Boy Toys

On the boys of YouTube

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One of the small corners of YouTube not dominated by cat videos belongs to the downright oddest and most dismaying cultural oddities of the 21st century: the YouTube boy-celebrity. They aren’t real celebrities; you’ve never heard of them, the entirety of their careers to date has begun, escalated, and flourished without touching your life in any way. But in their insular world, their experience mimics actual celebrity to an uncanny degree: these YouTube boy-celebrities have publicists, social media managers, endorsement deals, and copyrighted brands. They have flunkies whom they feel free to humiliate, overwork, and confront with screamed demands. They pack tens of thousands of hysterical fans into auditoriums for live events like VidCon and Summer in the City. They know how to hold microphones onstage in Dean Martin-old pro styles; they’re visibly terrified during manager-mandated mingles with their audiences; quite a few have been embroiled in sex scandals; they have, almost to an individual, at some point in the last four years yelled the stereotypical celebrity line, “Do you know who I am?”

We don’t know who they are, and their brand optimization management teams aren’t happy about that fact. The central problem with the kind of cross-branding those management teams yearn for derives from the typical YouTube boy-celebrity origin story: a cute, epicene young thing buys a bargain digital camera, sets it up in his bedroom, and proceeds to vamp for attention. They did nothing else but vamp; unlike all previous incarnations of the teen-boy heartthrob crush, these boys were offering only themselves, only these four-minute windows into their bedrooms. David Cassidy and his brother Shaun had to at least make a token effort to sing and act; likewise the Backstreet Boys or *NSYNC, who had serious professional dance coaches to learn those intricate floor shows. Even Justin Bieber (discovered on YouTube) made a pretense of having — or wanting to have — musical talent. Not so the YouTube boy-celebrity: with him, all pretense of purpose is stripped away, leaving only the hair, the eyes, the lips … what you see is quite literally the extent of what you get.

It’s simple late-adolescent narcissism, and in earlier decades it would produce a drawer of private videos whose owners would later erase them out of embarrassment. But in the Internet Age, YouTube made it possible for those videos to find the last thing in the world they would have ever expected before: viewers.

Specifically, teenage girls. YouTube boy-celebrities ran their hands through their moussed hair, smiled with fake self-deprecation, honed their arsenal of goofy-adorable mannerisms to a razor’s edge, and looked soulfully into their cameras – and out to the broader world of high school girls who suddenly found themselves able to subscribe to regular visits with cute boys clowning around in their bedrooms just for them.

They subscribed in massive numbers, and the reason was not only simple but integral to YouTube: they could interact with their stars. More than interact, they could influence content – like all narcissists, YouTube boy-celebrities at the beginning of their careers were intensely biddable. If “you guys” (the ubiquitous YouTube address for the clicking masses) want to see your dream boy eat a whole jar of cinnamon, that’s what he’ll do. If you want to see him inhale helium and make silly voices, that’s what he’ll do.

It led to huge surges in page-views, which led to more and more lucrative embedded ads, which lead to a ballooning of personal income – and all narcissism needs in order to become megalomania is some extra money. Suddenly YouTube boy-celebrities yearned to be taken seriously. There was only one problem: there’s no way to be taken seriously doing the Chubby Bunny Challenge. Boy-celebrities began to have aspirations. They were abruptly rich and influential (not one of them, not a single one, chose to remember that their fame and money derived solely from silly and entirely impersonal reasons), and now they had a chance to be artistes.

The brand optimization management teams saw their chance: in addition to T-shirts, hoodies, mugs, posters, buttons, laptop skins, and the like, these boy-celebrities all needed to be authors. And so, the book world will actually endure an incursion from this weird alternate universe, and bookstore tables this holiday season will be crowded with books featuring adorable moppet-faces on their dust jackets and insufferably vapid banalities on the inside. There’ll be Hello Life! by Marcus Butler (over 4 million subscribers), in which “the warm and totally down-to-earth star shares his trademark big-brotherly advice for navigating the trickier aspects of modern living.” There’ll be In Real Life by Joey Graceffa (over 5 million subs), in which “he opens up about his years of struggling with family hardships and troubles at school, with cruel bullying and the sting of rejection.” There’s A Work in Progress by Connor Franta (also 5 million), where he “reveals his private struggles while providing heartfelt words of wisdom for young adults.”

These are all arrant frauds, remember; these young men did not reach their current status because of any vision or artistic dedication – they reached it by trying candy from another country and filming their reactions, or waxing their armpits, or coloring their hair on camera (or, a narcissist’s dream come true, filming their reactions to watching their own earliest videos).

The engine of their economy, the teenage girls whose pageviews made them wealthy and famous in the first place, will clutch these featherweight books in hand while they wait in line to have them signed, and they won’t be harmed by the cliches in those books, should they ever read them. The dismaying part of the phenomenon, the danger, comes not from the teenage girls but from the teenage boys out there in their bedrooms and basement gyms all over the world, the floppy-haired puppy-eyed boys who might be dreaming of weaponizing the low-yield manipulation they’ve already noticed they’re good at. Those boys will see right through the “heartfelt words of wisdom” in these books and zero in instead on the promised land of money-for-pouting. The last thing the world needs is yet more doe-eyed douchebags. •

Steve Donoghue is a reader, editor, and writer living in Boston surrounded by books and dogs. He’s one of the founding editors of the literary journal Open Letters Monthly and the author of one of its book­blogs, Stevereads. HIs work has appeared in The National, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and The Quarterly Conversation, among others. He tweets as @stdonoghue.

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