Kevin Allocca, YouTube’s Head of Culture & Trends, shares three key insights into how online video is transforming popular culture.

Written by
Kevin Allocca
Published
June 2017
Topics

YouTube’s first video was posted in April 2005. Titled ‘Me at the Zoo’, it was an ordinary moment captured on an ordinary day, containing no sense of its own significance. The early days of online video were driven by things that were personal and novel to us - not to an anticipated audience of millions. While the content may have evolved, the spirit of those early clips continues to define what makes YouTube so distinct all these years later.

As YouTube’s Head of Culture & Trends, I’ve spent the past seven years studying emerging creativity and behaviour in video, and I’d like to share three big trends that I believe are really shaping modern popular culture.

Niche as Mainstream

When we talk about what people watch on YouTube, we’re often thinking about big viral hits or creators with huge audiences. Previous media technology and distribution chains provided relatively few means for obscure or unexpected genres to reach a mass audience, but with discovery now driven by machine learning, a whole world of content has been opened up, allowing the obscure to transcend obscurity.

Every day, YouTube's homepage surfaces more than 200 million distinct videos, connecting viewers with diverse experiences ranging from Pirate Death Metal to slow-motion explosions. This level of scale and discoverability has brought about an inversion in media, where rather than making content designed to appeal to the masses, creators on the web are able to pursue what they're personally passionate about and audiences who share those passions find them. Occasionally, these audiences can grow considerably in size and influence. For example, last year, beauty guru Cristine Rote spawned the ‘100 Layer Challenge’ by painting over 100 layers of holographic polish on her nails. Tens of thousands of other videos emerged, with people trying on 100 layers of everything from clothes to spray tan, garnering more than 600m views in total across the trend in 2016. Rote and her audience of four million nail polish-obsessed subscribers represent one of many communities who connect with each other over their specific passions and, in turn, interact with each other in ways that influence consumer and entertainment trends.

Interaction

Creativity on YouTube is explored through interaction, with entirely new forms of entertainment emerging from the relationships between people through the content they love. To give just one example, when Animal Adventure Park in upstate New York pointed a camera at their pregnant giraffe, April, no one knew what kind of audience might turn up. Over the ensuing months, April’s livestream became a global phenomenon, racking up more than 3.5 million views per day and becoming one of YouTube's top five livestreams of all time. And viewers weren't just stopping by, the average viewing time when people tuned in was more than 30 minutes, which is astonishing given that that most of the time nothing at all was happening.

The key to the April phenomenon is understanding that it was never really about the stream - it was about the discussions we were all having around it. It was about interaction, not consumption. Understood in this way, YouTube becomes a creative environment that is both interactive and collaborative, yet also distinctly personal. Where else could someone making videos in their bedroom or garage, and with no expectation of recognition, eventually see their work reflected back by a global superstar, as when Filipino dancer Gabriel Valenciano’s ‘super selfie’ format eventually found its way into Beyoncé’s video for 7/11?

Individual Expression

As we shift away from a one-direction mass media dynamic, what we’re watching, sharing and connecting with is increasingly born of individual experiences, perspective and relationships. YouTube has always been a place where small moments can become culture, and over the years, a new class of celebrity talent have turned small-scale personal creativity into a new kind of standard.

Lily Singh began making videos in 2010 to combat boredom and depression, and since then has gone on to become one of the world’s most recognised stars through her YouTube channel. Likewise, Carly Fleischmann has brought her experience of being a young woman with autism to an audience of millions through her talk show ‘Speechless’, interviewing stars like Channing Tatum with incredible warmth and wit.

Traditional stars are also taking advantage of the opportunity to have an unmediated connection with their fans. The likes of the Rock and Demi Lovato call YouTube home as it is where their fans live, while James Corden has become one of comedy's biggest stars, helped in part by the huge online popularity of his Carpool Karaoke series. As we all know however, people have been uploading videos of themselves singing in their cars for years on YouTube, using exactly the same sort of casual, impromptu style that’s now so familiar from Corden’s show. So, in a sense, one of the signature media moments of 2016 is inextricably tied to the aesthetic and culture of YouTube.

Shaping the culture around us

Niche experiences, interactivity and individual expression have helped make web video a defining medium of this young century. They represent not a shift in entertainment, but a cultural movement that empowers the voices of millions to shape the culture around us.

YouTube is a medium that, more than any other, reflects who we are and what we’re passionate about. It challenges each of us to think differently about ourselves and what entertainment can mean, and it represents a living and breathing community that is changing every day and reshaping the popular culture of an entire generation. It’s the first global medium that’s as rich, inventive, odd, and individual as we are.