to sit down and read a book.’ When you’re vlogging, you say ‘Let’s play Ring a Ring o’ Roses’ or ‘Let’s go to the park.’
“Okay, I’m not doing it out of the pure devotion of a father, but who does anything out of pure goodness of their heart? We all have motives and agenda. If I can do this and be a better father, create memories for my children, and in the process make a living out of it, that’s great.”
Making a living is still unlikely for most YouTubers. The economics are stacked against the individual creator, and the worth of a YouTube view is arcanely complicated. The vloggers I meet repeatedly thank YouTube for supporting “the community”, but Creators Day seems like a small investment to make in return for thousands of hours of free, often very well-made content.
When I ask David Nagle and Seán Mclaughlin how they feel about being so dependent on a single corporate monopoly, Mclaughlin muses aloud about corporate monopolies in general, but concludes that YouTube is “a good platform”.
Nagle laughs. “I don’t think YouTubers think about it,” he says. “We’re not the philosophical type.”
Others have even fewer qualms about their relationship with the company. “My whole life has been YouTube,” says Jason Garvey. “I learned everything from it: how to build computers, how to fix cars. It’s been a huge part of my life. I feel like I owe it to YouTube.”