A YouTube State of Mind: Why You Can’t Stop Watching Vloggers

Almost 5 billion videos are watched on Youtube every single day. Not just a fad with 13-year-old girls, vlogging has experienced a huge surge in popularity over the last 5-10 years, and the epidemic has spoken to all ages, all genders, and all races – people from far and wide – because it speaks to our very human nature. 

We can’t resist a bit of self-comparison, it’s in our DNA

In 2009, YouTube was in its infancy, and a young Alfie Deyes became one of the first to forge the social media sensation that is vlogging. In his own words, he says the growing popularity of vlogging comes from our fundamental curiosity around the lives of others: “I think it’s just that nosy instinct we all have; being able to look into someone else’s life that you might not be able to meet, or know, or touch in person.”

It makes sense; vlogs are essentially a video diary. Who could resist the temptation to pour over the pages of someone else’s diary if it was offered to us on a platter? It’s through no fault of our own, and it’s no accident. We are wired to compare ourselves to others, a fact which has been extensively studied in psychology. Social comparison theory, initially proposed by social psychologist Leon Festinger in 1954, states that we determine our own social and personal worth based on how we stack up against others. As a result, we are constantly evaluating ourselves and others across a variety of domains such as attractiveness, wealth, intelligence, and success – traits which many YouTube celebrities undoubtedly have.

Speaking to Social Chain CEO, Steven Bartlett, Deyes revealed that some of his biggest fans are not 13-year-old girls, but middle-aged businessmen who have told him that his carefree videos provide them with a sense of release at the end of a chaotic day in the Big Smoke. But although these videos might offer a therapeutic benefit initially, when we tune in day after day to lose ourselves in someone else’s life, especially when we are unhappy with our own, it can become a dangerous addiction.

A 12-step programme, but for social media?

Because of the nature of daily vlogs, filmed in POV format, it genuinely feels like we’re a part of their world – which makes it all too easy to dissociate from our real lives. Every day, 30 million people are electing to live vicariously through the Alfie Deyes’ and the Zoe Sugg’s of the world. We long for the unrealistic happiness that social media portrays. That’s the dangerous part, as envy has been known to cause emotional stress and dissatisfaction with one’s own life, even leading to mental illnesses such depression and anxiety in some cases.

Bartlett says: “I genuinely believe that social media is one of the biggest causes of mental health issues amongst our generation. I genuinely believe there’s no generation that’s going to have mental health issues quite like ours – because the platforms are built by design like a drug to make you come back repeatedly.”

The developers of social platforms have even admitted as much. Sean Parker, ex-president of Facebook and self-proclaimed ‘conscientious objector’ of social media, said: “The thought process that went into building these applications was all about: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’ It’s a social-validation feedback loop; exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology. The inventors, creators – me, Mark [Zuckerberg], Kevin Systrom on Instagram, all of these people – understood this consciously. And we did it anyway.”

Vloggers don’t speak like you and me – something audiences are recognising and responding to

Speech pathologist and PhD candidate, Erin Hall, argues that the secret to vlogging’s success lies in their unique style of communication. Vloggers emphasise their words in the same way news anchors and reality TV stars do, which is not something often seen in linear television, or regular speech for that matter. Because of that, we’re able to fully absorb what they’re saying and it becomes a truly immersive experience. Hall explains: “The actual segments they’re using – the vowels and consonants – are being over-enunciated compared to casual speech, which is something newscasters or radio personalities do. Even if what they’re saying is standard, adding a different kind of intonation makes it more engaging to listen to.”

Vlogging could certainly be deemed the modern day reality TV, except with the convenience of the digital world – yet another appeal. You can watch whenever you want to watch, and because these vloggers are taking their audiences so deep that they feel emotionally invested in the content, we come back to watch the next day the same way we check in with a friend or relative to see how they’re doing.

The good news: it’s not all doom and gloom

“The powerful thing about the YouTube community and social media as a whole, is that the audience is picking who they’re making popular”, says Deyes. It could be that part of vloggers’ popularity is the fact that audiences who have been watching YouTubers since the early days of 2009 feel a sense of ownership over their channel, almost as if they’ve had a part to play in their success. Just scroll the comments section and you’ll see viewers expressing their pride in how far said vlogger has come – and they should know, they’ve been watching them grow up on screen, every day, for years. It is that unique connection that’s stayed with the creator and with the follower which has forged such monumental success for this form of media.

This sense of community has also provided a strong counter-argument to the idea that social media has been detrimental to our mental health. Through open dialogue with their audiences, vloggers have become extremely self-aware and now understand both the part they play in our mental health and the importance of talking about these issues – and it’s a well-known fact that communication and transparency are key in mental health recovery.

Alex Ayin, Group Business Director at Social Chain, says that although social media has undoubtedly altered our psychological patterns and behaviours, we can’t turn back the clock. “It’s very difficult with social – you can’t switch it off,” says Alex. “So it begs the question: how can we deal with it now? It comes down to educating people on dopamine, how the brain works, understanding your own emotions and, in turn, your own limits.”

Alex has a point: YouTube is already an established part of society. Going cold turkey isn’t an option. But if we can properly educate ourselves and use the YouTube community to open up discussions around these issues, perhaps we can change this narrative into a more positive one. It isn’t an option vloggers are unaware of; recently there has been an increase in videos where internet celebrities address this very subject – including the likes of Zoella, Caspar Lee and PewDiePie, to name a few. If we keep heading in that direction, perhaps the YouTubers of tomorrow could lead us down a path to recovery.

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