Kaylin Harding remembers her first big YouTube break. It was a few weeks after she entered her freshman year at ASU in August 2016.
Having started her YouTube channel earlier that summer, she figured, why not document her experience moving into the ASU downtown dorms?
So, she vlogged her day. She packed up her whole life in Cave Creek, expressed her mixed feelings about going to college and made a sneak peek of how she decorated her dorm room. She would later upload a dorm tour video, showing her pink-and-white-striped curtains, the gold accents from Hobby Lobby on the walls, and a giant “K” made of white roses hanging on her bedroom door.
Harding remembers exactly how many subscribers she had before she uploaded that video. She had 58. In a week, her video blew up. The views climbed quickly, as did her subscriber count. The video, which now has just about 200,000 views, helped her audience blossom to 5,000.
“I got a couple thousand subscribers over the course of a week,” Harding says, laughing “And I was like, ‘Oh my God! I’m famous!’”
Over the past decade, social media has become a vital means of communication for Americans. Users share their lives across multiple social platforms. Facebook users post their status. Twitter users “tweet.” Photographers shine on Instagram. And YouTube lets anyone in the world with a camera and Wi-Fi connection create a channel, pick up a camera, post content online and build not only a brand for themselves, but an entire empire of fans, fame and fortune.
Teenagers, young adults and even children can reap six figures a year off brand deals, video monetization and merchandise.
They are advertisers and product endorsers in the digital age — “internet influencers.”
An internet influencer is “a digital user who can encourage other digital users to take digital actions,” says Jessica Pucci, assistant dean of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
A digital action is a click, a purchase, a subscription, a follow or other action that amounts to an “engagement.”
“Most reputable influencer programs and networks today rely solely on metrics that align both reach an engagement,” Pucci says. “But really, the engagement is the more important metric.”
YouTube, a huge source of entertainment for young audiences, is an excellent platform for influencers seeking engagement.
YouTube fans are loyal. If they like a YouTuber’s channel, they will follow that YouTuber’s other social media accounts, buy their merchandise, promote their content and travel just to meet them in person.
Pucci says as people grow more dependent on social media connections, famous internet personalities are today’s equivalent to the “popular” kids at school: They live the lifestyle that their viewers aspire to have.
“Just as that minute that you see that popular girl walking down the hallway, that’s also two minutes of her life,” Pucci warns. “And you don’t see all of the bad stuff that goes along with it.”
And sometimes, influencers post embarrassing things.
“I think everybody had something that they regret posting,” Pucci adds. “Everyone has something that they would rather not unearth from 10 or 20 years ago. I hope that we can be an empathetic society and really remember that kids are kids.”
Young internet influencers have their pros and cons. According to Pucci, if a company wants to attract a younger audience, aligning itself with relatable teenagers and young adults for a sponsored post is a smart bet.
On the other hand, young influencers’ lack of training in communications can result in an ethically dishonest sponsored post. According to Pucci, drawing the line between an obviously paid commercial and a cleverly worded YouTube video can be tricky.
“I think being very clear and direct about the relationships you have with brands is not only ethical,” Pucci says, “but effective for your sustained audience growth.”
Nineteen-year-old Gabbie Dionisio, an ASU student studying business communications, started her YouTube channel in high school.
“I’ve been watching YouTube since I was in the fifth grade,” she said. “My cousin showed it to me, and it changed my life. I love it so much.”
Dionisio posted a video documenting her college move-in day that now has over 50,000 views.
“Freshmen would come up to me and say, ‘Thank you for making your videos. They helped me so much.’ I didn’t know people actually watched my videos,” she says.
Dionisio plans to use her social media presence to help her in the future.
“I love social media. That’s what I want to do with my career,” she says. “I figured this would be like me putting myself out there, and then maybe employers would see what I’m doing.”
Though Dionisio’s subscriber count of 3,000 is small compared to other influencers, her channel has already given her a number of business opportunities. She said her YouTube channel helped her land a photoshoot with local sorority apparel company Ali & Ariele. Over Spring Break, DIFF Eyewear sent Dionisio free sunglasses, so long as she talked about their brand in a video, she says.
Recently, Kaylin Harding sat in a Starbucks with her hair parted in two French braids, a light coat of mascara on her eyelashes, and her white iPhone clutched between her hands. Her shiny PopSocket burrowed its way between her middle and forefinger.
Underneath her denim jacket she wore a white t-shirt she bought at a Harry Styles concert, and she posted footage of it on her YouTube channel: “HARRY STYLES. LIVE IN CONCERT – SAT. OCT. 14. PHOENIX, AZ.”
“I’m still in my fangirl phase,” she said.
Fangirl, as in someone with an obsession for a person or thing. Fangirling is a form of identification for many, says academic researcher and Stanford Ph.D. student Becca Lewis. As young people are trying try to discover who they are, aligning themselves with an influencer and other fans helps create their identity.
Harding met Emma Chamberlain, the 17-year-old YouTube mogul with almost 8 million subscribers, over spring break. Just thinking about it made her cheeks flush warm pink. She covered her face with her hands and leaned over in her chair, as if she was basking in the memory for the 30th time that morning.
“She’s literally…” Harding pauses. “I want to be her best friend.”
She leaned down and put her face closer to my iPhone microphone. “Watch my video,” she jokes. “I talk about how I met her.”
Though many YouTubers live interesting and often unattainable lifestyles, they were once everyday people like their audience members.
“The common thing among the people that I’m obsessed with is that I want to be their friend,” Harding says. “Like, if I am able to like someone on a personal level, then I think that’s what attracts me.”
Just the facts
According to Jeff Hancock, a founding director of the Stanford Social Media Lab and professor at Stanford University, the humanity of YouTubers is what makes them appealing to their viewers, and what drives their fans to form relationships with them.
“We form relationships with people all the time,” he says. “And these people can be people in our lives like family members and friends, but they can also be characters in books. They can be characters in movies.”
Fans form one-sided relationships with their favorite celebrities, characters and YouTubers. In these relationships, Hancock says, there is no reciprocity. The fans and the influencers would never hang out in real life. Fans form their relationships with their favorite influencers by regularly seeing them on YouTube.
“If a celebrity signifies certain values or ideas, then our alignment with them becomes kind of an easy way to signal that to other people,” Lewis said.
“My daughter knows Harry Potter (characters) really well,” Hancock says. “And she thinks about them and talks about the things they might do. But just because they’re imaginary, it doesn’t make the relationship any less real and important.”
They’ve got the power
While YouTubers can seem to have power and influence over their followers, one wrong post could take it all away.
In April, former Full House star Lori Loughlin and her husband pleaded not guilty to fraud, conspiracy and money laundering charges connected to a college-admissions scandal, according to CNN. The celebrity mom allegedly paid $500,000 to get their daughters into University of Southern California. A 2018 YouTube video of Loughlin’s daughter, Olivia Jade, surfaced after news of the scandal broke.
In the video, Jade explained her busy lifestyle might hinder her abilities to attend her classes once she started college. She told her YouTube fangirls she was more excited about sporting events and parties at USC.
“I don’t really care about school,” she says. “As you guys all know.”
Following the college admissions scandal, online users dug up that clip and it spread quickly across Twitter and YouTube. People slammed Jade for her comment.
She hasn’t posted another video since, but she still has 1.9 million subscribers.
Since the scandal, makeup company Sephora dropped Jade as a brand ambassador and ceased to sell Jade’s line of products, according to elle.com.
A creative outlet
Although Kaylin Harding’s following of 8,000 subscribers doesn’t make her a top influencer, she is still an influencer. And she views YouTube as a creative outlet. She loves filming and editing. Her followers motivate her to continue YouTubing.
“Even when you have a small channel like mine, there are still people who surprisingly keep up with you,” she says. “And want to see what you’re doing. And they notice when you’re absent.”
Harding has advice to future YouTubers. Don’t be afraid of what others might think. Just jump in.
“I know it’s hard,” she says. “When you’re that age to get in that mindset, but if YouTube is something you want to do… do it.” CT