Should YouTube be a subject for criticism?
I’m not sure. On the one hand, some amongst the YouTube creative community are making content of real quality (and batshit insanity). They make videos that inspire emotion and engage with the endless discussion on what it’s like to be human. They even do so in a fairly novel way. YouTube has its own style of visual storytelling, as different to TV and film as those two are different to each other, and this is in part what makes it worth criticising. But on the other hand, I worry that criticism would prove anathema to YouTube’s unique character.
Like TV and film, YouTube has its own capabilities and limitations as a creative medium, its main strength being the lack of human obstacles. At no point on YouTube is there some office suit rejecting ideas for lack of perceived market potential, and the result is a wonderful mess of creativity. YouTube features rhetoric, poetry, education on everything from The Great Gatsby to the Tau-Pi debate, and twisted cartoons about psychopathic llamas. As long as people can cobble together the equipment, funds and willing helpers to make something, that thing is going on YouTube. Of course, that does not mean that anyone is going to watch it.
See, the flipside of no corporate oversight is a lack of corporate backing. This means less money for making things, but, more importantly, also means no professional marketing, no publicists and no paid advertising. There is no-one building an audience before the appearance of a YouTube video. Instead the video is simply uploaded with the hope that an audience will appear. In addition, no corporate backing means no money up front. If you want to make a living from YouTube, you depend on having a big audience that will generate ad revenue and buy your branded merchandise. On YouTube, the audience directly pays the creator, rather than paying the creator indirectly via media companies as happens with film and TV.
This means that the YouTuber has both all the responsibility for building and maintaining a loyal audience, and all the profit motivation to do so. This can conflict with creativity, in that people drift towards making what’s popular over what they might prefer to do, but as creative people rarely like bandwagons, this tends not to happen. YouTubers may instead cater to audiences in more indirect ways, such as keeping their videos short in respect of standard internet-user attention spans or making more naturally crowd-pleasing entertainment, like action or comedy. This sort of audience building is not pandering, largely because what audiences like to watch many creators like to make. But there are plenty of people making comedy skits or wacky animations or action sequences on YouTube. To build an audience on YouTube, a creator has to make people want to watch their stuff in particular. They have to engage the audience on a personal level. It is a challenge to be sure, but when creators rise to it, the results can be amazing.
YouTubers are open with their audiences to a degree that is awe-inspiring. Without prompting they reveal their drives, the details of their lives and their feelings, whether joys, miseries or fears. This is not a complete openness. As in any social situation, YouTubers subtly adjust the way they behave when in front of the camera. They might exaggerate some traits, or suppress others. This means what the audience is engaging with is a persona, but because engaging with personas is how all human relationships work, that really makes no difference. After all the persona still has all the same drives and desires as the actual person. So, to the extent that anyone really does, YouTubers honestly reveal themselves to their audience. This inspires empathy, and empathy for the creator makes you want to keep watching.
This up-front revelation of the creator’s personality is alien to other media. In film for example the artists (directors, writers, DOPs, et al) are pretty anonymous. Not completely: good artists put enough of themselves into their films that you can recognise the person by what they make. But seeing particular individual traits within a movie’s themes or visual style is not the same thing as having a creator state their thoughts and feelings direct to camera. Learning about a person by analysing what they make is a pretty distanced way of getting to know someone.
But the comparative lack of intimacy is not the main way film and also film criticism shapes the audience-creator relationship. As the only way you get to know a filmmaker is through their work, the quality of that work is a massive factor in how your relationship with them develops. Indeed how good a filmmaker is at their job becomes the defining trait of that filmmaker. This is made all the more true if you happen to be heavily involved in film criticism.
Critics, you see, think that art is important. World-changingly important. This is not just a critic thing mind: lots of people think this way, but it is a mindset that critics almost have to have, because otherwise why would they bother? You don’t spend ages discussing something unless you think that thing is really important, and if you think film as a whole is important, good films become vital. You are not just thankful to the filmmaker for the emotional experience they provide; you are also gripped with the belief that their life and works are making the world better. This combines with a lack of intimacy with the filmmaker as a person, to turn the filmmaker from a person into a fucking idol. This has its consequences: for example, it helped me to make a thorough fool of myself.
The ensuing story takes place at the BFI Southbank Centre. I was there to see John Dies at the End, a film I was far, far too excited about. I love the source material, I loved how brilliantly weird the trailer was, but most of all, I was excited because the movie was directed by Don Coscarelli. That man is not just a filmmaker: he is the kind of filmmaker I want to be. For example, Coscarelli’s first film was a horror about an evil pensioner who chops up dead bodies to make dwarf slaves who toil for him on some alien world. That is a good starting point for excellence, but Coscarelli cemented it by having a great ear for music, and an insistence on practical effects work. The result was Phantasm, a cult horror legend. But though that film and its sequels are loved by many, the reason I fell in love with Coscarelli was a much more recent film of his called Bubba Ho-Tep. It is a film about Elvis fighting a mummy in an old folks’ home, and has an ending so beautiful that after multiple viewings it still makes me tear up. I love Bubba Ho-Tep, but that love had unfortunate consequences. I watched that film, and thought it a work of genius, so, I began to idolise.
So there I was, at Southbank. I got there an hour early, and though I tried to pass the time by writing, my anticipation overdose made it a fruitless effort. I could but sit and jiggle and wait as the minutes peeled away, until, finally it was time. I got up to head over to theatre, and, as I went, bam! There he was. Standing in the lobby, for all the world like a normal person, was Don Coscarelli. For a moment I was frozen, locked in an internal scuffle of balls vs shyness. Balls won out, with the assertion that if I didn’t go say hello, I would end up kicking my own arse till the end of time. So, over I went. I stood before the man, and cleared my throat in a fairly weak manner, but Coscarelli had already seen me. I was still plucking up the courage to speak, when he held out his hand and said: “Hi. I’m Don.”
That tore it. My lazy brain, always looking for the best cliché, found and appropriated the standard Hollywood post-explosion, glassy-eyed discombobulation. Still, I somehow managed to shake the proferred hand and burble something complimentary about Bubba Ho-Tep. Coscarelli responded fairly off-handedly, after first giving full credit for any goodness to the writer of the source material (and so adding humility to his list of virtues). He described how he’d rewatched it recently and had forgotten how sentimental it was, a comment that frankly floored me. I mean, how could a genius forget his greatest work, or indeed talk about it so lightly? My world reeled. Unfortunately the momentary silence that followed was immediately filled by Coscarelli’s event organiser escort, who began burbling about some of the actually important stuff that needed to be done. Suddenly the conversation had moved on, and I could only stand and watch it go.
Now, most people in such a scenario would just leave, interrupting briefly to excuse themselves from proximity and then head off. However, I am middle-class & English to my core, and as such felt myself trapped between the Scylla and Charybdis of awkward social situations. I mean it would have been rude to stay where I was, because the conversation that was now happening was obviously not one I should be involved in. However it was also rude for me to just leave (it would look as if I was offended). Same goes for interrupting the conversation to make a formal exit. Normally I think I might have shouldered my cross and managed a little rudeness, but at that time I was in the company of Don Coscarelli, graven image extraordinaire, and the very thought of committing social faux pas in front of him was…urgh. Not even considerable.
What then followed were several tortuous minutes, as I waited desperately for some acceptable avenue of escape to open up. Luckily, Don Coscarelli provided one, eventually, breaking off his conversation with his escort to tactfully tell me to go away. At the time, I could have kissed his hand for that, but now, the memory feels mortifying. I looked like a gormless muppet in front of one of my heroes. Of course, that just shows the problem. I thought of the man as a hero, which he isn’t. He’s just a bloke. Indeed, he seemed a rather affable bloke, and if I’d approached him as one of those, maybe I wouldn’t have been such a twit. Instead, I approached him as a brilliantly skilled filmmaker, and so froze up.
Now, obviously, this ridiculousness is my fault. I’m not the most adept of people at trying to be social in a non-social context, especially with people I admire. It was probably always going to be a little awkward, even though Coscarelli proved to be a decent chap. But when I compare how I behaved with Coscarelli with how I’ve behaved when meeting prominent YouTubers, well, I found it easier to approach the YouTubers, and I wouldn’t say it was because they were all nicer than Coscarelli. Most had about the same level of niceness, and a few were actually standoffish. The difference was on my end. I genuinely felt more confident walking up and saying hello to the YouTubers, because, in my head, they were people. Their video-making skills were just a trait, and this made them approachable. Not that this prevented me from making a tit of myself in front of one, but it did mean I did so in a very different fashion.
So, last year I went to Summer in the City, the UK’s biggest YouTube gathering. As part of this fandom maelstrom, I approached Jack Howard, one half of YouTube comedy duo OMFGitsJackandDean. The man is an excellent, ‘I’m slowly losing my shit’ comedian, not to mention a compulsive collaborator (often popping up as an editor credit on other peoples’ videos), so I was pretty excited to meet him. However, I’d seen enough videos of him just being himself to not be overawed, so I was also fairly relaxed.
Things proceeded well. I did the usual ‘meeting a YouTuber’ routine with him, during which I even managed a bit of conversation. It wasn’t anything major, just a bit of harmless joking. I remember I was making some stupid comment about how making good videos is all magic, things were winding up nicely, and then, I overextended the joke and called him a fairy. There followed a moment of silence, as I realised what I had just said. I then flusteredly tried to rectify matters, which of course made it even more awkward, and Jack kindly, but firmly, drew a line under our interaction. So, I wandered away, and spent the rest of the gathering happily, but with occasional memory-flashes of embarrassment.
Despite those, I think on that example of my own colossal social ineptitude far more fondly than I do on the incident with Don Coscarelli. I much prefer to make a fool of myself by talking, than by nervous silence. It was also a lot less horrible embarrassing myself in front of a person like Jack Howard, than embarrassing myself in front of the idolised Coscarelli. As such, I feel I owe this diminished awkwardness to the closeness of YouTube’s audience-creator relationship. Hell, I owe the very opportunity of meeting Jack Howard to that closeness.
The YouTube gatherings are expressions of the unique relationship that YouTubers have with their audiences. Whether it’s just people hanging out in a park, or a more formal event like Summer in the City, the gatherings are about creators voluntarily going to connect with their audiences. This is not an easy thing. Many prominent YouTubers will have thousands of people wanting to share moments with them, and with the charged atmosphere of the big meet-ups, people can forget themselves in their excitement. The bigger YouTubers can get encircled by massive crowds, surrounded by mystifyingly eager faces, and sometimes those crowds can get worryingly moblike.
Even if the crowd remains well-behaved however, their combined want will often keep the YouTuber in one place for hours, endlessly repeating the same meet-the-fans routine until they physically cannot go on. The fact that YouTubers like Thomas Ridgewell, or Chris Bingham, or Jack Howard, still willingly go to these events shows an amazing commitment to their audiences. Exhausting yourself for your fans is about as inspirational a thing a creator can do, and it is that kind of effort that YouTube encourages. Currently it looks like that, in the UK at least, these meet-ups will begin to be more managed, but this is more in the interests of safety than anything else. Plus, I reckon a guarantee of occasional pit stops would make YouTubers even more willing to make great efforts in strengthening their link to their audiences.
So then, why am I worried about criticism? Surely, if the threat of being crushed by a mass of adoring fans is not enough to put YouTubers off keeping close to their audience, the words of a critic would have a negligible impact.
However, I’m not so confident, because honestly, criticism does have an impact on its mediums. In film for example, the modern primacy of the director as the principal cinematic artist is a result of the critical auteur theory. In literature, it is critics, not authors (a dividing line between roles, if not persons), who create the codifying trends and movements and genre histories that come to define individual stories. Criticism has an impact, and my worry is that one feature of criticism would have an unhealthy impact on YouTube. You see, criticism focusses on the art over the artist. This is not to say critics ignore artists: that would be ridiculous, but they look at them through the lens of their art, not as independent people. This is often how we as audiences see them too. I mean, my opinion of Michael Bay is very different to my opinion of Quentin Tarantino, and it has everything to do with the quality of films they make.
But YouTube is different. On YouTube creators show themselves as artists and people. We are able to see them as both, and the result is an intimacy that, as I have said throughout this piece, is special. My worry is that ubiquitous YouTube criticism, with its focus on the art and not the artist, might lead YouTubers away from revealing themselves, in addition to producing good art. Given how some of these revelations have touched me and so many others as well, their becoming less prevalent would not just make YouTube less engaging, but would neuter the medium on the cusp of its artistic flowering.
However, I do not intend for this concern to hold criticism back. I am not anti-critic. Hell, I want to criticise YouTube myself, talk at length about its content and its creators and revel in the birth of this new, exciting, wonderfully creative medium. As such consider this piece an introduction, rather than a closing door. I intend to criticise to my heart’s content, but will do so carefully, in the knowledge that this medium is different to others, and that difference is worth preserving.
 Alternatively referred to here as creators or ‘YouTubers’: they saved the creativity for their videos
 Though like all trends, the ‘not-over-10mins’ restriction exists to be bucked
 The latter being thoroughly understandable, because it must be insane meeting a bunch of strangers who treat you like you’re famous, when all you do is put 3 minute videos on the internet.
 An event where a bunch of YouTubers and their fans gather together for a big, ol’-fashioned festival of signing, pictures and hugs
 Say hi, compliment, ask for picture with arm round shoulder
 Are you guys noticing a common theme?
 In terms of popularity, not mass. No YouTuber I yet know of has their own gravitational pull. Insert cruel joke here.