On YouTube, Amateur Is the New Pro

From The New York Times:

A kid from Nebraska shows up in New York City to make it big. This kid was Bryan Odell, a 21-year-old college dropout who lived with his parents. Gangly, with curly blond hair, he looked and talked­ as if he arrived straight from central casting. (“I was just a kid from Nebraska,” he says.) But central casting had nothing to do with it. As an aspiring YouTuber, he cast himself.

Odell’s destination was the Manhattan office of Google Inc., YouTube’s corporate parent. He was among the 25 winners of a competition called Next Up, which is aimed at “accelerating the growth of the next big YouTube stars,” as an official YouTube blog explained. The prize included four days of tips and training from “YouTube experts” in New York. It also included a $35,000 check, no strings attached.

Founded in 2005 and owned by Google since 2007, YouTube today contains multitudes: 72 hours of video are uploaded onto the service every minute. For some, it is an infinite museum of moving images: Patti Smith singing “You Light Up My Life” on a 1970s kids’ show; Mike Wallace puffing Luckys through an interview with Salvador Dalí; forgotten teenage dance shows. For others, this is the medium of the one-off “viral” video — the often accidentally funny home movie or blooper that is e-mailed, linked and tweeted into collective consciousness. There is also an endless variety of produced material: “supercut” mash-ups, TED Talks, book trailers, brand campaigns.

Then there are the YouTube stars — people like Ray William Johnson, Mystery Guitar Man, Smosh, Michelle Phan, the ShayTards, Jenna Marbles, Freddie Wong, What the Buck or Philip DeFranco. If these names mean nothing to you, trust me: these are famous, successful YouTubers. Their videos get millions of views, and because they get a share of the resulting ad revenue, they are almost certainly among the “hundreds” that the company says earn six figures or better from their videos.

YouTube executives sometimes refer to such YouTube stars as having been “born on the platform”: they built careers through skillful use of YouTube itself. Given the numbers of viewers involved, it makes sense that YouTube, which places revenue-generating ads on videos, might take an interest in creating more of these stars. This was the goal of Next Up, to which several hundred YouTubers applied. While the final selection process was murky, I was told that the winners were chosen based more on metrics (views per video, subscriber growth rate, uploads per month) and ability to whip up fan support than with some entertainment executive’s opinion about quality.

The winners were a curious mix. Aside from Odell, who interviewed the members of touring metal bands, there was Meghan Camarena, a sweet young woman from Modesto, Calif., who made the grade with her video blogging and lip-synced pop songs. J. Brent Coble created college-humorish skit videos in Denton, Tex. Richard Ryan, originally from small-town Tennessee, destroyed high-tech gadgets with guns and explosives in the Southern California desert. Franchesca Ramsey made comedic videos, and Meghan Tonjes sang earnest songs into her webcam. Others uploaded travelogues, cooking shows, makeup tips, craft tutorials, basketball lessons and stop-motion videos of Lego figurines.

Lately YouTube has received more attention for its focus on a very different approach — household names. Not long after the Next Up winners were named in May 2011, YouTube announced an initiative in which mainstream celebrities like Madonna, Shaquille O’Neal, Ashton Kutcher and Jay Z would curate “channels” of content. A New Yorker article summed up the meaning of this strategy: “YouTube, the home of grainy cellphone videos and skateboarding dogs, is going pro.” YouTube would shell out something like $100 million for these deals, which makes the $875,000 doled out to the Next Up winners look paltry.

But YouTube’s homegrown stars tend to be self-starters. They understand the intimacy of the platform in a way most Hollywood A-listers don’t. YouTube is not just television on a computer, and YouTubers, whether established or aspiring, are their own breed. The Next Up winners are an almost random group of nonfamous people with an idiosyncratic range of talents, striving to succeed and fully conversant in the culture of this relatively young medium. And this medium definitely has its own culture. Any YouTuber could tell you that.

Continue reading the rest of the story on The New York Times