After a decade online, YouTube is redefining celebrity
Los Angeles — It’s a meet-and-greet worthy of an A-list star.
Outside the three-story bookstore at the outdoor shopping mecca known as The Grove, hundreds of mostly young women have formed a line that stretches past trendy clothing stores and spills out onto a nearby street. They’re waiting to have Connor Franta, an affable 22-year-old Internet personality best known for delivering diary-like monologues on YouTube, sign a copy of his new memoir.
The irony of a YouTube star drawing a massive crowd at a bookstore isn’t lost on talent manager Andrew Graham.
“A year ago, I went to New York and tried to get a book publisher to take a meeting with me,” said Graham, who represents Franta and other mega-popular YouTubers. “I had one meeting, and they laughed at me. Here we are a year later at Barnes & Noble in Los Angeles with a New York Times best-selling author who is a client. I think that says it all. It’s a 180-degree turn.”
Franta isn’t a singer, chef, comedian or athlete. He’s a YouTube star angling to be the Oprah Winfrey for millennials.
In its 10-years of existence, YouTube has evolved from a playground for kitty videos to a $20 billion visual menagerie. Along the way, it’s also become an incubator for a new type of celebrity — a digital Brat Pack that’s leveraging smartphone stardom to write books, drop albums, design products and break into Hollywood.
“It’s the most powerful marketing platform in the world for millennials,” said Graham. “If you’re trying to reach that audience of girls gathered downstairs, YouTube is the venue to do that. Look at an artist like Fred (Lucas Cruikshank). He went off to Hollywood, created some films, neglected his channel, came back to YouTube and … crickets. No one was there anymore. You can’t abandon it.”
In recent years, YouTube, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this month, has propped up YouTubers like Franta — “creators,” the site calls them — who attract millions of subscribers that regularly watch their online videos and the advertising attached to them.
Their popularity is still eclipsed by music videos, which continue to account for YouTube’s most watched clips. Yet the fandom that creators are inspiring, and the ad revenue they’re bringing in, can’t be ignored.
With his playful grin and doe eyes, Franta currently boasts more than 4.4 million devotees to his personal YouTube channel, where he speaks to viewers about life, dating, candy, whatever at least once a week. He began posting videos in 2010 while still attending high school in La Crescent, Minnesota. Now, he’s releasing music compilations and a line of locally grown coffee.
For every Justin Bieber or Psy, perhaps YouTube’s biggest success stories, there are dozens of Frantas. It’s a form of celebrity that didn’t exist 10 years ago, when YouTube was born and made it simple to post video online. Franta, who continues to upload videos despite his other endeavors, is young enough to have been inspired by the YouTube vloggers that came before him.
“There are guys like Shane Dawson and Phillip DeFranco who I was a fan of, and now we’re friends,” said Franta, sequestered from fans behind racks of his book, “A Work in Progress,” in the Barnes & Noble stockroom. “Do you know how awkward it would be to tell some of my friends that I watched them on YouTube in my bedroom before I knew them? It’s weird to think of it like that.”
The creators’ importance to YouTube is evidenced by the Google-backed site bankrolling marketing campaigns the past two years featuring such famous (on the Internet) faces as Bethany Mota, Hannah Hart and Grace Helbig. While such creators vlog about very different topics, they usually share a similar aesthetic: improvised delivery, quirky editing and personalities that jump off screens.
Google has opened production facilities in London, Los Angeles, New York, Tokyo and Sao Paulo for creators who have more than 5,000 subscribers to film videos. The studios are equipped with sets and equipment that transcend most YouTubers’ living rooms and webcams. The spaces also serve as social hubs for creators. Several of them will host 10th anniversary parties on Wednesday.
“For us, creators are the lightbulb of the ecosystem,” said Kevin Allocca, YouTube’s head of culture and trends. “Sure, YouTube was originally known for viral videos, and that was great and still is, but if you want to be able to build a business, you need to be able to create a following. I think it’s a very different model than traditional media. It’s about maximizing the connection with an audience.”
That’s not so different from the genesis of YouTube, which entered its beta phase in May 2005. The first-ever video posted on the site was a crude 19-second clip titled “Me at the Zoo” that featured YouTube co-founder Jawed Karim speaking directly to the camera about the “cool” elephants at the San Diego Zoo.
It’s been a decade, and while video lengths are longer and resolutions are higher, the sentiment is the same: watch me.
The next evolution for online video has seemingly already arrived, with such sites and apps as Twitch, Periscope, Meerkat and YouNow making it easier than ever to stream live video. That’s a feature YouTube has in its arsenal but the streaming video giant has yet to solidify itself as a live video destination.
“There’s a ton of opportunity for innovation there,” said Allocca. “As it becomes easier to stream and take advantages of audiences built on YouTube, there’s going to be some interesting stuff. It’s another one of those things that’s really hard to predict what will be next. I definitely think live experiences and people gathering around singular moments will continue to grow.”
If the rise of YouTube over the past decade is any indication, so will the lines to meet creators.
YouTube highlight reel
YouTube’s legacy extends beyond its pioneering role in the Internet’s video revolution. The 10-year-old site provided a stage for exhibitionists, narcissists and activists to broadcast their opinions, show off their talents, expose abuses or just pass along their favorite clips of movies, TV shows, music, cute kittens and other interests.
The rampant sharing on YouTube quickly attracted a massive audience that loved watching what they wanted when they wanted, even if much of the material was being contributed by amateurs.
YouTube’s rapid rise demonstrated that influential media hubs could be built around free content supplied by an Internet service’s users. Other companies that went on to embrace a similar strategy included Facebook, which limited its online social network to college and high school students until opening up the service to anyone 13 or older beginning in September 2006. That was just before YouTube’s whirlwind success culminated in its $1.76 billion sale to Google Inc.
In the spirit of sharing popularized by YouTube, here are a few moments to remember from the site’s first decade:
YouTube’s potential to transform people’s viewing habits became apparent during the autumn of 2005 when a Nike soccer shoe ad called “Touch of Gold” became the first video on the site to be watched 1 million times.
The dance video “Gangnam Style” became the first YouTube video to surpass 1 billion views in 2012. The clip from South Korean rapper Psy still reigns as YouTube’s most-watched video at 2.3 billion views. The only other video to break the billion barrier so far has been “Baby” by Justin Bieber, but YouTube expects clips by singers Katy Perry, Shakira, Taylor Swift, Meghan Trainor and Miley Cyrus to eventually join the exclusive club.
In 2007, about six hours of video footage was being transferred to YouTube every minute. Now, about 300 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube each minute, or about 432,000 hours per day. That means it would take about 49 years to watch all the videos posted on YouTube on a typical day.
Most TV and movie executives initially reviled YouTube, contending the site’s early success stemmed from its lax controls against video pirates posting copyrighted clips. Even Google initially viewed the video site as a “’rogue enabler’ of content theft,” according to internal documents that surfaced in a copyright lawsuit filed against YouTube.
YouTube steadfastly denied wrongdoing and, as a defense, pointed to its policy of removing pirated video whenever asked by a copyright holder.
Shortly after being bought by Google, YouTube built an automated detection system that prevents most unauthorized clips from appearing on its site.
THE BIG WINDFALL
In need of additional computing power and legal protection against the pirating claims, YouTube’s founders decided to sell in 2006. They negotiated the Google deal in a series of meetings in a Denny’s restaurant in Palo Alto, California, instead of YouTube’s dinky office located above a pizza parlor in nearby San Mateo. The purchase price was originally set at $1.65 billion in Google stock, but the value of the shares had climbed by the time the deal closed in November 2006 to set the final price at $1.76 billion.
The biggest winners were co-founders Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and Jawed Karim , who collectively received nearly $700 million in Google stock. Hurley now runs a mobile video site called MixBitApp. Chen is an entrepreneur-in-residence at Google’s venture capital arm. Karim is financing and advising startups at Y Ventures.
YouTube employed fewer than 70 people at the time of the sale, and at least 18 of them became millionaires. Other early investors in the site who pocketed smaller windfalls included TV talk show host Maury Povich and former network TV news broadcaster Forrest Sawyer.
WHAT IT’S WORTH NOW
Google has never disclosed how much money YouTube brings in or even if the site is profitable. The research firm eMarketer projects YouTube will sell about $4.3 billion in advertising this year, after subtracting commissions and licensing fees. That would translate into about 7 percent of Google’s projected revenue of $60 billion this year after subtracting advertising commissions.
If it were an independent company, YouTube likely would be worth at least $20 billion, based on investors’ assessment of Netflix — the Internet’s leading video subscription service. Netflix currently has a market value of $37 billion, or about five and half times its projected revenue this year
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