It was a 19-second video about elephants that started it all. Titled “Me at the Zoo,” the video showed a man, Jawed Karim, standing around in front of the elephant exhibit at the San Diego zoo. Karim, alongside his colleagues Chad Hurley and Steve Chen, were on to something.
At the end of 2005, the three of them launched their idea out of beta with the financial support of Sequoia Capital (1). What they had created was the social media and tech giant known as Youtube. Now boasting 2 billion monthly active users and more than 5 billion videos shared to date, the website has become one of the most popular platforms on the Internet (2).
However, because of the exponential growth it has experienced, Youtube has had a lot of unintended influences. One issue that has risen to attention is the idea of parasocial relationships, or one-sided relationships with media personalities.
With the evolution of Youtuber dynamics, Youtubers these days offer a pseudo-genuine relationship to their viewers, making them feel like they are "friends".
The problem with this is that these relationships seem to be filling in for the disconnect that viewers might feel through social media and other factors. Essentially, it offers the viewers an easy way out of a bad situation - supplanting real connections with the Youtube creators that they follow (3).
By indulging in these relations, viewers are able to meet their attachment needs in the form of a one-sided relationship that they can actually control. This means that they can avoid the emotional risks of friendship, such as divisive arguments or awkward conversations. They can control when they see the other person, where they view the person, and what things they want to hear from the person. As time passes and they continue watching videos, they even begin to feel as if they know the Youtube personality (4).
This idea is strikingly at odds with the fact that many of these viewers have likely never met the Youtube creator in person nor does the Youtuber know they exist. Really, the audience member is just a number, one of the many that help the creator gain fame and make money.
And it's no wonder that interactions on Youtube have gone this route.
In the past, celebrities existed behind the barrier of the tv screen; they were alive, but fans could never really get "close". But now, Youtube fans can get involved with their favorite Creators, sending them requests for future content or sending in questions through their social media.
The role of a fan has expanded into a more active position where they can influence what it is that they are watching (4). For example, you can hear beauty Youtubers saying things like "We're going to apply this eyeshadow" instead of "I'm going to apply this eyeshadow," creating a false sense of joint effort with the viewer. This allows the audience to feel involved and connected to the Creator.
It is also common for some Youtubers to divulge very personal information and thoughts on their channels, blurring the line between public and private.
By fostering these types of relationships, the Youtubers are able to get more views on their videos and collect more money (4).
This just exemplifies the social disconnect. Around the world, a lot of people are not getting enough social interaction, so they are increasingly turning to the online world to feel connected.
In some cases, online communities and support can be very helpful. Online relations can supplement emotional and psychological needs; it can indeed help people (3). However, it still doesn't dismiss the fact that people are lonely. In addition, Youtube addiction is strongly correlated with social anxiety (3).
If people replace real relationships with Youtube, they can prevent their own emotional growth and development. They won't fully understand what it means to have a real connection with other people. These Youtube relationships are also problematic because there are fans who feel entitled to specific details or content from the Creators' lives (4). Because of their perceived bond, they think they deserve the "tea" on what may be going in a Youtuber feud or what happened with a Creator's breakup.
The fact of the matter is, the viewers aren't entitled to know everything about their favorite Youtube stars, and they never will know everything. This isn't all to say that you should limit your Youtube usage or anything of that nature. Instead, it is to hopefully make you aware and push you to be intentional in your interactions.
Connect with people online but don't be afraid to also connect offline. Reach out to the people around you and strike up a conversation.
1. Dickey, M.R. (2013). The 22 Key Turning Points In The History Of Youtube. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/key-turning-points-history-of-youtube-2013-2
2. Aslam, S. (2019). Youtube by the Numbers: Stats, Demographics & Fun Facts. Retrieved from https://www.omnicoreagency.com/youtube-statistics/
3. Brenner, G. H. (2019). Do People Use Youtubers to Replace Real Relationships? Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/experimentations/201905/do-people-use-youtubers-replace-real-relationships
4. Farokhmanesh, M. (2018). Youtubers Are Not Your Friends. Retrieved from https://www.theverge.com/2018/9/17/17832948/youtube-youtubers-influencer-creator-fans-subscribers-friends-celebrities