I work in online teen television which loosely translates to “I produce YouTube videos for a living.” It’s a nice gig! You meet lots of young, cool kids with big followings. Some are great, some are not. Such is life!
The one weird thing about them is that it is an underground world of celebrity, something that might look like a rock on the outside but is actually a complicated, sparkly crystals that all believe they are the most special on the inside. You might not even get it when you’re inside but you definitely have a lot to explore in a community mostly populated by people whose mean age is 16 and who only want photos with each other.
The most fascinating thing about this online community is that they, like us non-famous Internet users, have meltdowns related to online personas. When I was eleven through sixteen, my email was firstname.lastname@example.org. I later switched it to email@example.com because I wanted something edgier. At 18, I realized it was all fucking stupid and transferred everything over to the ubiquitous and professional Gmail that I have now. Even this past year I did another online image refresh. No one cares what you do, dude.
But imagine going through that email change or AIM name change or even a Twitter name change but trying to migrate millions of people with you instead of the five people who have your email address: that must be a lot of work. That’s what happened when beauty vlogger SierraMarieMakup turned into Sierra Furtado. A similar transition is happening with Amanda Steele, who is going away from beauty and into acting. Connor Franta is going through it too, getting more musical and gay instead of awkward teen sexy. This is exactly why Kian Lawley made a horror movie, why Jenn McAllister and Lauren Elizabeth are making comedies, why Hannah Hart, Grace Helbig, and Mamrie Hart are on to their second movie, and why the dudes of Smosh tried to blow up the box office.
So what happens when a young online person rejects going onward and upward, jumping offline and into “Hollywood”? You get something like Essena O’Neill’s online undoing. Her launch of Let’s Be Game Changers and the deleting her famous Instagram is a loud, clear sign that she’s changing her email address. Don’t call her a lifestyle, beauty Instagrammer / Youtuber anymore: call her a thinker, an activist, an agent of change. She is switching up her brand louder than anyone else has, losing and gaining fans as a result.
These name switches and brand changes by YouTubers is usually a small news but, since real life is high school and teenage YouTube is also high school, people are reacting to her anti-social media usage of social media with critiques. Former public friends and other voices in the community are coming out against her, calling her a fake and saying she’s doing what she’s always done but reshaped as “activism.” Interesting because, um, it is the same thing and, um, everyone is interested in her so everyone will be interested in hating her, dissecting her every move, when she’s just switching her embarrassing email address that she didn’t realize was embarrassing until now. Yes, the manner of delivery was very heavy handed and annoying but that’s what’s happening.
(And since I work producing these kids, this was all handled so poorly and so brilliantly. There could have been a more succinct, eloquent way of doing this—but it did put a big dent in social circles, getting people online talking. That’s a win. Unfortunately, the fallout has been handled poorly, thanks to slightly lazy and dragging on Vimeo posts. Someone needs to step in and keep her on her new brand.)
That’s the funny thing about the Internet and this (YouTube) world I somehow ended up working in: these young people make a living by literally living everything online so, when they want to change a part of their online life, everyone sees that small newsbite and explodes it into something much bigger than it is. Thus, O’Neill’s saga: she’s having an offline teenage meltdown online, for everyone to see, at a crossover moment where adult Internet and kid Internet converge. Will she come out on top? She’ll probably break even. But everyone else in this “world”? We now have an idea of what else is to come from them: aging online, in the public, trying to turn their online presence into something not embarrassing with the switch of a handle.
Expect to see a lot more of this.