Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Rise Of The Streampunks

How YouTube and its stars are driving a revolution in media

first published in The Star, 07 November 2017

This book made me feel old and question what I'm doing with my life. Understandable, I suppose, as it's mostly about the new stars of online video, many of whom are millennials and Gen-Xers—dubbed "streampunks" by Robert Kyncl (pronounced "kin-sil"), chief business officer at YouTube.

Written by Kyncl with Google writer Maany Peyvan, Streampunks tells how a bunch of creators and entrepreneurs used YouTube to do their thing and transform how media works. The book also highlights the tactics they've used, the challenges they have faced, and what their success means for the future of media.

Kyncl and Peyvan set the mood by contrasting the barren media landscape that is the Czechoslovakia that Kyncl grew up in, with scenes from the YouTube Creators Summit in New York in the present day. The latter is attended not by greying guys in sharp suits, but youngish-looking people in "the rarest sneakers", "the sharpest athleisure", or just jeans and T-shirts, many of whom have tattoos or dyed hair.

And yet, there is an "overwhelming sense of respect as they exchange greetings with their peers from around the world", the authors note. Perhaps, above all, the people in that space are those who seem to be doing what they've always wanted to do, from vloggers (video bloggers) and beauty gurus to chefs and gamers.

How is it possible for these people to earn a living and achieve fame rivalling that of Hollywood stars, to have a global audience of millions and gain influence the likes of which big brand names would splurge for, by just being themselves and doing what they love?

Kyncl would probably say "YouTube", which would be a gross oversimplification. When TV was king, the authors argue, a small group of executives determined what got aired and what didn't—subsequently deciding who got the limelight and who didn't. With online video, that power has shifted to the audience, whose interests "are far more diverse and unique than those execs ever imagined".

So it turns out that many out there are interested in quilting, as demonstrated by the story of Jenny Doan from Hamilton, Missouri, the United States, whose YouTube quilting tutorials made her the Julia Child of the craft and brought her quilt company and her town global fame.

Other chapters tell of the rise of other personalities who built their brands on the platform. There's Lilly Singh, a.k.a. "Superwoman", who created that geography video for racists; vloggers Hank and John Green, the latter many would know as the author of young adult fiction bestsellers like The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns; Shane Smith, CEO and cofounder of Vice Media; and talent manager Scooter Braun, who brought the world Justin Bieber and made Psy's "Gangnam Style" as hot as Shin Ramyun instant noodles.

More than a collection of success stories, however, this book can be considered a primer for aspiring streampunks in how the stories are stitched together. Besides sharing some tricks of the trade, the authors make a good case for their subjects' bright futures, dropping names and lobbing figures to fortify their arguments.

But behind the six-figure subscriber counts and slick online clips is a lot of hard work, passion and perseverance. Hints of that are sprinkled throughout, but it's the title of the eighth chapter, "The Struggle is Real", that drives it home.

The cost of being "real" and independent is constant engagement with the audience, while coming up with new ideas, and learning to shoot better videos ... imagine doing all that and more for years before one's big break.

That's a lot of time and money spent, not to mention crappy clips, at least in the early stages. The issue of revenue is also looked at, spliced between accounts of the births of crowdfunding platform Patreon and premium service YouTube Red (which is not available in Malaysia when this was written).

One thing that's only briefly touched on and perhaps more suitable for discussion in other books is the potential downsides of online fame, as illustrated by the posting of anti-Semitic content in 2017 by Felix Kjellberg, a.k.a. PewDiePie. Also, what to make of recent outbursts (which might have emerged before the book went to print) by some YouTubers against the platform's alleged demonetisation of videos that it considers not ad-friendly?

And just because there are YouTube videos of how braces are fastened doesn't mean one can watch those and start practising orthodontics. Even cooking videos and recipes don't always yield perfect results when followed faithfully.

On the whole, Streampunks paints bright picture of an emerging new media landscape powered by a growing horde of video wizards who are coming up with innovative ways to tell and share stories in an engaging and authentic manner.

As such, the overall tone for this book is quite rah-rah, no surprise considering who the authors are. Whether it's because they sound genuine about what they feel for these streampunks and the future of new media or that Kyncl works for YouTube—or both—is best left to the reader to decide.

But no one should deny that a revolution is happening in media.

An edit has been made to this version, for clarity.

YouTube and the Rebels Remaking Media

Robert Kyncl with Maany Peyvan
Harper Business
288 pages
ISBN: 978-0-06-265773-2


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