Social media entertainers and especially YouTubers have traditionally had loyal fan bases on isolated corners of the Internet. Though very successful on their own channels, they would rarely enter the mainstream realm. That, however, is ending. Factors like the rising popularity of Amazon-owned streaming platform Twitch—in February of 2020, Twitch had 3.8 million streamers, while in 2018 it had 2.2 million—, audiences looking for new ways to consume entertainment, and a new generation reaching adulthood have changed the game. Long-standing institutions are recruiting social media entertainers, and, in turn, those institutions are copying their style. Media outlets should learn from them.
The latest news on YouTubers getting mainstream recognition concerns the popular Spanish YouTuber Ibai Llanos. Spain’s soccer competition La Liga has asked Llanos to present and comment on the matches on his Twitch profile. He is not the first. Other YouTubers have crossed paths with TV shows before. For instance, Swedish YouTube personality Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg, also known as PewDiePie, starred in two episodes of the American show “South Park” in 2014. These crossovers will cease to be “crossovers” soon, as YouTubers take on traditional television. They will just be an encompassing reality.
Founded in 2005, YouTube was launched as a social media to upload videos—with many sharing their cat performing tricks or other homemade films. Around the end of the decade, YouTube took a turn. Young adults like PewDiePie began filming themselves playing video games and talking about their lives. This shift was appreciated by thousands of viewers, who started following them online.
In 2012, PewDiePie’s YouTube channel, also dubbed “The king of YouTube”, hit a million subscribers. Four years later, that number was 50 million. Since 2013, he has held the record for the number of subscribers on the platform, only briefly surpassed by the Indian music channel T-Series. YouTube was no longer a place to upload funny short videos; it was also a channel to communicate with large audiences and make money.
This change implied a shift in how to interact with viewers, as well. PewDiePie was the first to achieve what others would later copy—he made his audience feel like friends. As he shared his daily frustrations and interests, his fans, who watched him religiously, felt he was a part of their lives. PewDiePie talked to the camera as he would to a friend, without filters. This, of course, brought its own problems (he made antisemitic jokes, as reported by the Wall Street Journal at the time.) His followers defended him, taking over the Internet to ask people to subscribe to his channel against what the establishment (the Journal) was saying. He became an anti-establishment symbol, advocating for a free internet and against politically-correct culture. To date, he remains the most popular YouTuber ever.
Other personalities, most of them connected to the video gaming world, followed his steps. In Spain, Ibai Llanos and Rubén Doblas, known as Rubius, have become some of the most interesting video streaming personalities. Both began playing and commenting on video games in the second half of the 2010s. And both have gone mainstream. For example, between the summer of 2016 and 2017, Rubius was part of several ad campaigns launched by drinking firm Fanta in Spain. But brands are not the only thing these YouTubers have taken over. On December 31, Llanos hosted a New Year’s eve party on his Twitch channel. With more than half a million viewers, he outperformed traditional linear TV channels Cuatro and La Sexta. Even Spain’s Minister of Health tuned in to Llanos’ show.
The reasons for this shift are multiple. First, there’s a generational change that’s fostering the YouTuber-going-mainstream scenario. People who were teenagers in the 2000s are now adults. They are used to on-demand video entertainment, lively personalities, and consuming content individually on their laptops.
Second, YouTube and Twitch’s content is much more interactive than linear TV, which often feels stiff. In contrast, video streaming is unfiltered, and the hosts are lively, fun, and talk about topics viewers care about. Many started watching Llanos and PewDiePie for the video gaming content. Now, others have joined the fan base because it’s just fun to watch. It’s entertaining. It’s effortless. You can even learn something new while you are just talking with a friend who’s a Twitch streamer.
Besides, linear TV was already entering a crisis, competing with Netflix and other streaming platforms for eyeballs on entertainment content. Now, they are competing with video streamers for news. For instance, Spanish singer Ctangana presented one of his last singles on Llanos’ Twitch . Llanos also got a premiere interview with basketball player Marc Gasol, when he moved to the Lakers team in Los Angeles. And viewers loved it. The reality is we can relate to YouTubers in a way we could never connect to a TV host. They are similar to us; they are regular people who eat trashy food, stay up late and share memes.
Moreover, the YouTuber’s conversational tone and proximity are part of what we expect in almost all our Internet interactions. We follow celebrities on Instagram because we can get to know them outside of the big screen. We get to see their families, their tastes, their houses. We have grown used to trusting influencers more than our doctors when it comes to health issues—we just have to take a look at the success of Gwyneth Paltrow’s company Goop. In the background, the post-truth world is still looming—we distrust authorities but trust our friends’ social media content. And YouTubers are our friends.
And third, we have been confined in our houses for almost a year. During this time, we have grown used to using videoconferencing platforms for our daily work interactions. Even those who were not part of the YouTube culture can relate to it now. And Twitch is just so much better than any Zoom meeting that they might just want to stay and watch. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the game.
For brands, bringing YouTubers into their campaigns is a logical step—they can reach more viewers than any other platform. Selling content through them is not new. What’s interesting is the shift that we saw in 2020, and we will continue to see this year with other institutions, for instance, traditional media.
For media outlets, YouTubers are the competition, but they can learn to integrate them and their communication tactics into their strategies, ensuring large audiences and ad dollars. A recent example in Spain is how the TV channel La Sexta integrated Twitch when reporting on US presidential elections. The streamer Emilio Domenech, also known as Nanisimo, uses those same YouTube tools to talk about American politics and has gained a lot of notoriety in a short period of time doing so. It’s definitely more entertaining for viewers than watching traditional TV.
As viewers get used to Twitch and YouTube streaming content served on their laptops, media outlets will also change their tactics. YouTubers (or video streamers) are not only famous in their corners of the Internet. They are in the mainstream, with brands, soccer competitions, media outlets. Who knows? Maybe they will soon host institutional events or dying TV shows with a dire need for a boost. They are entertainment, and, in 2021, it’s all the public asks for.