Meet the YouTubers Trying to Make Sense of YouTube

Internet culture scholarship sprouts out the unlikeliest of places.

There’s been a recent explosion in empirical and cultural analysis done with the purpose of better understanding YouTube, but by virtue of it originating mostly from non-YouTubers — those being academics and journalists — it tends to gloss over their lived realities, painting them as sole arbiters of what gets put out instead of cogs in a cultural machine which thrives on the same social disparities we see in our day-to-day. Audiences, yearning for that key insight, have turned to a newly-emergent form of internet culture analysis on the platform, one which promotes audience awareness above any consideration for appeasing the ever-so-fickle YouTube algorithm.

Of those most notable, Tiffany Ferguson happens to be one of the most pertinent. What distinguishes her work from the litany of existing “YouTube analysis” on the platform is that she doesn’t seem to mind as much about cold-hard data to make deductions about a certain phenomena at play. For her latest addition to the fan-favorite “Internet Analysis” series, Ferguson described an all-too-common occurrence of YouTubers going out of favor with their audience due to a perceptible change in economic status–the theory goes, that as better upward social mobility is displayed uncritically by a certain content creator, that could be viewed as an affront by their audience to what they deemed whence to be “relatable”. This is a perfect example of something that if thrown at a room of nerds whose best analytical trait is crunching numbers and not actually understanding the acute and often-abstract nature of the relationship between audiences and creators, something would get lost, or worse yet, it’d be declared “far too subjective to be actionable” even when it’s the soundest of conclusions to make.

Another lesser-known, but nonetheless keen observer of the YouTube space is Sarah Z. Her videos take special aim at breaking down the particularities of online rhetoric, paired with a BreadTube-like punch that puts them in proper political context. The most interesting bit about Sarah Z is her background in debate–in her “Why Debating Sucks” video, Sarah Z talked about her passif as a competitive debater, and how that made her particularly resilient to the constant onslaught of faux concern about rationality on the internet. If Sarah’s analysis was initially focused on media, her content grew to become all-encompassing, and now it acts not just as a useful barometer for evaluating the substantive value of online media critique, but also as a guide for how to navigate the ever-so-muddying waters of a world where group identity affiliation bears more importance than the common humanity we all share, and should rightfully cherish.

No matter how exhaustive a list is however, it wouldn’t be complete without Kat Blaque in the mix. Kat pioneered the art of the talking head essay with her “True Tea” series, focusing on the hottest internet culture topic item, often colliding with her lived reality as a black trans woman in America. She was one of the first to float a criticism of white homogeneity in BreadTube circles — a space whose inclusionary attitudes come into pretty heavy contact with the algorithm-driven nature of YouTube — and she’s also been one of the earliest to beat the drums of YouTube juggernaut Jeffree Star exhibiting racist and transphobic behavior. Kat often boxes way outside of her weight class — notably featuring PewDiePie in her series on the “Rebranding of White Nationalism” — but does so with a flair that is so hard to match. It’s essentially the quintessential vlogging diet for those who refuse to settle for this notion that YouTube should embrace its problematic elements, denying those who refuse to partake in its algorithmically-driven bouts of conflict much-deserved notoriety.

The examples mentioned above highlight an issue that is endemic of the YouTube analysis literature at large, but one that is especially curious to observe from the perspective of YouTube itself–subjectivity seems to have claimed significant ground from empiricism. It’s easy to see why that is given how the analysis has historically been focused on data — of which we have very little of and can draw limited conclusions on — instead of the much more readily available set of cultural cues that anyone can relate to without having to comb over voluminous datasets just to infer what YouTube’s black box of an algorithm intends to float to its audience. One thing we’ve been able to ascertain with a good amount of confidence is that whatever YouTube’s net influence is on the overall cultural apparatus, it is negative, and it’s one audiences and creators alike have to grapple with in order to avoid becoming its prey.

Why YouTubers like Tiffany Ferguson, Sarah Z and Kat Blaque were able to find relative success dissecting the convoluted cultural trappings of YouTube is precisely due to an empty vacuum that journalists and academics have had a hard time filling up, as YouTube has always been aborded as a topic of media or technology studies, and not the branch of social science it has become. There’s an irregularity to the way that YouTube has become a quasi-community, with interpersonal dynamics and ways of distinguishing the most fortunate from the least, discriminating or elevating on that basis, and that wasn’t sufficiently explored until very late.

For those dynamics to be properly understood, people within the community have to pay tacit attention to them, and it’s legitimately great that this work has been taken up by those who’ve lived it, and in certain cases made it their very own professional endeavor. The thorny politics of casting someone who doesn’t know how to throw a ball as ill-fit for sportsball analysis are sure troublesome, but in the case of YouTubers, figuring out how the platform works is the primary method by which they acquire more following, so it automatically makes them at least somewhat cognizant of its shortcomings even when it’s in their best interest not to acknowledge it.

Up until recently, you wouldn’t have thought that “analysis” of any kind would break out of the mold of journalism and academia, but YouTubers have showcased an incredible ability at putting a cohesive picture together of how their host platform works, and the moral and ethical implications of their involvement in it. If things look so bleak, they seem on a steady track to change, and with that increased awareness comes the hope that maybe, YouTube won’t be locked in a cycle of controversy for much long as its users are learning how to better navigate it and avoid its perils.