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Meet the young women taking over the internet and making a living from YouTube

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Bright, funny and creative 20-somethings are taking over the internet – and making a living while they’re at it. Phil Hilton enters the disarmingly honest world of vlogging…

So try it. When you get a moment alone. Just switch your phone to video selfie mode and start talking. Stare into the little lens and open your life to a camera. You’ll find it’s hard, it’s weird, it’s un-British, it’s funny, it’s scary. It’s also the entertainment phenomenon of our age. If you were to upload to YouTube, you would be participating in a historic new way of communicating with other humans. And interestingly, a large proportion of the audience and the artists (sorry but they are artists) are young women.

What’s more, some of these young women are huge celebrities. Zoe Sugg (known online as Zoella) has six million YouTube subscribers and a two-book deal with Penguin; her fans queue for hours to meet her. She smiles at us from billboards around the nation. She is rumoured to have earned hundreds of thousands of pounds and she is only 24-yearsold. Now step back and ask yourself how long Zoella has been in your life. She’s had no telly show, no album release, no reality-TV stint, no modelling contract – she built her audience by talking into a lens. About herself. If you’re not a subscriber, you will have met her in the last six weeks as Radio 1, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, Vogue, etc have scrambled to cover this breaking trend. But Zoella has been vlogging since 2009, tenaciously sharing about beauty, her life and her issues with anxiety.

Stylist met her in September at the launch of her beauty range (from bubble bath to make-up bags) and it was clear that she started as a shy young woman without a clear path but with an urge to do something new.

“I used to do interior design so I was always a creative person and I took creative subjects at A-level, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I left school. Vlogging was a nice hobby and a nice escape from real life. And then it turned into a job.”

She is, in a way, the classic vlogger. There are many formats within vlogging, but the purest form is speaking alone, to the camera in your bedroom – your real bedroom with discarded hair grips and half drunk cups of tea. Much of the media treatment of Zoella and her movement has been patronising. Vloggers are accused of being boring, too nice and self-obsessed. This is to miss the point entirely.

At its core vlogging is not about yourself in the sense that a bore at a party would talk about themselves – it’s about establishing common ground and it’s about revealing yourself so that others understand they are like you, that their fears and worries and poorly applied eye make-up are all normal.

Zoe Sugg, aka Zoella, working from home

Zoe Sugg, aka Zoella, working from home

It’s a glimpse into someone else’s mind and in a way – sorry if this seems a bit much – has its roots in the first-person writing of Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath and, stay with us here, the soliloquies that Shakespeare uses to allow us to understand a character’s secret motivations. How fascinating is it when Iago turns to the audience to share his dark plans for Othello? The great mystery that we all live with is other people’s thoughts. You never really know what someone else is thinking… unless they vlog about it.

An emerging voice among this new cast of characters filling the lives of young women is Anna Saccone Joly. Anna appears on her vlogs mostly with her family. At 26 she has over 500,000 subscribers to her own channel and nearly two million people watched the vlog about the birth of her first child. She’s on and off-camera friends with Zoella and has uploaded to YouTube every day (except the day after her wedding) for five years.

For her and her fellow vloggers part of the joy of being a YouTuber is the artistic control. So do we meet the “real” Anna? Well yes, because she’s in charge. 

Zoella has amassed six million subsribers

“Anytime I meet viewers in public places or when I’m out and about, they almost always comment on how we are exactly the same in real life as we are on camera. This is one of the highest compliments. That’s what I strive for in the videos and content I put out there. I always try to remain as true to myself and as ‘real’ as possible when I’m vlogging – yes, I do censor a bit now that our channels have become more popular, but that is only out of respect for such a broad audience… I don’t wish to offend anybody. I think that if I were to put on an act for the camera, it wouldn’t be sustainable or realistic in the long run and having vlogged for four/five years now I’m sure there’s no way anybody could keep that up.”

Like most of the vloggers, Anna and her husband Jonathan edit their own material and speak without scripts. Anyone who has ever been to a TV studio will know that mainstream television is a controlled and collective medium. An interviewee on a discussion programme will be questioned a number of times before they are given the opportunity to speak on camera – their story, their place in the programme is carefully managed. The presenters themselves read from rolling autocues, slickly scene-setting before turning to their subjects for the interview they rehearsed for the researcher and the producer. All this makes for smooth and accessible content but for a new generation of viewers, it cannot compete with the raw, sometimes bumbling humanity of the vlogging movement. The public doesn’t see Lorraine’s bedroom, or Kirsty Wark cry about her insecurities or sitting in her socks playing snog, marry, avoid with her closest friends. And this is the warm heart of vlogging: it’s a gang of friends letting you in and saying you’re OK.

They are real and open but not in an uncontrolled and unhealthy way. This is not the world of confessional newspaper columnists. Saccone Joly explains that what we see is the truth but, she is keen to point out, not the whole truth.

“I hold back – surprisingly – a lot. I think this is the case for many vloggers, although you may not expect it. As much as yes, it is the “real me” that you’re seeing, I think it’s fair to say that nobody divulges absolutely everything to all the people in their life – even your best friend or your spouse might not know everything about you! I am putting out as much or as little as I feel comfortable with.

“And that is the beauty of expressing yourself through your own YouTube channel or blog,” Saccone Joly continues. “Because you are not run by a production company or anybody else who doesn’t have your best interests at heart. You get to choose what you feel comfortable sharing, and keep the rest to yourself. That way, you never feel exposed. Having said that, I do think it’s nice to share certain things with my viewers because it helps them relate to me and it also often shows me I am not alone in situations or experiences I go through in life. If I share something slightly more personal, I get an outpouring of support and lots more interaction from my viewers which is something I love to see because it tells me I’ve helped them in some way.”

The power of this new form of mass sharing should not be underestimated. It is only now that the YouTube economy exists, giving a share of its advertising revenue to contributors with a decent following. YouTube essentially provides the platform (they call it an eco-system) and the more your videos are watched, the more likely it is that YouTube can sell advertising off the back of them. To become a YouTube partner (ie. eligible to have adverts on your videos and therefore make money) you need somewhere around 1,000 views on all your videos, between 500 to 1,000 subscribers and, at the very least, 50 videos on your site. The more viewers you attract, the higher your ad revenues (YouTube takes 45% of all ad revenue as payment for hosting). YouTube estimates that there are more than a million creators around the world making money from their videos, with thousands making over six figures (in dollars).

Another appeal is that it’s easy to get involved. You can get a good DSLR camera for around £200 and basic editing software downloaded to your computer costs roughly the same. You can work with equipment that was reserved for a professional elite a decade ago. However, nowadays phone and tablet cameras and editing apps are such good quality you might not need to invest. And of course 4G, high-speed networks and WiFi mean we live in a post-buffering age.

YouTubing is the democratisation of TV and that democratisation is being led by women in their teens and 20s. They’re having fun, being open with each other, playing with the toolkit of make-up, femininity and sexuality in a loose, silly, honest way that makes the establishment look clunky and fake.

Many of the most popular young female vloggers launched themselves through beauty tutorials and product reviews. This has been seen in some quarters as pushing an appearance-obsessed world view. But if you actually watch the way beauty is treated, it’s more to do with play than it is about perfection.

The audience sees the same women who teach them how to execute a smooth base, later being made up jokily by their boyfriends, or applying make-up to a mate while blindfolded. Vloggers are happy to appear with no make-up, happy to appear looking like someone who works as a clown in one of those anarchic French art-circuses. The message is beauty and fashion are to be enjoyed but not revered as a way of defining yourself. For many of the teens watching, they provide a reassuring how-to for adult life.

Anna Saccone Joly, Tanya Burr, Louise Sprinkleofglitter and Zoella are an unlikely group of media moguls. In a culture that fetishises the acerbic, the snarky, the angry and the outraged, they’ve crept up on us by being kind, vulnerable and honest. Once they’ve finished reshaping the entertainment landscape, we sort of hope they invite us over. 

How to start a Vlog

Prepare for internet superstardom with this vlogging guide

1. Camera basics

Phones or tablets with 1080p recording capabilities (full HD) will create slick videos. But cameras of 8 megapixels (your mobile phone essentially) are fine for your first few outings.

2. Set the scene

Natural light is best, so place the camera in front of a window and sit facing it with the light bathing your face. If not possible, put a studio lamp (about £60 on Amazon) behind the camera pointing at your face. A tripod is a must and shoot landscape so your video fits a screen.

3. Learn to edit

Most vloggers use iMovie before graduating to Final Cut Pro (£199.99), but cheaper apps include Pinnacle Studio, £8.99, or VidTrim, free. Be wary of silence – most vloggers edit it out – and aim for short, sharp vlogs of two to three minutes.

4. Get on Youtube

To create your ‘channel’ sign up for a Google account. Go to YouTube, click the little blue icon in the top right corner and select ‘Creator Studio’. You’ll then be given an option to upload videos.

5. Up your views

Spread the word by posting links on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Stick to a regular vlogging schedule and engage with viewers; encourage them to tweet in questions, which you can answer in another video.

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