The surprisingly profound reason why teenagers love YouTube celebrities
Caitlin Dewey | The Washington Post
For a hot minute in 2013, “Hunger Games” star Jennifer Lawrence was, without question, America’s most-beloved celebrity.
Lawrence stumbled, gracelessly, on Hollywood red carpets. She talked about pizza and spilled Tic Tacs onstage. Once she showed up to an award show completely plastered, to the alleged disdain of Miley Cyrus. She seemed, in short, like the kind of girl who could be your “BFF.”
But it wasn’t enough. On Wednesday, Variety published the results of a survey on teens’ perception of celebrity, and neither Lawrence nor other A-listers fared particularly well. Instead, teens gave high marks to Smosh.The Fine Bros. PewDiePie. All three are YouTube vloggers with webcams, slapstick senses of humor — and more than 56 million subscribers between them.
“This isn’t about age — it’s a behavioral change,” explained Jeetendr Sehdev, the celebrity brand strategist and USC professor who conducted the survey. “Teens today want their celebrities to be open and transparent. It’s a different dynamic … Teens are engaged in an entirely different way.”
The ascendancy of YouTube celebrities is not, of course, a new narrative or phenomenon in pop culture. Increasingly Hollywood studios and big-name producers recruit out of the YouTube ranks; just this week, E! signed YouTube star Grace Helbig for her own talk show, and in late June, a convention of YouTube stars drew more than 18,000 attendees.
But the mere fact that YouTube stars are popular is far less interesting thanwhy that’s so. Sehdev, who surveyed 1,500 teens, uses a proprietary method that measures participants’ emotional response to celebrities, according to metrics like how engaging, relatable and funny they seem. Sehdev has deployed the method with various age groups, to measure the appeal of a range of celebrities.
But when Sehdev sent this particular survey out to teens, he noticed something a bit different: They were captivated by the idea of “realness” in a way their parents or grandparents were not.
“Authenticity is becoming more important among teens and millennials,” Sehdev said. “They’re more jaded as a generation.”
To wit, teens in Sehdev’s survey overwhelmingly agreed that traditional celebrities were “faker” than YoTube stars. They felt YouTube stars were more engaging, “extraordinary,” humorous and relatable; they also considered their favorite vloggers brave and entrepreneurial, putting themselves out there in a way that other celebrities don’t.
In some respect, this all sounds pretty obvious: Surely any rational person would agree that an unvarnished beauty vlogger filming tutorials with her webcam is a bit “realer” than a multi-millionaire Hollywood glamazon with a fleet of personal stylists, nutritionists and chauffeurs.
But there was a time when we would have defined celebrity by exactly that quality of not being real — of being perfect and distant and unattainable, a kind of hyper-glamorized demigod that we mortals could only aspire to. In fact, historically, the fact that celebrities were not like was the very thing that made them celebrities: The cultural historian Fred Inglis, who traces the idea of celebrity back to changing ideas about selfhood and self-determination, c. the 18th century, called traditional celebrities the only “fully realized” individuals — the only people, in other words, who transcended the clutter of daily life and really, truly lived.
And that’s important, not merely as a subject for the Page Sixes of the world. Inglis calls celebrity a kind of “social adhesive” — a powerful system for communicating and modeling social values. What Sahdev suggests then, in effect, is that teens’ fundamental social values have changed.
He points to the economy, which cratered just as many millennials began looking for jobs, and the 45-percent divorce rate, which has eroded conventional family structures. Studies have repeatedly suggested that the social and economic environments children grow up in affects their future lives — why shouldn’t it change their values, too?
“This generation was raised in an environment where traditional structures were breaking down,” Sahdev said. “They’re looking for more meaning in celebrity.”
Granted, the teenage definition of “meaningful” is probably not the same as yours or mine: the comedy duo Smosh specialize in irreverent pop culture banter and bad Pokemon jokes, and PewDiePie’s absurdly popular channel alternates videos of him playing videogames with silly montages and meandering conversations with his girlfriend.
But all of the YouTubers do evoke a sense of intimacy and authenticity that even celebs like Jennifer Lawrence lack. After all, even though Lawrence tripped on a red carpet, she did it in a couture dress.
And increasingly, it would seem, America’s jaded, tech-enabled youth are just not that impressed.