/ 4 December 2008

Meet YouTube’s self-made superstars

The video-sharing website YouTube paused momentarily on its march towards global domination this weekend to celebrate those whose lives have been transformed by access to a computer and an unquenchable need to speak to the world.

An example is William Sledd, a former shop assistant at Gap, who has been catapulted to celebrity by the success of a few homemade videos in which he discusses the social mores and fashion mistakes of modern society. “This stuff is a lot easier to do when you are at home on your own,” he said, moving uneasily through the 3 000-strong audience as he introduced a fashion segment at YouTube Live. He was as stilted in the flesh as he is uninhibited in the short, funny films that are among the most watched on the site.

Sledd was one of the YouTube “stars” who gathered in San Francisco at the weekend for what the company described as a “celebration of … the vibrant communities that exist on the site, including bedroom vloggers, budding creatives, underground athletes and world-famous musicians”. Katy Perry, whose worldwide hit, I Kissed a Girl, first found an audience on YouTube, was there. So was Beardyman, the Brighton-based human beatbox, and Lucas Cruikshank, the 15-year-old creator of Fred, a hyperactive child whose adventures have made him the website’s most popular character.

Joining such luminaries were the great and good of YouTube: Chad Hurley, one of site’s originators, and Larry Page and Sergey Brin, founders of Google, which bought the company two years ago for more than $1,5-billion.

At this moment in its arc of internet domination there are plenty of people who dislike Google, and by extension YouTube, and any such antipathy would have been fuelled on an occasion such as this. It was too corporate and too slick, an Emmys for the Emo generation. What works in the intimate context of a video download — the sly campness of Sledd, the energy of Fred and the over-the-top guitar virtuosity of Funtwo, a Korean guitarist — seemed diminished in the large public gathering at San Francisco’s Herbst Pavilion.

Yet if the cynics were unimpressed, the converted were ecstatic to be in the presence of those they had come to know so well. The agnostics could hardly fail to notice that if YouTube Live was a bloodless affair, it did not diminish what remains a powerful idea.

Four years after YouTube was founded it is still some way short of making money for its owners. Google isn’t down to its last billion yet, so presumably it can continue to subsidise the site for as long as it takes to solve the conundrum of profitability. In the meantime, the rest of the world is free to enjoy the benefits of an anarchic marketplace where almost anyone with access to a computer has a voice.

YouTube has hundreds of rags-to-riches stories. Sledd was selling jeans in Kentucky before his Ask a Gay Man films catapulted him into the mainstream of American culture. Cruikshank was a precocious teenager with hopes of becoming a Hollywood actor. Last month 20th Century Fox hired him — or at least his character Fred — to promote a new film, City of Embers.

Juan Mann was another of the website’s stars who made the journey to San Francisco for YouTube Live. In 2004 Mann — not his real name — was, by his own account, aimless and friendless when he walked into Sydney’s Pitt Street shopping centre carrying a sign that announced he was offering free hugs to all comers. Two years later a film of his hugging escapades was uploaded on to the internet and quickly became a global phenomenon.

“One week I was washing dishes in Sydney, the next week I was on the Oprah Winfrey Show,” he said. “I have friends, I have a fiancee, I have a purpose. And I have never washed dishes since. Unless they were my own, of course.” —