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YouTubers, book review: In search of authenticity

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YouTubers • By Chris Stokel-Walker • Canbury Press • 349 pages • ISBN: 978-1-912454-21-1 • £20 / $30

It may have been an interviewee in Annie Gottlieb’s 1988 book, Do You Believe in Magic? who attributed the US’s widespread 1960s generational conflict over the Vietnam War to a generational change in media. Sure, everyone got their news from TV, but parents and grandparents — who had grown up with radio — listened to the reassuring words delivered by commentators and government spokespeople. Young people watched the pictures and were horrified.

This idea has always resonated. One day soon, those same young people, now older adults, may be equally startled by what their young people think. Because something akin to that kind of generational change is happening now. Have you heard of Hannah Hart, KSI, or Jake Paul? If you have, you’re probably under 25. If you haven’t, and you’re not eager to spend thousands of hours following links on YouTube (and are trained to prefer the polish of TV and film), Chris Stokel-Walker is here to explain it all for you.

In his book YouTubers (subtitled How YouTube shook up TV and created a new generation of stars), Stokel-Walker documents the culture of YouTube as it shifted from an anarchic site full of amateurs’ experiments into a huge business whose top stars rake in millions in sponsorship and advertising, all selling their ‘authenticity’.

This is the same desire to avoid air-brushed perfect presentation that we see in politics with the rise to the top of figures who appear to say whatever comes into their heads. Yet, as Stokel-Walker shows, behind the scenes YouTube’s contributors work as hard as any creative operation — writing scripts, sourcing images, shooting video, and editing the results. Many who start young burn out as they grow older and want to change their image, only to find that their audiences won’t follow. At what point, for example, will seven-year-old Ryan, the highest-paid YouTuber in 2018, rebel against unboxing and playing with toys for public consumption?

A question Stokel-Walker doesn’t address is whether the laws that protect child film and TV stars from exploitation (California ensures that 15% of the revenues earned by children is placed in a trust their parents can’t raid, for example) apply to YouTubers.

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