Becoming the Tube

YouTube: For many it’s a bottomless pit of procrastination and cat videos, but for others, YouTube is the place where, if you have a webcam, you can join the conversation. However, YouTube has been changing, and in 2013 it’s much more than 5 minutes shapshots of other people’s pets.

Many of the British YouTubers who began vlogging, armed with no more than a web cam and a Justin Bieber fringe, are now liable to be mobbed at every public appearance. Psy’s uploading of his music video onto YouTube elevated him from a successful Korean performer to the most watched musician of all time. YouTube is transitioning from a platform for independent, quasi-alternative content creators into a platform for polished, network-style serials. This trend is best represented by two of the most popular serials currently on Youtube, ‘The Lizzie Bennet Diaries’ and Benjamin Cook’s ‘Becoming Youtube’.

‘The Lizzie Bennet Diaries’ (LBD to its fans) is as it’s name suggests – a retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice through vlogs of it’s main character (Elizabeth Bennet). LBD is soon to reach its 90th episode mark, and currently has over 20 million views (and that’s just the main channel). LBD also has two associated channels, ‘The Lydia Bennet Diaries’, and the brand new channel ‘Pemberley Digital’. Every character who appears in LBD has an active Twitter presence, and the show itself has a Twitter, a Tumblr, a Facebook page and a website. LBD has a large cast and a fleet of writers, producers, crew and its own Transmedia editor.

If this sounds a bit much for a web series, it was 5 years ago but a lot has changed since the early days of ‘lonelygirl15’, and this type of production is becoming more and more common. Admittedly, most webseries are still pretty terrible, but LBD is witty, excellently scripted, well shot, well acted [WN1] and has a fan base that many network shows would be envious of.

The same goes for Benjamin Cook’s series ‘Becoming YouTube’. This series, with only 6 of its 12 episodes to its name, has over 90,000 subscribers and over 1 million views. The series is a work of Gonzo journalism, where in each 20 minute episode Cook discusses what exactly is “YouTube” through interviews, skits, field trips ands critiques while himself attempting to join the ranks of the “crazy internet famous” YouTubers he interviews. There’s a big difference between Cook and these YouTubers: Creators like Charlie MacDonald, Dan & Phil and Lex Croucher all began with comparatively unplanned short videos filmed on a web cam and built up a fan base over a long period of time.

Benjamin Cook, as pointed out by YouTuber Mikeleh in his video, ‘The Fraud of Becoming Youtube’, may purport to wish to be like these people but he has been planning this series for over a year. As a result, the series is well structured and planned. It was diligently promoted and employs some of the best names in sound and film production on the British YouTube scene. Cook is a YouTube content creator, but not as we know it – he’s also an astute journalist and a brilliant documentary filmmaker delivering a high quality production.

It’s the quality of content like the ‘Lizzie Bennet Diaries’ and ‘Becoming YouTube’ that will be the driving force behind the changes in YouTube content. When all of its contributers were filming on their webcams, YouTube was a relatively egalitarian space. The people who were more entertaining got more and more views eventually became partners in YouTube; the subscriptions to their channels started bringing revenue and because these people are creative who love their work they bought better gear and as their videos got better their audiences got more discerning. The viewers of YouTube know what good production design looks like and they want more. Youtube may still be a space where creators can start up relatively cheaply and make some great content, but it’s no longer the place where you too can use your webcam to become internet famous.

To make great YouTube content, you need money, and if you make something good you have fans ready and waiting in their millions to watch your show, buy your merchandise and build up your advertising revenue. YouTube is becoming relative catnip for television networks, one can only hope they treat it better than TV.