Long before Justin Bieber was famous for his album and looking like a lesbian, he was just a little 12-year-old Canadian boy uploading videos on YouTube. But unlike the millions of others who do the same, Bieber got lucky.
"It had a hundred views, then a thousand views, then ten thousand views, so I just kept posting more videos and more videos," Bieber said. Before he knew it, Usher was flying him to Atlanta to sign a deal, allegedly beating Justin Timberlake to the punch.
Sounds easy, Biebs. But for most YouTube uploaders, it's not. Musical artists like Bieber, and even Soulja Boy, who originally posted "Crank Dat" on the site, had videos that could easily translate into the mainstream. And they did. But a majority of YouTube videos are not of this variety. Instead, they are web-cam confessionals, "vlogs," or character sketches. We've all seen them: a teenage girl discussing her heartbreak, a kid telling us how to survive 2012, a boy discussing his trip to Comic-Con.
YouTube itself has bred this genre of web video, this particular kind of video star. It has given people an easy medium to bullshit publicly, be it someone trying out a new character or just talking about what they had for lunch. While many of these go unwatched, some get millions of hits, implying to the creator (and sometimes others) that they have mainstream potential. But despite their popularity, many videos are only meant for a short format. The characters are either too annoying or not interesting enough to garner real celebrity, and dare I say, major money.
Perhaps you remember the cute, bright-eyed girl named Bree, aka lonelygirllonelygirl15, who started posting videos that chronicled her life and usual teenage angst in June 2006. Quickly, she gained millions of viewers who believed she was real. However, as she posted more and more videos, people became suspicious. It seemed unlikely that this innocent home schooled kid was really into occult practices. Plus, the lighting in her bedroom was pretty legit. Eventually, it came out that Bree was really Jessica Rose, a 20-something actress who along with a screenwriter, filmmaker, and software engineer conceived and produced the false web series. This was all in the hopes getting a movie deal.
Sound familiar? Jessica Rose and her friends, like Bieber and Soulja Boy, welcomed something greater: a career in the entertainment industry. But the success of Lonelygirl15 only begot the website Lg15.com, which now produces and hosts its own sci-fi shows online. As for Jessica Rose, the best gig she has had since is a cameo in Lindsay Lohan's I Know Who Killed Me and a small part in the tv show Greek. Her main gigs nowadays are more web series. The perceived genius of lonelygirl15, and the talent it involved, couldn't foster a popular cable tv show or real celebrity stardom.
But if the current popularity of lonelygirl-esque videos on the site says anything, it's that this hasn't discouraged thousand of people from trying. One of the most notorious cases is Chris Crocker, known for his viral video "Leave Britney Alone." This features him (but he looks like a her) wrapped in sheets, hysterically crying and defending Britney Spears in the wake of her horrendous MTV Video Awards performance. In just one day, the video received over 2 million views.
Although he is known to everyone and their mom as the tranny who loves Britney, Chris hasn't really been able to parlay his character into anything that memorable. While he is currently pursuing a "serious" music career, in 2007 it was made public that he signed a deal with 44 Productions for a television show. The founder of the company, Rasha Drachkovitch, said of Chris to Variety: "We consider him a rebel character that people will find interesting. He's going to be a TV star." Three years later, I'm still holding my breath.
The examples could go on and on. But that is not to say that no one has ever done it. Andy Milonakis of MTV's The Andy Milonakis Show (2005-2007) got his start on the Internet back in 2003, before YouTube even existed. But Andy cannot be used as a beacon of hope to all aspiring YouTubers. He showed up at the right place, right time: just as video sharing on the Internet started happening. In 2003, his kind of video was actually unique. He also had a gimmick-a rare growth disorder that makes him look like a child when he is really in his 30s––that unfortunately hundreds of other chubby kids on YouTube don't. It's safe to say that if Andy Milonakis tried to get his start on YouTube today, with the mass amount of videos like his out there, he would not get his own show.
As this kind of video sharing become even more popular and let's face it, played out, the uniqueness of certain ones will be harder to identify. It will be interesting to see how Fred Figglehorn, YouTube's newest darling, will fare. Fred, the character played by 16-year-old Lucas Cruikshank, is a boy who talks about living with his recovering drug-addicted and alcoholic mother. The catch is that Cruikshank speeds up the video to give his character a high-pitched, annoying-as-hell chipmunk voice and hyperactive body movements. Surprisingly, Cruikshank just received a contract with Nickelodeon for a movie and they plan to build a franchise off the character.
Movie deal aside, can Fred really maintain his current momentum? Kids chuckle at him while they munch on Cheetos after school, but who knows if they are really going to pay $10 to see more of the same. Plus, it's only a matter of time before he is eclipsed by the next YouTube slut. In this medium, which is inherently disposable, it is nearly impossible to avoid the trash bin. I say they all just accept 2.5 minutes of Internet fame-and save 15 for the popstars.
Alana is a freelance writer from San Francisco who lives and works in New York. She has contributed to The Nation, Paper Magazine and Blast.