How would you feel if a gang of fabulously wealthy twenty-somethings kept appearing in your young daughter’s bedroom, telling her she’s really special but then badgering her to send messages and money? If, like my 13-year-old daughter, she’s been taken in (and not yet spat out) by the YouTube phenomenon, it’s happening right now – in a bedroom near you.
If you are not already familiar with names like Alfie Deyes, Oli White and Zoella, you can count on the fact that your kids are. They are the celebrities of the modern era: take Joe Sugg, Zoella’s brother, who is a contestant on this year’s Strictly Come Dancing. The power these young youtube influencers wield was brought home to me this year when our daughter presented her usual Christmas list in the form of a PowerPoint presentation. Included in her gigantic inventory are the usual YouTuber-related items, including Zoella’s advent calendar (£50 for 12 days), ‘festive’ crackers, plus the usual hazchem unguents and crappy cosmetics.
Sadly, Zoella is just one of many talking mannequins on which advertisers display their wares. There’s also her brother, Joe Sugg, remorselessly churning out fifth-rate graphic novels he doesn’t actually write; and Zoella’s boyfriend, Alfie Deyes, author of the ‘Pointless Books’, one of which our daughter insisted on our purchasing and which includes a number of blank pages on which the lucky reader is asked to ‘Fill in with whatever you want!’
The YouTube phenomenon shows no sign of abating. Zoella and her friends have appeared in movies and on ‘Celebrity Bake Off’. They have been modelled at Madame Tussauds; they have become celebrities, these talking heads, despite never saying or doing much. It’s not that they’re evil, these modern deities; they’re just so achingly middle-class, so safe and so dull. One Zoella vlog was called ’60 things I have in my bedroom’. It was almost a relief when yet another member of this prestigious club, Jack Maynard, was booted off ‘I’m a Celebrity’ for using racial and gay slurs in his (even) younger days – at least that meant he actually felt strongly about something, even if it was the wrong thing.
I’m not sure what’s worse: the fact these born-privileged twenty-somethings are growing astronomically rich pimping tat to our kids, or the utter cynicism of publishers, make-up marketers and fashion-floggers, cashing in while they can.
The platitude – particularly from young, sanitised, and possibly hermetically-sealed female YouTubers – is invariably: ‘Be yourself!’ Which sounds great – if ‘being yourself’ means buying Zoella’s cosmetics, bath bombs and tatty handbags. Who’s being empowered here, exactly, except Zoella’s growing entourage and the retailers who fill their shelves with all this disposable gunk? More seriously, how on earth can these YouTubers claim to be against online bullying when pre-teen kids and their parents are constantly being cajoled into purchasing their over-priced drek?
Most of these YouTubers started out as teens in the safety of their bedroom with a camera and an idea. (Well, alright – a camera.) Past generations had punk, rap, DIY-DJs: the Post-Millennials have Alfie (or possibly Sugg – they seem indistinguishable, except hopefully to Zoella) playing ‘Catchphrase’ on their own. Give me Roy Walker any day.
Thankfully, YouTube wasn’t around when I was a teen in the early 1980s. My personal ‘channel’ would have been a nightmare montage of hardcore punk, maudlin poetry and cheap cider as I ranted Anarchist aphorisms into the spittle-flecked lens. Instead, I had to jot down my demented ravings on paper then go out and explore the world. If only I’d thought to bring out my own dot-to-dot book instead.
Perhaps I’m just jealous. A principal topic of conversation in our house revolves around the fact that that when Alfie Deyes had a book launch it was at a football stadium attended by 20,000 people, whereas mine consisted of a crazed vagrant and a Septuagenarian who might well have been dead. But sour grapes make for a sweet whine: while I may never top the Amazon charts, at least I have my integrity intact – if only because no-one wants to buy my personally-monogrammed Christmas socks.
We have yet to decide whether to give in to our daughter’s wishes and buy some of the YouTuber-related drek on her list this Christmas. On the one hand, if we do submit we’ll feel unclean, knowing we’ve added to Zoella’s vast fortune, made the unadventurous capitalists who back her even richer, and proved those risk-averse publishers and ‘literary’ agents who churn out all this drivel ‘right’.
On the other hand, if we don’t give in to this irresistible force, our daughter will possibly become very cross – and, probably, spend the next year listing our many failings on her own YouTube channel. It’s a tough one. Maybe we’ll toss a coin. If and when I earn one from my own books.