Traffic flash lights of night view in front of RPC building.

Out with the new, in with the old?

16 June 2015

'The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – that you'd thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you've never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it's as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.'

Alan Bennett, The History Boys

My first moment like this took place when Miss Trunchbull said to Roald Dahl's Matilda 'I'm right and you're wrong. I'm big and you're small, and there's nothing you can do about it.' Aged six, a little precocious, and the youngest sibling in my family, I bubbled with frustration right alongside my fictional heroine. There have been many of these moments since, including a particularly melodramatic one during my hopelessly in love teenage years reading Wuthering Heights. Cathy says of Heathcliff, 'He's more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.' Cue the Donny Osmond music, please.

We all need our hands held sometimes, and stories have done this for millennia. However, a generation has now developed that looks for those hands to come out of a real-life person on a computer screen rather than a fictional person in the pages of a novel – I am talking about the world of YouTube. Yes, this simple video-sharing website is much more than a place to watch 'Charlie bit me'. It has spawned the peculiar species known as the YouTuber – someone who films themselves discussing particular topics and documents their life for viewers to watch. Yes, my Dad will never understand it either, but mention Zoella,Tanya Burr or Sprinkle of Glitter to a fifteen year old girl, and you can expect a response of such unconditional love that previously might have only been expected of Beatles fans.

But YouTubers are not international music stars – they are just like you and me. Take Zoella: her YouTube channel centres around her boyfriend and her puppy, details of her recent shopping purchases, make-up demonstrations and friendship quizzes. It is not exactly nuclear fission, but she has over 7 million subscribers and her videos have accumulated over 30 million views. She probably has greater personal impact than most politicians, and was named on the Debrett's Most Powerful list this year.

Speaking of powerful, you should see their relationship with their viewers, who flock to see them at festivals and roadshows. This admiration is not built on what viewers have learned about mascara, it's more about the underlying messages about body image, bullying, education, anxiety and relationships that YouTubers put across in their videos. OK, these 'moments' may not be quite as profound as those we experience reading Keats, but we shouldn't underestimate their power for young people, and YouTubers themselves certainly don't. In a recent interview with The Telegraph Zoella said 'I know that I do have influence over the people who watch me… I am mindful of the responsibilities that come with a substantial viewership'.

As you might expect, retail businesses have also been quick to realise the potential of the YouTube platform. Adverts before, during and next to YouTube videos can make big money for brands, as can formal endorsements from YouTubers. But there is also a lot of product review content on YouTube with no money changing hands behind it, so last year the Advertising Standards Agency sent out a message to YouTubers that they should tell their viewers upfront if a video is sponsored by a particular brand. The need for such guidelines demonstrates the financial power of this medium, never mind the ideological one.

So what about books? Well, books are the next Big Thing for YouTubers. In December last year Zoella's first novel Girl Online became the fastest selling novel since records began and Ella Woodward's debut vegan cookbook Deliciously Ella enjoyed nearly three months at the top of the bestseller list. Many others are following suit. But surely the point of YouTubers is that their medium is video? Why seek out opportunities in the print-publishing sector, which we were told was condemned to extinction?

A lot of it seems to do with legacy and longevity. Ella Woodward summarised that 'online is very transient; people only look at what happened recently', and Tanya Burr said '[Penguin] were the main publishing house I had heard of growing up… I just felt it would be so exciting to have my very own book published by them'. This is all part of the History Boys' adage: there is something about reading a book that makes you feel like you are engaging in a longer, deeper conversation. For readers, this is often a conversation with the book's characters and themes; but for writers, it is a conversation with other writers, and other generations of writers.

Forget seeing your name in lights – we still live in a world where seeing your name beneath the title of your book marks real success. That is quite a happy thought.

Rebecca Rose