Generation YouTube: Irish vloggers on what it really takes to be an online star
When YouTube opened for business in 2005, it created a whole new career path for bright young people. Catherine Healy speaks to some of its Irish stars about making a living from video, and the challenge of being commercial, but staying real
When she uploaded her first YouTube video in 2013, Melanie Murphy had no idea it would turn out to be the start of a new career. The Dubliner struggled with nerves at the time, sometimes breaking out in rashes before making college presentations. She began to film herself speaking to camera in the hope of improving her confidence - a boost needed if she was to go into lecturing, as was the plan. "I never thought it was something you could do as a job," she says. "I only really wanted to be a good teacher."
The channel from there became a space for Murphy to chat about her interests, and before long, she was raking in subscribers by the thousands. It was a breakthrough achieved largely thanks to a video about dealing with acne, which now has close to 1.8 million views. She decided to concentrate on YouTube for a few months after graduating, as ad revenue from the site was overtaking her back-to-education allowance. These days, with over 640,000 subscribers, Murphy is one of Ireland's leading YouTubers, attracting sponsorship from a range of international brands on top of an audience extending to Britain and the States.
The story of the young video-making novice striking a chord and making it big is a familiar one in the annals of YouTube. What begins for many as a pastime grows eventually into a lucrative business commanding an engaged and loyal following. One of YouTube's biggest Irish success stories, Westmeath native Seán McLoughlin, was a relative unknown until his gaming channel was mentioned in a 2013 video by PewDiePie, then the world's most-subscribed-to user.
McLoughlin, also known as Jacksepticeye, saw his own subscriber numbers shoot up by a million over a few months on account of the exposure. The 30-year-old was named as the world's eighth highest-earning gamer in a recent Forbes list, netting an estimated $11m in 2019. His subscriber count stands at 23.3 million today.
The hefty size of Irish YouTubers' audiences has not gone unnoticed by big advertisers, according to David Anderson of Outset Agency, a Dublin-based firm specialising in influencer marketing. YouTube is a particularly valuable marketing platform, he says, because its most prominent users are generally trusted by their subscribers. "The creators know what their followers want. They have actual communities, and once you have that kind of audience, it can be turned into plenty of other revenue opportunities: podcasts, live shows, books, merchandise."
The length of YouTube videos is another distinct advantage for advertisers. "Retention rates are much lower on Facebook," Anderson points out. "On YouTube, even with videos that are about 20 minutes, people are watching up to 50pc or 70pc of the way. It goes against what we always hear about younger viewers having shorter attention spans."
British brands are usually more interested in YouTubers than their Irish counterparts, he adds. "A lot of the people making marketing decisions here aren't really watching YouTube. Teenagers, in particular, have very little interest in traditional content, and marketers need to catch up with that."
The challenge now for successful YouTubers is how to further their commercial interests without compromising on the authenticity so desired by subscribers. A common refrain among the influencers I speak to is that they only endorse brands they would genuinely recommend. Murphy says she's probably turned down more money than she's made since joining YouTube, mainly because an overload of sponsored content might put off her subscribers. She tells me she has especially high standards when it comes to advertising clothes, steering clear of companies without appropriate labour and environmental standards. Concerns over sustainability led her to stop working with one particular partner, a fast-fashion outlet that invests large sums in influencer advertising.
"I prefer when a brand can sit easily on my channel," she says. "I notice myself, with the people I follow, that they tend to lose their own voice when they spread themselves too thinly with sponsorships."
Murphy sees her YouTube platform today as a source of honest advice for the mainly young women who follow her. The focus of her content has in recent times shifted away from product reviews to taking on subjects like mental health and body confidence. A recent video explained why she gave up drinking last year, prompting more than 2,500 comments from viewers who could relate to the experience.
"The videos that do the best for me are usually about self-growth and self-care," she says. "I've had my own fair share of dark moments, so I want to be a positive example in showing people what I've come through."
The kind of storytelling enabled by YouTube has also had ramifications in Ireland beyond the personal. It proved a crucial driver of legislative change ahead of the marriage equality referendum, for example, with some of the most memorable campaign material coming from videos of ordinary voters calling for a Yes vote. The appeals of people like Brighid and Paddy from Dundalk, a Catholic couple who had been married for 50 years, garnered huge support after being posted on YouTube, says Craig Dwyer, a digital communications consultant who was social media director for the Yes Equality campaign. "Personal stories were really important for us in engaging and influencing the undecided voter," he tells Review.
Dwyer adds, however, that its strengths as a campaigning medium can equally be put to more sinister ends. He points to the potential of users being radicalised after discovering alt-right videos, as recent research has highlighted. "The benefit of YouTube, as with social media more generally, is the ability it gives individuals to quickly build a community on their own terms," he says. "You can control your messaging while avoiding being challenged."
Indeed, the Google-owned site has had to take a more proactive role in regulating content over recent years. In 2018, it banned ads relating to the abortion referendum following concerns that voters were being targeted on the site by overseas campaign groups.
More regulatory muscle looks set to be flexed by the new Media Commission being mooted to replace the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. The proposed body will have powers to introduce online safety codes aimed at tackling harmful content as well as sanction tech companies that fail to comply with its orders.
While stricter standards might affect its own bottom line by preventing problematic content from being monetised, YouTube is unlikely to lose much of its influence as a platform in the coming years. Today it reaches over two billion users a month, with more than a billion hours of video being watched on the site every day. It faces stiff competition from the likes of Facebook and Instagram, of course, but it still offers value of a different kind to other sites.
In fact, YouTube made $15bn from advertising revenue in 2019 - an increase of 36pc compared to the previous 12 months, according to figures from Google's parent company, Alphabet. It remains a highly profitable resource for a generation of online stars ranging from fitness trainers and make-up artists to gamers and comedians, many of whom leverage their large audiences to nail down brand collaborations and publishing deals, or at least bring in new clients.
The YouTube landscape looks a lot different now than in its early days, when it teemed with short amateur clips.
Founded in 2005, YouTube was the brainchild of three former PayPal staffers, Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and Jawed Karim, who initially ran the venture out of Hurley's garage in Menlo Park, California.
It was bought by Google a year later, and today it might be described as the world's biggest broadcaster, enabling a new brand of internet entrepreneurs who have reshaped the way young people think and talk about their lives.
The Beginners' Guide to YouTube
What is it?
A video-sharing website featuring clips about just about everything you can imagine
What's on it?
What's not? Fitness tips, travel diaries, music videos, teary confessionals - and even cat reactions to strange food if that's your thing
How many people use it?
Everyone from politicians and celebrities to the teenagers down the road. It has more than two billion active users these days.
YouTube at 15
February 14, 2005: YouTube.com is activated as a domain name by founders Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and Jawed Karim.
April 2005: 'Me at the Zoo' is the first clip to be uploaded to the site, showing co-founder Jawed Karim speaking in front of elephants at a zoo in San Diego.
September 2005: A Nike ad starring Brazilian footballer Ronaldinho reaches one million views, a new YouTube record.
November 2006: Google acquires the site for $1.65bn, calling it "the next step in the evolution of the internet".
August 2007: Adverts appear on YouTube videos for the first time, tailored according to location, genre and demographics.
2011: YouTube is seized upon as a platform by Arab Spring protesters. Their efforts come to be known as a social media revolution.
December 2012: K-pop video 'Gangnam Style' is the first YouTube video to be viewed one billion times.
March 2013: YouTube hits one billion users a month.
Spring 2017: The site revamps its advert policies amid controversy about ads showing up on extremist content.