In the first days of social media, to build a personal brand online you mostly just needed a basic working knowledge of html. In 2022, however, the influencer marketing industry’s reach is estimated at around $16.4 billion. With so much money to be made, it’s little wonder that an entire support ecosystem has sprung up to help get the next generation of PewDiePies camera-ready. In the excerpt below from her new book examining the culture and business of online influencing, Break the Internet, Olivia Yallop enrolls in a summer gaming influencer camp for teens.

Break the Internet Cover
Scribe US

Excerpted from Break the Internet: In Pursuit of Influence by Olivia Yallop. Published by Scribe UK. Copyright © 2022 by Olivia Yallop. All rights reserved.

Beginning the course bright and early on a Monday morning in August stirs memories from classrooms past, as the students — myself, plus a small group of animated pre-teen boys hailing from across the UK — go around and make our introductions: an interesting fact about ourselves, our favourite foods, two truths and a lie. A pandemic-proofed schedule means we are learning remotely, in my case prostrated on my parents’ sofa. Once logged on, we meet our course coach Nathan, an upbeat, relentlessly patient Scottish instructor with a homegrown YouTube channel of his own, on which he reviews electronic synthesisers and (he reveals privately to me) vlogs whisky-tasting.

Twenty minutes into our induction, I realise I am already out of my depth: I have accidentally landed in a class of aspiring YouTube gamers. Within the influencer landscape, gaming is a microcosm complete with its own language and lore, each new game franchise spawning an expansive universe of characters, weaponry, codes, and customs. Whilst the students are happily chatting multiplayer platform compatibility, I am stealthily googling acronyms.

Far from the bedroom-dwelling pastime of the shy and socially reclusive, as it has been previously painted, gaming is a sprawling community activity on social media platforms. Over 200 million YouTube users watch gaming videos on a daily basis; 50 billion hours were viewed in 2018 alone, and two of the five largest channels on YouTube belong to gamers. And that’s just YouTube — the largest dedicated gamer streaming platform is Twitch, a 3.8m-strong community, which has an average of 83,700 synchronous streams — with 1.44 million viewers — taking place at any time.

Just a fraction of these numbers are users actually playing games themselves. Gaming content usually consists of viewing other people play: pre-recorded commentary following skilful players as they navigate their way through various levels or livestreamed screenshares to which viewers can tune in to watch their heroes play in real time. According to Google’s own data, 48 per cent of YouTube gaming viewers say they spend more time watching gaming videos on YouTube than actually playing games themselves.

If, like me, you find yourself wondering why, you’re probably in the wrong demographic. My classmate Rahil, a die-hard fan of Destiny 2, broke it down: ‘What makes these content creators so good is that they are very confident in what they do in gaming, but they are also funny, they are entertaining to watch. That’s why they have so many followers.’

Watching other people play video games is a way to level up your skills, engage with the community’s most hyped gaming rivalries, and feel connected to something beyond your console. Being a successful gaming influencer is also a way to get filthy rich. Video game voyeurism is a lucrative market, making internet celebrities of its most popular players, a string of incomprehensible handles that read to me like an inebriated keyboard smash but invoke wild-eyed delight in the eyes of my classmates: Markiplier, elrubiusOMG, JuegaGerman, A4, TheWillyrex, EeOneGuy, KwebbelKop, Fernanfloo, AM3NIC.

PewDiePie — aka 30-year-old Felix Kjellberg, the only gamer noobs like me have ever heard of — has 106m followers and is estimated to earn around $8 million per month, including more than $6.8 million from selling merchandise and more than $1.1 million in advertising. Blue-haired streamer Ninja, aka Detroit-born 29-year- old Tyler Blevins, is the most-followed gamer on Twitch, and signed a $30 million contract with Microsoft to game exclusively on their now- defunct streaming service Mixer. UK YouTube gaming collective The Sidemen upload weekly vlogs to their shared channel in which they compete on FIFA, mess around, prank each other, order £1,000 takeaways, and play something called ‘IRL Tinder’, living out the fever dream of a million teenage boys across the internet. For many tweens, getting paid to play as a YouTube gamer is a hallowed goal, and each of my classmates is keen to make Minecraft a full-time occupation. I decide to keep quiet about my abortive attempt at a beauty tutorial.

Class kicks off with an inspirational slideshow titled ‘INFLUENCERS: FROM 0 TO MILLIONS’. My laptop screen displays a Wall of Fame of top YouTubers smiling smugly to camera: OG American vlogger Casey Neistat, Canadian comedian Lilly Singh, PewDiePie, beauty guru Michelle Phan, and actor, activist, and author Tyler Oakley, each underlined by a subscriber count that outnumbers the population of most European countries. ‘Everyone started off where you are today,’ says Nathan enthusiastically. ‘A laptop and a smartphone — that’s all they had. Everybody here started with zero subscribers.’ The class is rapt. I try to imagine my own face smiling onscreen between professional prankster Roman Atwood (15.3m subscribers) and viral violin performer Lindsey Stirling (12.5m subscribers). Somehow, I can’t.

Nathan hits play on early comedy vlogger nigahiga’s first ever upload — a 2007 viral video sketch entitled ‘How to Be Ninja’ that now has 54,295,178 views — and then a later video from 2017, ‘Life of a YouTuber’. ‘Look at that — 21.5M subscribers!’ Nathan taps on the follower count under the video. ‘It didn’t happen overnight. It took a year, 12 months of putting up content with 50 views. Don’t get disheartened. Take every sub, every view as a…’ he mimes celebrating like the winner of a round of Fortnite.

Thanks to its nostalgic pixelation and condensed frame ratio, watching ‘How to Be Ninja’ creates the impression that we’re sitting in a history class studying archival footage from a distant past: Late Noughties Net Culture (2007, colourised). In a poorly lit, grainy home video that feels like a prelapsarian time capsule, two teenage boys act out a hammy sketch in which they transform into martial arts experts, including off-tempo miming, questionable jump cuts, and a tantalising glimpse of old-school YouTube — running on Internet Explorer — that flies over the heads of my Gen Z classmates. The sketch feels like two friends messing around with a camera at the weekend; it’s almost as if they don’t know they’re being watched.

In the second video an older and now more-polished Higa — complete with designer purple highlights in his hair — breezily addresses his multi-million-strong fanbase in a nine-minute HD monologue that’s punctuated by kooky 3D animation and links to his supporting social media channels. ‘I am in one of the final stages of my YouTube career,’ he says, ‘and my YouTube life, so …’ The camera cuts to reveal his extensive video set-up, professional lights, and a team of three clutching scripts, clipboards, cameras, and a boom mic behind the scenes, all celebrating exuberantly: ‘That means we can get out of here right?’ asks one. ‘Yeah, it’s really cramped back here…’ says another, ‘I have to poop so bad.’

‘What’s the difference between these two videos?’ Nathan prompts us. ‘What changed?’ The answers roll in quickly, students reeling off a list of ameliorations with ease: better lighting, better equipment, a better thumbnail, slicker editing, a more professional approach, background music, higher audio quality, and a naturalistic presentation style that at least appears to be ad-libbed.

‘What makes a good video more generally?’ asks Nathan. ‘What are the key elements?’ When he eventually pulls up the next slide, it turns out Nathan wants us to discuss passion, fun, originality, and creativity: but the class has other ideas. ‘I heard YouTube doesn’t like videos lower than ten minutes,’ offered Alex. ‘There’s many things that they don’t like,’ Lucas corrects him. ‘The algorithm is very complicated, and it’s always changing. They used to support “let’s plays” [a popular gaming stream format] back in 2018, and then they changed it, and a lot of Minecraft channels died.’ Rahil pipes up: ‘They find as many ways as possible to scrutinise your video … if you do many small things wrong, you get less money, even though YouTube is paid the same money by the advertisers. So you should never swear in your videos.’ ‘No, demonetisation is different,’ corrects Fred.

There is something fascinating and incongruous about watching pre-teens reel off the details of various influencer revenue models with the enthusiasm of a seasoned social media professional. The fluency with which they exchange terms I’m more accustomed to encountering on conference calls and in marketing decks is a startling reminder of the generational gulf between us: though they may be students, they’re not exactly beginners on the internet.

As the conversation quickly descends into technocratic one- upmanship, Nathan attempts to steer our analysis back to entry level. ‘Once you reach 1,000 subscribers,’ he enthusiastically explains to the class, ‘that means you can monetise your channel and have ads on it.’ A heated debate about the intricacies of YouTube monetisation ensues. Nathan is corrected by one of his students, before another pipes up to undercut them both, and suddenly everyone’s talking all at once: ‘Most YouTubers make money from sponsorships, not advertising revenue, anyway,’ offers one student. There is a pause. ‘And merch,’ he adds, ‘the MrBeast hoodies are really cool.’

‘Okay then,’ says Nathan brightly, shifting the slide forward to reveal a list of attributes for creating successful content that begins, ‘Attitude, Energy, Passion, Smile’, ‘what about some of these…’

Looking at my notes, I realise Nathan’s original question, ‘What makes a good video?’, has become something else entirely: what does YouTube consider to be a good video, and thus reward accordingly? It’s a small elision, admittedly, but significant; good is whatever YouTube thinks is good, and interpretations outside this algorithmic value system aren’t entertained. His prompt about creative possibilities has been heard as a question about optimising the potential of a commodity (the influencer) in an online marketplace. ‘It’s all about value,’ he continues, unwittingly echoing my thoughts, ‘what value does your video bring to the YouTube community? How are you going to stand out from all the other people doing it?’

This cuts to the heart of criticism against influencer training courses like this one, and others which have sprung up in LA, Singapore, and Paris in recent years: that it’s ethically inappropriate to coach young people to commodify themselves, that it’s encouraging children to spend more time online, that it’s corrupting childhoods. Influencers and industry professionals rolled their eyes or responded with a mixture of horror and intrigue when I’d mentioned the Fire Tech programme in passing. ‘That’s disgusting,’ said one agent, ‘way too young.’ (Privately, I thought this was an inconsistent position, given she represented a mumfluencer with a family of four.) ‘I respect it,’ said a Brighton-based beauty guru, ‘but I would never personally make that choice for my kids.’ ‘Crazy times we live in,’ offered a NYC-based fashion influencer, before admitting, ‘for real, though, I kind of wish I had had that when I was younger.’