YouTube’s chief business officer Robert Kyncl points the spotlight on prime examples of innovation and novelty found across the video-sharing platform.
Since its launch in 2005 YouTube has changed the media landscape. Like many other products invented for the Internet, the video-sharing platform has brought the world closer to viewers, allowing people to upload their lives and their work to display their slice of the world. More than 15 years later, though, it is hard to remain starry-eyed and upbeat about YouTube and its effects on society, on viewers, and on those who make (or at least try to make) a living off of it.
Nevertheless, Streampunks: YouTube and the Rebels Remaking Media (272 pgs., Harper Business, 2017, U.S.$29.99) presents the bright side of things at YouTube — all the opportunities, the innovations, and the triumphs associated with the platform. All of that is to be expected, especially as the book is written by Robert Kyncl, the company’s chief business officer, with Maany Peyvan, a former speechwriter and comms manager at Google who now works for the Obama Foundation. The book is light-hearted and easy to read, with all the enthusiasm of a TED Talk or the charm of a press release. Anyone looking to upload their first video or curious in any way about YouTube will certainly find the book useful and even instructive. But readers who hold a healthy dose of skepticism might have to skim for passages that strike the eye.
In Streampunks, Kyncl brings forward several case studies highlighting the global success that some creators have found on YouTube. The book touches on relevant topics such as audience-building and funding. The cavalcade of lucky creators and influencers highlighted throughout includes the Green brothers, Lilly Singh, and the folks at AwesomenessTV and Vice, among others. As Kyncl points out, YouTube’s content creators come from across the world. “And the truth is, no matter where they’re from, they look more alike than different,” he says. “They look like people who are doing what they want to be doing for a living and don’t have to answer to anyone but themselves.” That sounds enticing, especially to a generation of young people who are earning less money while working longer hours, and who are increasingly unhappy with the demands of a modern workplace.
Advice, then, to aspiring creators hoping to start a career and build a community on YouTube comes down to one word: Authenticity. “Authenticity is a term that is thrown around a lot in media,” Kyncl writes, “but in a world in which anyone can curate how they are seen on social media, the importance of appearing genuine and accessible has only grown.” Tyler Oakley is the prime example of the true and authentic creator, representing a new class of celebrity. Oakley started while still in college in 2007, recording himself in his dorm room as a way to stay in contact with friends rather than as a career path. Now, with a following of over seven million, Oakley is considered an actor and activist dedicated to LGBTQ+ issues and youth. His advice on starting: “You just have to get better at being you.”
While well-intentioned, it is slightly odd, if not vague, advice for success in a field built on appearances and insider access to oneself. Whereas with renowned actors or rock stars, “[d]enying people access to your personal life or opinions was one of the principles of fame,” notes Kyncl. However, for the hopeful YouTuber, success means not only developing and maintaining an intimate connection with your community of viewers but also “sharing deeply personal parts” of your life.
On the subject of appearances, it was interesting for the book to admit how race and ethnicity played into the “streampunk” equation. That anyone from around the world could profit from starting a channel was often reiterated. As Kyncl mentions early on, “[t]he global nature of YouTube can’t be emphasized enough, with nearly 80 percent of its traffic coming from outside the United States.” The platform’s diversity among its creators and the international reach are two of the most appealing aspects about it, and people who come from underrepresented and overlooked communities have absolutely experienced the benefits of visibility through YouTube.
On the other hand, “[a]lgorithms that recommend content or program our front page are designed to be impartial, but statistics show that they’re still subject to the same biases —unconscious, explicit, or systemic — that exist in society,” Kyncl comments. He offers anecdotal evidence from Adande Thorne, a popular black creator based in the U.S., who shares his experience in receiving fewer views or a worse reaction if he posts a thumbnail of his face for his videos. This problem is not specific to just YouTube, and the algorithmic bias “reflects Silicon Valley’s own struggle with diversity and inclusion,” Kyncl writes.
As the chances to achieve fame and earn money off one’s personal brand have never been greater, there is also the fact that there are even greater numbers of people competing for likes and subscribes, soliciting viewers to please stream me. Kyncl explains, “Breaking through the noise to capture a viewer’s precious attention has never been harder, even if opportunity exists for nearly anyone to do so.” One wonders about the acute stress and anxiety that creators must deal with in facing that reality.
For all of the talk about investing in YouTube’s content creators, the book slides over the question of how long it takes for a “streampunk” to become a burnout. In recent years, stories have popped up about young people who are burning out from their channels, suffering mental exhaustion and breakdowns as a result of the incredible amount of effort it takes to upkeep their careers as YouTubers. Creators have to contend with the same biases and hardships of their lived experience, whether that’s their economic bracket or overcoming sexism, racism, xenophobia, etc. But they also have to internalize the mechanisms of management, so that the demands of work never leave their minds. To proponents of that lifestyle, that may not be too high a price to pay.
by Luis Polanco
Audio Version (a DV Works service)