As part of Internet Week NY, I sat down with online video pioneers Hannah Hart (My Drunk Kitchen), Michael Buckley (What the Buck), and Grace Helbig (Daily Grace) to chat about how YouTube has changed over the years, creating authentic audience engagement, and to offer their advice on how Oprah could better take advantage of YouTube to help OWN and maintain the power of her brand in the new media age.
There's a definite showdown happening between traditional and new media in the online entertainment space, with Internet celebrities building loyal followings and older outlets figuring out how to use these digital tools.
A veteran by now, Michael Buckley -- who began making videos in 2006 and has since garnered over 1 million YouTube subscribers -- traces the development of online entertainment. "I remember when I was on a panel in 2008, I said, 'I make a living doing this' and the whole room burst into applause. They couldn't fathom that people were making a living and making money on the Internet. Now there's thousands of people who are full-time YouTube partners and content creators."
So, why is it that people so willing to engage with YouTube-born personalities?
"I think it comes from having a very particular point of view and voice that people want to watch," offers Grace Helbig -- whose Daily Grace channel has over 170,000 subscribers and 26 million views. "You watch The Bachelorette because it's a very specific style of programming. And you watch Mad Men because it's a very specific style of programming. So you watch vloggers for a very specific voice, tone, point of view, experience, and opinion. I think that's what people turn in for."
The lifestyle -- and all agree that it is a lifestyle choice -- of a full time YouTuber requires a lot of hard work and a willingness to throw caution to the wind.
Hannah Hart's show came out of nowhere, for example. Formerly employed as a translator, she made the inaugural My Drunk Kitchen video as a joke for a friend, and now, a year later, she's a full-time YouTuber, with over 250,000 subscribers. After receiving some overwhelming feedback from unexpected viewers, she decided to run with the idea. "It went from 'Whoops!' to 'No, I'm very proud of my content.'"
Such success proves that viewers flock to this raw and honest energy, giving YouTube stars the kind of audience engagement that traditional media is scrambling to understand.
Buckley says that while traditional media loves throwing numbers and dollars signs in your face, online entertainment is a different playing field. And if you ask any top YouTuber, "We just love making videos and we're so lucky to be doing it. And it's really that simple."
As Helbig puts it: "Your audience is so strong and dedicated because they feel like they're in your house, hanging out with you."
But there are risks that come with this, as Hart knows from experience. After recently cutting her hair, some of her viewers were thrown off guard. "A lot of YouTubers that I know are terrified to change their looks."
This is curiously characteristic of old media pressures, showcasing the tension in mapping traditional values and expectations onto new media content providers. And now, Hollywood is seriously looking to claim the space with the introduction of YouTube premium channels.
Buckley shares his take on the irony of it all. "When I was starting in '06, everybody thought, 'Well, you must want to be on TV,' and I just fell in love with being on the Internet. So now it's funny that they all want to be on the Internet."
Hart says that she's avoided taking My Drunk Kitchen onto an older platform. "It's not traditional-style show. It wouldn't work. In meetings, people would say, 'Well, you can't actually get drunk.' And I'd be like, 'Well, then we can't actually do this show.'"
So, as long as our beloved weblebrities are here to stay -- what's next?
Helbig points out that no one could've predicted that they're where they are right now -- so who's to know really? "I might get a different camera. I'll probably get another hard drive ... I might get a haircut at some point."
We can only hope that the coming year has such excitement in store.
Follow Hannah Hart on Twitter and check out what's cookin' at My Drunk Kitchen.
Follow Michael Buckley on Twitter and keep up with What the Buck.
Follow Grace Helbig on Twitter and get your dose of Daily Grace.
Follow Shira Lazar on Twitter: www.twitter.com/shiralazar