Transmission: 2.0: With Great Youtube Power Should Come Great Responsibility
Following its success the first time round, Transmission returned this April for a second panel event looking to deliver (as per the slogan) ‘wider culture, to the point.’ This time, our attention was turned towards a much talked about topic that we wanted to delve deeper into: Youtube Influencers, the role they play in the future of broadcasting, and what the consequences might be of their content being mass consumed. Once again James Kirkham (Holler co-founder) played host to a top-notch panel: TV presenter Rick Edwards, recently gaining attention for trying to encourage (young) people to vote // Youtube star Jim Chapman, a prominent member of the latest wave of notable Youtube talent // Lucy Lendrem, agent to many Youtubers (including Jim and Zoella) through her role at Gleam agency // and BBC Newsreader Babita Sharma. Here we pick out the highlights and explore the questions raised in our discussion…
The future broadcasters of the UK are no longer those of Grey’s Inn Road or the BBC TV Centre. They’re generally under the age of 23, broadcasting from a studio that doubles up as their bedroom, and have more viewers on an average piece of content than the biggest multimillion-pound drama on Sky One.
These staggering view counts lead us to their audience: a digitally native generation. One that has grown up living and breathing digital to the extent that they don’t know what ‘online’ is because they’re never offline. However what might be the repercussions of this new form of regular broadcast consumption?
Are these influencers our new editors of choice? If the ‘stars of Youtube’ have become a fixed part of young people’s watching habits, should there not be more responsibility, and less of the make-up how to videos? Do we run the risk of creating an even more vacuous generation unless we impose journalizing and broadcasting guidelines like those in children’s terrestrial TV?
We began the discussion at Holler Transmission by cutting straight to the heart of the matter, chatting to a ‘future broadcaster’ himself. Jim Chapman has been around for a while, slowly gaining fans, renown and the attention of brands desperate to hit a big, impressionable pocket of consumers. He’s personable, funny, and definitely savvy as to the role that he plays.
Jim is aware that keeping his “brand” fresh and relevant is of importance.
After providing an insight into what it means to be a Youtuber, he started to discuss whether there should be a level of responsibility in the videos he puts out to hundreds of thousands of people. Should more be done to help educate his audience, to help convey messages that they might not be getting otherwise in their self-selected content schedules? Jim admitted he hasn’t really done much in this vein before. People looking to transmit a valuable message have approached him – i.e. charities & government initiatives – but he’s been unable to find one that is right for him.
It slightly worries Babita that sometimes content is out there and is not being balanced very much.
WUpon the mention of government messages, Rick Edwards was quick to jump in and discuss the issue of getting young people to vote: "In 2010, only 44% of 18-24 year olds voted, and actually there wasn't a direct line of communication, a platform with which you could speak to that demographic. (TV has for a long time been famously struggling to reach that group) Now, through YouTube, we do know that they are watching content from people they really like. It raises the question, should those people be getting involved in putting out [certain] messages? There's an opportunity there to speak to those people who feel disenfranchised."
However at the same time, Rick realised that encouraging/forcing people like Jim to put out these messages isn’t necessarily the solution due to the issue of credibility: "People like particular people on YouTube because of their authenticity and honesty. What wouldn't work is if someone just approached them about something they weren't into. That would compromise their individual brand and the message itself. You need to find people who have the platform and also care about what the issue is".
A fairly straightforward sentiment that was echoed by Lucy: “It has to be something that they give a shit about.” Jim added: "I was approached by a campaign recently and turned it down because, quite frankly, I didn't know anything about it...you need someone who has an interest in it. Although I could potentially reach millions of people, it would mean nothing because I wouldn't have any interest in it...you have to find the right person".
However, if they’re getting such great 6-figure reach, perhaps these internet celebrities shouldn’t have a choice. If they don’t ‘give a shit about’ an issue that is deemed important to their audience, then their responsibility could in fact be to start taking an interest in it.
Sometimes there is the sense that these Youtubers should be allowed to put out whatever they want and shouldn’t have to compromise with videos their fans won’t like. However back in the day TV programmers weren’t allowed to put out whatever they wanted, due to regulations. And if the behavioural shift is from TV to YT, should it work similarly? As for maintaining credibility in front of their Youtube audience, Rick admits that the challenge for Youtubers is to “weave [a message] into what they are doing everyday.” When it comes down to it, Jim says the reason his fans follow him is because of him, who he is, his personality. He might not care about politics, but a video of him exploring a new topic, done in the right way, is surely something his audience will still like because it has him at the heart of it.
Babita Sharma made the valid point “But what if [Jim] gets it wrong?”, bringing about another topic – whether there should be regulation with Youtubers’ videos.
The regulation in traditional broadcasting was compared to Youtubers being loosely monitored by their agents.
Babita and Rick drew upon their experience broadcasting with the BBC and Channel 4 to highlight how many regulative layers there are in producing TV content, as opposed to with Jim where it is “just him”. Jim even mentioned that it hasn’t really worked when he’s done TV in the past exactly because of these layers. In terms of his Youtube content being regulated, Jim described how he only really faces a bit of loose monitoring by his agent Lucy. She clarifies: “The only time we get involved is if they are doing something really stupid. Most of the time…we don’t know what they’re going to film, they just do it, it gets uploaded and we don’t see it. If we got involved it would ruin the magic.”
Lucy also says that it’s often up to the talent she manages to ring and ask whether what they are about to do/film/tweet is a bad idea. Jim acknowledges the personal responsibility as a result: “I’m expressing my opinion to potentially millions of people and if I happen to get it wrong or say something that isn’t quite PC it falls on my head.” (And it of course potentially influences millions of people in a negative way)
An interesting question that this brings about is: who would even be the ones in charge of regulating Jim’s content? Youtube? The government? A separate body? A similar case arose earlier this year when campaigners called for someone to enforce stricter online advertising rules after junk food ads were found appearing before vloggers’ videos. Surely the same can be said about the content itself as well as the ads that appear before it?
Overall, the Transmission panel were in agreement that we wouldn’t want a situation where these Youtube broadcasters had their creativity limited and restricted as a result of responsibility and/or regulation. However, they also felt it was a little reckless not to consider the nature of this content and the repercussions its wide reach might have. Though this episode of Transmission left us with as many questions as it did answers, it was still a brilliant insightful chat with the people that particularly matter in this field. We look forward to seeing how the future plays out…
Thanks to: everyone that came down, our brilliant panellists, the Hoxton Hotel for having us, Somethinksounds for their quality music, and our drinks sponsors Heineken, Alska Cider, Havana Club and Vita Coco. Look out for details on the next Holler Transmission…