What’s Happening to the First Generation of YouTube Creators?
During the summer of 2020, longtime YouTuber Shane Dawson was cancelled. Again. While the comedy-sketch-turned-documentary-maker has had to apologize for his racist and problematic content many times over the years, this may be one that sticks. He hasn’t posted a video since his apology in July, and even his remaining circle of creator friends appears to be breaking down.
Trisha Paytas, another longtime controversial YouTuber and cohost of the podcast Frenemies, stuck by Dawson during his downfall, and appeared on his fiance Ryland Adams’ podcast as recently as November. Over the weekend, however, she blocked the pair on Twitter for her “own peace.” On its own, this is just another speck in the constantly churning cycle of YouTube drama. However, it may also mark the slow, bitter conclusion to the first generation of YouTubers.
Shane and Ryland didn’t unfollow me. Just to set the record straight - I blocked them. There’s no malice behind it, I did it for my own peace. It’s not drama. It’a very personal and I want to move on. So speculation can stop as to why they unfollowed, they didn’t.— Trisha Paytas (@trishapaytas) January 17, 2021
Dawson hasn’t made an official exit. He may even be gearing up for a comeback. But Paytas’s condemnation further fractures what used to be a family of OG YouTubers—people who joined the platform without knowing it could be a career, and subsequently pioneered the entire creator/influencer space—and comes after a year of equally prominent YouTubers announcing their own retirement.
Is it past time to say goodbye to the OG era of YouTube? Is it finally time, in other words, for me to take the hint?
Everyone’s gateway into YouTube was different, so I won’t pretend we all think fondly of the same OG YouTubers when we reflect on the early days of the platform. My Vlogbrothers and Grace Helbigs may be your Dan and Phils and Nigahigas. But regardless of how you started, I’d confidently wager you lost at least one of your beloved, longtime YouTubers in the past five years. And 2020 rang the most death knells.
Over the summer, Dawson, Ingrid Nilsen, and Jenna Marbles posted their final (or, final-for-now) videos. Their reasons for leaving were wildly different—Dawson for problematic past content, Nilsen for a new chapter, Marbles for exhaustion over the changed YouTube culture. All three began creating YouTube videos between 2008 and 2010, and had amassed followers in the millions.
Dawson’s sketch comedy defined an era of YouTube, and he accomplished the rare feat of reinventing himself for the next generation through conspiracy videos and documentary-style investigations into YouTube drama. Nilsen created “Vlogmas,” a festive vlogging tradition that remains a yearly staple on the platform. Marbles was a one-woman comedy machine, regularly earning millions of views for videos like “Things I Get Excited About As An Adult” and, of course, her first viral hit, “How to trick people into thinking you’re good looking.”
Their departures, while perhaps necessary, felt all the more like an end of an era when Tyler Oakley announced in December he, too, was taking a step back from the platform.
Oakley posted his first video in 2007 from his dorm room. His often cheeky subject matter, frequent collabs, and openly gay content was groundbreaking for YouTube, earning him over seven million subscribers and, at one point, a talk show on Ellen Degeneres’s digital network.
“I've never really taken a break, and it is now time for me to take a break,” he said in his December video. “I do not have an end in sight for when I will be back.”
The first-gen creators who remain can only be described as a mishmash, struggling to find their place on a platform that has, to put it harshly, moved on. There are, of course, major exceptions—PewDiePie began posting videos in 2010 and remains one of the most-subscribed channels, even though he’s had his own fair share of controversy. But now it’s not enough to just be a YouTuber. You have to be a YouTuber and a TikTokker and a podcaster and come out with a make-up line to keep up with the next generation, or instead watch your views stagnate as subscribers flock to newer, faster, bigger creators. You have to have subscribers in the tens of millions to compete with the new guard, who amass that following in a matter of months while, say, Oakley’s seven million-strong following took him over ten years to cultivate. Ten years building a community on YouTube only to learn the goal post has moved again? I’d jump ship, too.
Even creators who have managed to stay the course—the still-strong members of the YouTube “British invasion” of 2014, like Zoe Sugg, Alfie Deyes, and Niomi Smart—are widely acknowledged as past their heyday. A popular TikTok trend using One Direction’s “Night Changes” frequently uses Sugg and Deyes as examples of how much can change in 10 years, eliciting comments from people who miss the good old days.
But for the next generation of viewers, the good old days are happening right now, and they’re more exciting than ever. You can access your favorite creator on multiple platforms, meet up with them at conventions, wear their names proudly on your sweatshirt and have passerbys actually know what it’s referencing. It’s everything the first generation was working towards, and everything they made happen. One day, this will all seem quaint, too.