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Why do you keep watching that crazy vlogger? Have you been sniffing the wine bottle cork? (Part 1)

During the past six months we have cancelled our contract for live TV, and are now only watching certain online news and information channels on YouTube and elsewhere, and movie channels such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. I had had enough of what I call “useless TV”. Switching to watching only online channels means that I find myself in the middle of what is a burgeoning industry: the monetizing of shared online video contents through video channels (vlogging), podcasts, vodcasts, educational videos, live streaming of events, etc. The idea behind every one of these channels or platforms is to make money from the number of likes and subscribers. And there is as much good contents online as there is terrible contents. In the next few posts, I will be taking a critical look at a few online video channels and asking the question, is that channel a good information source or not?

Anyone can be a vlogger, unfortunately

It could happen to you that your 14-year-old will tell you they want to become a YouTube star or an Instagram Influencer or a TikTok dance star and skip college or training. Combined with job losses, quarantining and increased working from home arrangements due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the online video industry has grown by leaps and bounds way beyond online gaming. Online video is now a career goal and a dominant communication medium and channel. People are stuck at home. They are either watching other people present information or doing it themselves. With technology easily available, it is possible to create videos for these channels by yourself, in your home, at a low cost. Unfortunately, the results are often irritatingly bad. Many videos are filmed using hand-held cameras or even phones, and they suck. Many presenters have a face for radio, making video appearances less appealing, but they don’t have a good radio voice either.

I have noticed that the quality of online video clips varies wildly and widely. The quality of the content is determined by two things; 1) the production values, and 2) the knowledge and skills of the vlogger (video web logger), the writer, producer or presenter (sometimes these are one and the same.)

Professionals? What professionals?!

“Many of these vloggers are a part of the YouTube Partner Program, which professionalizes the industry and allows for monetary gain from video production. This professionalization additionally helps increase exposure to various channels as well as creates a sense of stability within the field. Additionally, this professionalization allows content creators to be deemed a credible source by their viewers. Furthermore, many vloggers have been able to turn their channels into sustainable careers; in 2013, the highest paid vlogger brought in a minimum of $720,000 for the year.” (Source: Wikipedia)

Profits can be made, if you are professional

At the end of 2019, these were the highest-paid YouTubers of all time, according to CNBC:

  • Dude Perfect – $20 million
    • Dude Perfect is the channel of multinational sports entertainment conglomerate company headquartered in Frisco, Texas, United States. The group consists of Garrett Hilbert, aged 33; twins Cory & Coby Cotton, aged 33; Cody Jones, aged 32; and Tyler Nathan “Ty” Toney, aged 31, all of whom are former college roommates at Texas A&M University. The channel started with videos of trick shots in 2009, and now consists mainly of videos of games, challenges and contests.
  • Anastasia Radzinskaya – $18 million
    • Anastasia Radzinskaya, born January 27, 2014, is a six-year old Russian-American girl, known as Nastya, who stars in multi-lingual YouTube channels aimed at children. The channel, Like Nastya, mostly shows colourful videos of Nastya, who does not speak, playing with her father and trying out toys to a background track of children’s giggles and cute sounds. Like Nastya has more than 59 million subscribers and is produced by her parents, Anastasia Radzinskaya and Sergey Radzinsky who manage six channels which run under a Yoola global YouTube multi-channel network agreement. So, strictly speaking, her parents made millions, not her.
  • Rhett and Link – $17.5 million
    • The American comedy duo consisting of Rhett McLaughlin and Charles Lincoln “Link” Neal III, both aged 42, is known for creating and hosting the YouTube series Good Mythical Morning. They have 10 YouTube channels, which consists of humour, guest talks, social commentary and experiments. The channel Rhett and Link has 4.94 million subscribers. The channel Good Mythical Morning first aired on YouTube on January 9, 2012, and continues to be uploaded every weekday. As of July 2020, the show has seventeen seasons and has 16.5 million subscribers. McLaughlin and Neal have written a book based on their show, called Rhett and Link’s Book of Mythicality.
  • Jeffree Star – $17 million
    • Jeffrey Lynn Steininger Jr., 34 years old, known professionally as Jeffree Star, is an American entrepreneur, YouTuber and singer, and the founder and owner of Jeffree Star Cosmetics. His YouTube channel is about cosmetics, beauty and make-up tutorials.
  • Preston – $14 million
    • Preston Blaine Arsement, 26 years old (also known as PrestonPlayz, PrestonGamez, and TBRNFrags) is an American YouTuber, known for his variety of content including challenge and prank videos, as well as his Minecraft, Fortnite, and Roblox e-gaming content.
  • PewDiePie; Markiplier – $13 million 
    • Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg, aged 30, better known online as PewDiePie (or Pewds for short, formerly Pewdie), is a Swedish YouTuber, comedian, vlogger, gamer, and co-founder of Tsuki Market. His YouTube channel, started in 2010, originally became well-known for his horror game play-throughs and reactions. He is notorious for his freestyle/skit humour, vlogs, satirical commentary, and meme, film and video game reviews.
  • Markiplier – $13 million 
    • Mark Edward Fischbach, aged 31, known online as Markiplier, is an American YouTuber, gamer-commentator, actor, and comedian. Originally from Honolulu, Hawaii, he began his career in Cincinnati, Ohio, and is currently based in Los Angeles, California. As of June 2020, his channel has over 13.3 billion total video views and over 26 million subscribers. Fischbach specializes in “Let’s Play” videos, commonly of survival horror video games.

Note how long and how extensively these top-earning YouTubers have been vlogging. Except for six-year-old Nastya, they are in their late twenties and thirties, and have been at it for decades. Their tenacity and experience in their niche markets are making them successful and making them money.

The top trending videos on Aug. 21, 2020 on YouTube; Punjabi Saga Music – released 20 hours ago and already has 5.4 million views!; a new release of the Call of Duty Black Ops video game and the new accommodation of the professional Fortnite video game team (a.k.a. e-sports); a stupid challenge; news about racism; a new song by Billie Eilish; and a British soap opera about the royal family. Gosh. Not exactly rocket science, is it?

There is a world of difference between a channel with a growing and sustained subscriber base that adheres to certain standards, and trending videos that may have millions of views but are once-offs and not part of a channel or series. It takes talent, knowledge and skills to be a professional vlogger and make money from it – and keep making money from it.

I do not think that joining YouTube’s Partner Program “professionalizes” the vlogging industry, particularly if someone comes into the program with no prior training or experience (as opposed to the top earners, above).

Someone who is on this program may be a film-making guru, sharing their expertise, but they could also be making a living from posting pointless videos of pranks or stunts. Professionals earn their living from a specialized activity, which requires specific education and training in that activity that act as barriers to entry in that profession. That’s basically it – there are barriers to entry and challenges to becoming a professional.

An electrician, for example, needs specific qualifications and credentials. If they do not have it, they cannot practice as an electrician. If they do, heaven knows what damage they can cause. Most professionals are subject to strict codes of conduct, standards of practice and ethics. For instance, a construction foreman has a responsibility to ensure that the work done on the construction site meets the building codes and standards. If he lets this slip, the building could collapse. Some people who operate video channels are no more qualified for the job than a cat is qualified to make coffee. And many are not professionals, judging by the production values and contents of their channels.

What does this mean for companies that deliver professional services, for instance engineering design or engineering studies, or offer Qualified Person services in Geology or Metallurgy? The marketing and business development staff of these companies might want to climb onto the social media bandwagon and follow the trend to have a YouTube channel or get their message across with videos.  They will have no shortage of subject matter or messages, but they will have to invest in software, generate original source material by the boatload, and work out a program to train and use their subject matter experts as “talking heads”. It will take a lot of time and money.  And then they have to consider whether they want to be on a platform like YouTube, considering the company they will be keeping. As true professionals, do they want to play in the same space as the frivolous amateurs?

Now that you’re a vlogger, the following applies…

The irony is that, in the process of “sharing” or “broadcasting” information, and getting paid to do so, vloggers become subject to the same rules and regulations that apply to traditional news publishers and broadcasters and other communication professionals. Not only do they have to do their own fact-checking and provide information that is balanced, and they have to be aware of the limitations with regard to:

  • advertising
  • contracts
  • libel
  • slander
  • false evidence
  • misinformation
  • limitations on disclosure
  • all the “-isms”
  • class actions, and
  • personal damages

For instance, there are regulations and laws that paid vloggers have to take into account with regard to advertising. It’s a long list, much of it relating to contract law. (Source: Caroline swain, Senior Associate, Charles Russell Speechlys Lawyers, Vlogging: the legal issues, Feb. 28, 2017, rtrvd. from 2020-08-21)

Even if vloggers know that specific laws apply to them, few could, like Sacha Baron Cohen for his 2009 mockumentary comedy Brüno, afford to employ an entire team of lawyers, including one with specific expertise in Arkansas laws. I guess most of them do not think about these things. I’m just waiting for the day that someone decides to take a vlogger to court. Oh, hang on, that’s already happened…just Google it and you’ll see.

Why do people like crazy, loud stuff?

The reason why vloggers gain subscribers, followers and likes despite spouting nonsense and being neither professional nor credible, is that humans prefer to not think deeply. Humans are “cognitive misers”, to quote Dr. Gad Saad, an evolutionary psychologist. Humans prefer responding to peripheral or emotional cues rather than more challenging cognitive cues, especially when their brains are still developing and they are particularly affected by rushes of dopamine. He illustrates this pervasive cognitive bias with the example of someone getting drunk simply from sniffing the cork of a bottle of wine.

“A pervasive cognitive bias one that I have alluded to in the past is getting drunk by smelling the cork of the wine bottle. Many people become ‘drunk’ [are taken in] by useless peripheral cues and it doesn’t take much to convince them of any imbecilic position that they could take. Charlatans are very good at getting you drunk by simply smelling the cork of the wine bottle. In many cases people use peripheral cues, meaning cosmetic cues (represented by the cork of the wine bottle), and arriving at a judgment, rather than substantive cues (the wine itself).

“For example if you decide that you’re going to buy a product because an attractive endorser is using it, that is a peripheral cue. The company is not convincing you that product A is better than product B – they are simply saying; a beautiful person is using it, shouldn’t you as well? Companies use these types of persuasion strategies but in this case it’s a cognitive bias – because if I get drunk by simply smelling the cork from the wine bottle I am effectively communicating that it doesn’t take much to b***s*** me. […]

“People go on aesthetic – meaning peripheral – cues, and arriving at judgments because people are cognitive misers. They want to use quick strategies to arrive at a conclusion. And so if you simply speak to them with a mellifluous voice, if you smile if you use the cadence of a preacher, it doesn’t matter what you say. What matters is how you say it – cosmetics over substance. It doesn’t matter how much of a sophisticated intellectual you are, you could become parasitized by the cork bias, whereby you are enamoured by astonishingly vacuous platitudes that literally carry the semantic meaning of the drivel of a newborn pigeon.

“There are times when it makes perfect evolutionary sense for your emotional system to be engaged but there are other times when it makes perfect sense for your cognitive system to be engaged. We have both systems for a clear evolutionary set of reasons. What you don’t want to do is get drunk by the smell of the cork of the wine bottle, when you should be taking time to actually drink the wine in the bottle.” (Transcript of Episode 1112, Aug.18, 2020, of Gad Saad’s YouTube channel, The Saad Truth, based on his forthcoming book, The Parasitic Mind: How Infectious Ideas Are Killing Common Sense, Regnery Publishing, Oct. 6 2020)

How to really judge online videos

Indeed, Prof. Saad’s explanation supports the statement by YouTube that “professionalization allows content creators to be deemed a credible source by their viewers”. In other words, people are looking at a video without the usual blatant production errors, reading the aesthetic cues in other words, and coming to the conclusion that the information must be credible and that the source must be knowledgeable. They are happily drunk on the wine corks. Have you noticed lately how many websites and social media platforms are dedicated to cute animals, photos of pretty places, bottled philosophies and easy aphorisms?  That’s because people really prefer to deal with nice, easy things, rather than unpleasant, contradictory, complicated things.

We all have this cognitive bias, therefore all consumers of online video content – all online content actually – should take a pause and think about the substance of the information:

  • Where did they get that statement?
  • What is the source?
  • Who is saying this?
  • Who is publishing this? (Follow the money!)
  • What are they not saying?
  • Are they over-emphasizing the aesthetics over the facts of the contents?
  • Which traps of unprofessionalism have they fallen into?\

If, after all that, you still believe that the channel is good, then go ahead and click that subscribe button and give it a thumbs-up.

In the next post: Vloggers that pass the cognitive analysis tests – Vetting the Vloggers (Part 2)

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