Vloggers have been around almost as long as YouTube itself. However, bar Wired writers, 4Chan bullies and anyone working towards their year 9 SATs, most people are lucky enough that they've never had one try to confiscate their attention span like a smug teenage bailiff.
Unfortunately, this is all about to change, and soon the entire media landscape will be as stuffed with these tedious pricks as the average 14-year-old's Facebook feed. The other day I received something awful in the mail – something worse than all the unwanted garbage that traditionally gets pushed through your letter flap (anthrax, repossession notices, flyers trying to sell you job lots of chicken wings, etc): The Pointless Book, the debut print release from English vlogger, Alfie Deyes.
Alfie is a clean, gummy, harmless young man; basically the mealy-mouthed Alex-Zane-in-training of the British vlogging community. It's difficult to really pinpoint what his videos are about because, as with most vloggers, they're not really about anything – here he is getting burped at and playing beer pong with some food (1.4 million views), here he is trying to process the news that a ten-year-old in Spain has given birth (4 million views) and here he is giving himself a facial with some poo (it's not, it's nutella; 953k views). Really, the subject matter is a side issue; the videos are just a vessel for a friendly face, one that laughs really loudly, constantly and for no reason, gurns like a dog on fire and feigns awkwardness in an attempt to disguise its own vanity. All set to a soundtrack of ukeleles and whistling. (Who the fuck is making all this ukelele whistling music? Where does it come from?)
As well as regularly recording little films like these for nearly 3 million subscribers, Alfie’s a “Let’s Player” – someone who plays through entire video games and commentates as they go, before posting the footage online. When he's not busy doing things that would get him instantly glassed in any respectable pub in Britain, he reportedly dates fellow British vlogger Zoe Sugg, known online as “Zoella”. Zoe is one of three celebrity YouTube vloggers, along with Tyler Oakley and “TomSka”, who were recently recruited to present a new Radio 1 show, in what seems like a pretty desperate attempt to entice younger listeners.
These publishing deals and radio contracts have created a jealousy divide in the world of shouty webcam folk. On one side are those bedroom chancers who persist with uploading their dull musings to a depressingly muted response, and on the other are the bedroom chancers who persist with uploading their dull musings to a perplexingly exploding fanbase, mostly made up of teenagers who are happy – eager, even – to spend eight minutes of their lives listening to some musical theatre student promote whatever brand it is they’re being sponsored by that week. In fact, once their subscriber list hits seven figures, some vloggers can make in excess of £40,000 per shout out. One prominent user recently put down the money for a house in cash.
So some kids are making money from nothing – who am I to thwart their hustle? What does it mean for me? Nothing, right?
It really shouldn't matter to me that these people have no great yarns, no real stories, no points of note; nothing really but webcams and internet hubs. People can waste their time online however they like. But thanks to the accepted wisdom that everything that happens on the internet is the future, they’re working their way out of that cyber niche, where you have a choice whether or not to subject yourself to their terrible jokes and inane dating advice, into the mainstream, where they’ll be much harder to avoid.
Their fame and promotion is symptomatic of a wider issue, too: the norms becoming the stars. Those with no charisma, no talent and no guile being paraded through popular culture like a preening, self-obsessed Ark of the Covenant.
It could be argued that their inception, and subsequent rise to prominence, is not their fault, but the fault of our increasingly anodyne culture. BBC3 sitcoms with sex jokes limper than a fag packet left out in the rain, pop stars whose only controversy is cropping a rapper who looks like a Slush Puppy out of an Instagram photo. In a recent interview with Evening Standard Magazine, English singer-songwriter and BRIT award-winner Ben Howard was painted as a sullen, moody creature of pained art; a kind of Leonard Cohen for the Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents generation. The evidence? He doesn't like speaking to Tom Odell backstage at festivals.
Our emerging cultural figureheads are distressingly bland. What people tend to forget about entertainment is that it’s an art form, the nuances of which have to be learned. Rodney Dangerfield, Tommy Cooper, Michael Barrymore, Harry Hill – love, hate or fear them, you have to admit that there’s an inherent talent for showmanship in what they do. And the skills – the bare bones of it – are still something that have to be honed and crafted. These young bucks – these webcam frontiersmen – are learning on the job with no one teaching them. The result is a poorly edited mess of ego and quirk.
Of course, this is partly the appeal to their fans. Successful vloggers sell them the dream that normalcy can make you famous – that you can be adored for just blurting non-sequiturs at a camera with an upward inflection, and that with a few first-year film studies classes and a half-decent haircut you could be earning a hundred grand a year.
So where does that leave the rest of us? The news that Zoella and those two other vloggers are to be featured on Radio 1 is worrying. Sure, they might not be totally offensive in every instance, but the vast majority of the time you’ll come away thinking, ‘Who are these terrible dickheads?'
Last year, I wrote something about how contestants are ruining British game shows by attempting to become their stars. The basic premise was that the game is the star of the show, not the contestant. The contestant is a conduit through which the game flows, so that we can all enjoy it at home and join in. Because we – the viewing public – are the ones who are meant to be entertained here. But the contestants won’t stop trying to be funny. Trying to be zany. Trying to eke a tear from your eyes by weeping about the fact that their son “really deserves a nice holiday to Florida” because their guess about which one of Henry VIII's wives was beheaded first miraculously came up trumps.
The pageantry of the boring is a burden spreading through our entertainment industry, and its legacy and offspring reside in the vlogger community.
Deyes' Pointless Book is the perfect example. It’s an absolute fucking shambles. An offensive cavalcade of non-jokes aimed at young people who the vlogger has hugely underestimated. On page 130 it invites you to “turn to page 190”; when you reach page 190, it tells you to “turn to page 130”. Hilarious!
There are about five “pointless pages” that you can “fill in with whatever you want!” One minute you’re being encouraged to make origami birds and pick flowers, the next you’re “drawing genitals” and deciding whether you want to have a “sexual attraction to fruit”. Is it crass or is it cutesy? Why try to be everything to everyone?
Here lies another issue: there’s no identity. No flow, no consistency. Alfie Deyes is just a guy who can be sensitive and bawdy. He has a regular range of emotions and references. He is anyone. Someone who does have one solid theme is Sam Pepper – Big Brother contestant and incomprehensibly popular vlogger – but unfortunately his adopted online steez seems to be “awkward sex offender”, as he coerces women on the streets of LA into kissing him (but only after he’s lassoed them for the lulz).
But when you hear Zoella on the radio or see Alfie’s book in the shops, try not to be too angry at them. These vanilla humans, while calculated in their rise to success, are just whatever people. They deserve a modicum of ire for their sheer tyrannical self-aggrandisement, but not so much that it’s hurtful for them. They’re just wealthy young morons feeding people a fantasy.
Michael Owen, David Coulthard, June Sarpong, Maggot from Goldie Lookin’ Chain, my postman; vanilla people have always existed in the margins of our daily lives. They’re inoffensive for the most part, naturally. But when pushed in front of us their prosaic manner and dull personas have the potential to enrage, because you expect entertainment but what you get is shit.
This isn’t where we should want entertainment to go. These aren’t the people we should want on our televisions, singing our songs or acting in our films. They’re walking definitions of mediocrity, and the only way they’ll stay online where they belong is if you refuse to accept their presence anywhere else. The war on the vanilla people might be a long and bloody struggle. But at least I’ll be able to turn the telly or the radio on without some cunt trying and failing to muster the charisma of Lee fucking Evans.
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