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Is this real life?: YouTube turns the personal into public

Teresa Mathew/Daily
LSA freshman David Dolsen does not forget to be awesome. Buy this photo

By Lucy Perkins, Daily Arts Writer
Published January 5, 2012

LSA freshman David Dolsen’s hobby wasn’t something he talked to friends about — not at first.

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“It’s something you do on your own time,” Dolsen said. “It’s not something I’m ashamed of. I just didn’t talk about it.”

Dolsen is a Nerdfighter, on a quest to fight world suck.

“Instead of being made of cells and body stuff, Nerdfighters are made of awesome,” Dolsen said.

Nerdfighters are part of an online community centered on a series of YouTube vlogs — short for video blogs — posted by brothers John and Hank Green, also known as the Vlogbrothers.

Though many people see YouTube as a virtual hub where they can find music videos and watch that one idiot majorly wipe out on a skateboard ramp, the Nerdfighters view YouTube as a community. Channels, schedules and videos are full of inside jokes. Comments come from familiar usernames.

The Vlogbrothers didn’t initially see their channel as something to be shared. They merely vlogged as a way to keep in touch with each other while they lived at opposite ends of the country. Each day, one brother would post a video on YouTube for the other one, telling the other brother about funny things that happened to him, often challenging the other to do things and report back.

Rather inexplicably, the Vlogbrothers developed a following. First appearing on YouTube in 2007, the community surrounding the Vlogbrothers now includes more than 500,000 subscribers and upward of 187 million total upload views.

“YouTube is an incredibly powerful way to connect people,” said Will Luers, a visiting professor in the Creative Media & Digital Culture program at Washington State University. “People can convey ideas through a personalized approach.”

Since the Vlogbrothers’ arrival to YouTube, other vloggers have joined the Nerdfighter community. Some of their videos are about random things that happen to them during the day, while others read “Twilight” or talk about comments they receive from their fans.

With a wide range of videos being posted, Nerdfighters can view new content every day by visiting the channels of the vloggers they follow.

“It’s television on a smaller scale,” Luers said. “But it can reach a wider audience, because everyone is searching for content at any point in time.”

The work is virtual, but the money is real

For the vloggers, becoming a part of this online community has been something of a financial success.

The YouTube Partnership Program, launched in Dec. 2007, works with popular vloggers to generate revenue in a way that is beneficial to YouTube and the YouTuber. According to its website, YouTube now has more than 20,000 partners in 22 countries around the world – some making six-figure salaries just by creating and posting their videos.

Tyler Oakley (username tyleroakley), a Michigan State University alum and a vlogger within the Nerdfighter community, applied to the program in early 2008, and was accepted as a partner.

After joining the Partnership Program, Oakley obtained access to tutorials and tips, courtesy of YouTube, that suggested how to improve the quality of the videos he posted. YouTube is keen on the adoption of these suggestions by big-time YouTubers because the more popularity and success people like Oakley receive, the more successful YouTube is too.

Essentially, when a vlogger becomes a partner, ads are featured on their video. The more views the video gets, the more money YouTube generates and the vlogger gets a bigger cut of the revenue.

Oakley never expected to have a career as a YouTuber, and for the most part, he still sees it as a hobby. He has a full-time job in social media. Though he said YouTube is a great boost to his income, he does acknowledge that it's difficult to just make a living off the website.

“It’s hard because at any time you can go up and down in popularity so quickly,” Oakley said. “You can’t control it.”

Oakley said about 70 percent of his 120,000 subscribers are preteen girls, a percentage that sounds more like Taylor Lautner’s female fanbase from the “Twilight” saga. His top viewed video, "HOW TO: Be A Bad Bitch,” in which he lip syncs and dances wildly in his computer chair to Nicki Minaj’s "Baddest Bitch," has amassed over 1.4 million views.

Oakley began vlogging in an attempt to keep in touch with friends going to school elsewhere. But not long after he began vlogging, one of his videos hit 100 views.

“That was the first time it hit me, because I was like, ‘I don’t have 100 friends,’ ” Oakley said.

His fame only grew from there. Last February, Oakley posted a video of himself walking around Ann Arbor, focusing on the fairy doors interspersed around Kerrytown.

He now receives about 50,000 views for every video he posts.

Hearing numbers like this may make it easy to associate vloggers like Oakley — who vlogs about being friends with Perez Hilton and meeting Lady Gaga — with actual celebrities. And to their fans, they really are celebrities.

“If I saw (John Green) in real life … it’d be crazy,” Dolsen said. “I almost look up to him as a role model, he’s got his life in order. But it’s not just me, they definitely are celebrities to a lot of viewers.”

Dolsen said the coolest part about YouTubers like the Vlogbrothers is that they are normal people, but they’re doing something creative and entertaining that hundreds of thousands of people think is worth their time.

Oakley distinguishes himself from other vloggers in the Nerdfighter community by maintaining a connection with as many of his fans as possible, even though he has never met the majority of his followers.

YouTube’s comment feature and other social media outlets allow for interactions between Oakley and his fans that aren’t possible in other forms of communication, he said.

“I spend time commenting on YouTube comments … If someone @-posts me on Twitter, I’ll usually send them a direct message,” he said. “I feel like it’s important. I don’t want to be that YouTuber that is above people.”

The connection between fans and celebrities are strengthened through social media and YouTube, but in reality, there isn’t much evidence of any relationship. But that doesn’t mean popular YouTubers’ comments don’t impact their fans.

From fan to fame

LSA senior Chellie Carr is a fan-turned-vlogger.

Carr started vlogging for a period of eight months after her sister moved away for college as a way for them to stay in contact with one another.

The sisters posted videos on YouTube to one another every day, with Chellie posting on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, while her sister would post on Tuesday and Thursday. The next week they would switch.

“My first videos were really awkward,” Carr said. “I was trying to mimic other people and it didn’t work very well. It’s really weird the first time you sit in a room by yourself and talk to a computer screen.”

After their first year apart, the Carr sisters — also known as shortsisters756 on Youtube — stopped vlogging on a daily basis, but still posted content.

On Aug. 8, 2008, the sisters filmed a Nerdfighter convention they attended and posted a video of the event. Their video was featured on the Vlogbrothers’ channel, which led to more than 11,000 views.

“It’s strange, but also thrilling and exciting,” Carr said.

Now about 5,400 people subscribe to Carr’s channel – nearly enough followers to stand in for an entire freshman class at the University – but she said doesn’t feel like a celebrity at all.

Expanding the community?

Last year, 21-year-old Dan Brown (username pogobat) tested YouTube’s capacity to connect the virtual masses. With over 120,000 subscribers, he wanted to see how far he could push the relationship.

“(YouTube) is a two-way thing, as opposed to what other mediums have been like before this,” Brown said. “The relationship with the audience is inherently more personal.”

Brown is no newcomer to fame. In 2007, at age 17, Brown posted an instructional video that demonstrated how to solve a Rubik’s Cube. 1.5 million views later, he was approached by YouTube and asked if he would like to be a participate in the Partnership Program.

That same year, YouTube flew him from his home in Nebraska to New York where they awarded him best instructional video of the year.

A few years later, as a sophomore and political science major at the University of Nebraska, Brown was still posting wildly successful videos.

“By the end of my freshman year, I realized that it was really starting to go somewhere,” Brown said. “I realized that the time I was spending on school … could be (spent) on YouTube.”

Knowing college would always be an option later in life, Brown dropped out.

He posted videos on an almost daily basis, covering everything from controversial topics like abortion and global warming, to the less serious issues of spiders and McDonald’s.

“I wanted to expose my ideas to a big, diverse audience and see if they would pick it apart and point out flaws,” Brown said. “I just wanted to vent.”

Brown's videos also featured his personal life, including details about his girlfriend Danielle deLeon and the story of how they met online. That video has almost 100,000 views.

DeLeon applied to manage a forum Brown was collaborating on with the Vlogbrothers. Brown thought she was cute, so he e-mailed her and contacted her through Facebook. After Skyping a few times, Brown went to visit her for New Year’s, and they fell in love.

Brown’s fans ate the video up. Though the situation was incredibly personal, Brown didn’t mind.

“My philosophy with YouTube is that it’s an extension of myself,” Brown said. “What I’m doing on my personal YouTube is what I personally want to do.”

About a year ago, he decided to conduct an experiment that gave his fans even more access to his personal life than they previously had.

At that point, Brown considered himself to be an O-list celebrity (he used Angelina Jolie as a reference point for an A-list figure), and wanted to use his large audience to test how far the vlogging medium could be stretched.

Brown came up with an idea for a vlogging project called Dan 3.0, in which his fans could not only tell him what he should vlog about, but also control how he lived.

“In theory, Dan 3.0 was the ultimate interaction with the audience,” Brown said. “When you tell the audience ‘You have control of my life,’ they have expectations, and I bit off more than I could chew.”

With nearly total control over Brown’s life, his viewers eventually told him to move to San Francisco — so he did.

Dolsen, who is an avid Dan Brown fan, remembered how Brown’s move to San Francisco impacted his life.

“It kind of failed because (Brown) wasn’t happy,” Dolsen said. “His videos became more about doing things than talking about controversial issues like he used to.”

In one of his videos during the project, called “D3P0 So Far,” Brown updated his fans about his life in San Francisco, and also told them that he broke up with deLeon.

“I want to make sure that it doesn’t seem like I’m just sweeping this under the rug,” Brown said in the video.

Even in the intense emotional situation of a freshly ended relationship, Brown’s fans still knew what was going on and had a relatively large window into his personal life.

But despite his openness with his fans, Brown admitted they didn’t know everything about his life, though some may have felt otherwise.

Brown didn’t anticipate the way some of his fans started to treat him. After breaking up with deLeon, he received comments from viewers who didn’t agree with his decision, siding with his ex.

“Some of the feedback I got about (the breakup) I took very, very personally,” Brown said. “Even though it was a personal relationship, my fans still interact with me through a screen, and on a certain level, I’m still just a character to them.”

During his experience at Dan 3.0, Brown didn’t always maintain a positive relationship with his fans, but according to him, it was humbling and insightful.

After the Dan 3.0 stint, Brown’s content and views have been wildly inconsistent, but he’s not concerned. The YouTuber still posts content while working full-time in New York City, but his viewership has dropped to 20,000 views per video.

“Everyone has their ups and downs,” he said. “But if I need to, I can do five videos a week and still get 20,000 views and make money.”

Real people, real problems

For the last two years in Los Angeles, a Nerdfighter convention known as VidCon has brought Nerdfighters and their favorite vloggers together for two days.

VidCon brings everything that happens on YouTube to life.

Nerdfighters can meet online friends for the first time in person, get autographs from vloggers and meet new people who love watching YouTube videos just as much as they do.

The convention’s atmosphere mostly consists of fans fawning over online celebrities, as they do at movie premieres.

But according to Oakley, some YouTubers choose be alone in their hotel rooms when they aren’t giving speeches or at scheduled events.

It’s easy to forget these people became famous by talking to a camera alone in their room, Oakley said. They aren’t necessarily interested in being in a room full of screaming fans — being a celebrity in reality is different than being a virtual one, and some vloggers just can’t do that.

And so fans might not be as connected to their virtual idols as they think, since comments and tweets can only go so far.

But for Nerdfighters, friendships made online with other fans can be just as real as other relationships.

And sometimes, it’s not just about the videos.

At a Nerdfighter event Carr went to, two of her Nerdfighter acquaintances met and had more in common than a few videos they both liked. Last summer the couple got married and spent their honeymoon at — where else? — VidCon.

“We’re juggling our personal lives and our public lives at the same time,” Brown said. “Everyone has a public persona now, and you just have to figure out how much of that you want to reveal. We’re all trying to figure it out.”


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