YOUTUBE MADE ME BUY IT BY GRACE BOCQUET
Hey everyone. It’s me
producer; consumer; influencer; puppet; girl
Welcome to my haul; anti-
haul; collection; declutter; favourites;
YouTube Made Me Buy It.
I started watching YouTube in year 11. I began, I think, with the usual suspects. I have long forgotten many of their names, but YouTube’s British poster-girl, Zoella (real name, Zoe Sugg), was the main focusing of my viewing. She was young and sweet and funny. I liked her presence and, strangely, her fashion and beauty related content. Before discovering Zoella I had always rejected makeup as unnecessary and unpleasant (although I felt supremely grown-up wearing fake-eyelashes at dancing concerts), yet when I watched Zoe’s videos I found that I was, perhaps against my better judgement, yearning to own and wear it.
I began to resent my bare-faced youth next to the made-up young women with whom I went to school and saw online. Although outwardly I held fast to my belief that make-up was a false and inessential part of womanhood, I desperately wanted to know what I would look like as one of those bold and sexy women with their slinky eye-liner, cocked brows, and sculpted cheek-bones. So, I began to buy makeup, but rather than face the comments of my friends and family I left it tucked away where no one would find it.
I spent a few hundred dollars over the year or so of my flirtation with online beauty culture. To some, this may not sound excessive (although so it seems to me now) but it was most of the money to which I had access. I would spend it all in bursts at the local Chemist Warehouse and then live in fear that my parents would ask me to buy something and I would have to admit that I had wasted my savings on makeup that they never saw me wearing.
I believe that it is thanks to YouTube that I developed this sudden fascination with make-up and, for a while now, I have wondered if there are others who have experienced the same thing. Curious, I talk to my younger sister Angela who was only five when YouTube was launched and has grown up with greater exposure to the platform than I did. She seems miraculously unaffected by online spending culture, but I figure that her friends and classmates may not have been as fortunate. The day after our conversation on the topic she reports that she sees a girl at school jump from watching a ‘beauty’ related YouTube video straight onto an online shopping site. Perfect. But also, I don’t know the context or the girl or her habits. For all I know, she is making a highly informed decision based on months of research.
Still, I wonder whether there is a trend of which she and I are a part.
I write up a survey and send it to a collection of young women.
I come across the phrase “consumer femininity” in a book called Language and Gender. The author, Mary Talbot, describes it as “the material and visual resources that [women] draw upon to feminise themselves”. These resources include “the products they buy and the concepts [and] practical skills…they need to cultivate in order to use them”. She notes that reading magazines and discussions with other women produces this knowledge and creates a kind of femininity that is determined both by social relationships and by consumption. More specifically the use of certain linguistic devices, like second person pronouns, develop a “synthetic sisterhood” simulating a close relationship between writer and reader.
Language and Gender was first published in 1998, seven years before YouTube was founded and even longer before it became the popular and widely-used platform that it is today. Nonetheless, this concept of consumer femininity together with the notion of synthetic sisterhood may be useful in understanding the ways in which YouTube influences the spending habits of its viewers and the ways they learn to perform their femininity.
In the responses that I receive from my survey, I discover experiences that mirror my own and illuminate the role that YouTube has played in our lives as young women and how it speaks to a sense of a consumer sisterhood that is cultivated online.
Like me, one respondent used to have no interest in makeup or skincare but “after discovering beauty ‘gurus’ on Youtube and hundreds of dollars later, [she has] a whole makeup vanity.” Originally lacking interest in make-up, neither of us actively sought out make-up tutorials so it is not a great leap to assume that we fell to watching these videos because YouTube recommended them to us, related as they were, to our cultural identities as women. And of course, thanks to YouTube’s algorithm, we were guided towards the most popular YouTubers in these genres. Although smaller YouTubers are earning pocket money (if anything) from YouTube, the big-time creators, such as Zoella, Tati and NikkieTutorials are have accumulated considerable wealth from their online presence (Zoella is estimated to be worth around £2.5 million) and their spending reflects this. But in their videos, sitting in their bedroom wearing clothes from Topshop and H&M, tolerating the sound of construction next door or strangers peering in at them talking to themselves, they look resolutely normal and in consequence so do their weekly clothing, décor, make-up hauls. That their income vastly outstrips that of their adolescent viewers is almost invisible and thus I and my respondent were inducted into a culture of spending that seemed as ordinary as we were.
I ask the women I survey whether age affected the degree to which their spending was influenced by YouTube. Although not everyone felt that they had come to YouTube young enough to be taken in by the impetus to spend, or they had been able to identify and resist it despite their age, everyone believed that a viewer’s naïve youth could heighten the intoxication with YouTube. A number of the women that I surveyed were able distinguish between a time when they were younger and would watch a specific creator religiously or were taken in by the “cash-splashing” and felt that their own lives were not “up to scratch”. This infatuation with a certain creator is reminiscent of Mary Talbot’s theory of synthetic sisterhood and speaks to the ways in which some YouTube ‘make-up gurus’ construct themselves as the friendly older sister establishing a community amongst themselves and their followers based on trust and a long-time engagement with their content.
Two oft repeated phrases on YouTube go something like this: “If you’ve been watching me a long time, you’ll know that…” or “You’ve all heard me speak about [insert product here] a million times before so I won’t go into it again.” While frustrating for the uninitiated casual viewer, this acknowledgment of a history between creator and viewer builds a valuable intimacy with those subscribers who are familiar the YouTuber and their opinions. Through the use of second person pronouns – key to the synthetic sisterhood of teen magazines – loyal viewers develop a sense that they are recognised and valued and go out to put their money where their virtual sister’s mouth is.
That viewers do indeed feel this intimacy, developing a sense of trust and respect for the young women that they watch, is clear in the Question and Answer (Q&A) video. While the questions posed are sometimes directed at the personal life of the YouTuber: ‘have you ever been overseas?’, a vast number of questions, and often more than the YouTuber can answer, are asking for advice: ‘how do you make a long-distance relationship work?’ or ‘how do I eat healthier?’. This relationship, where the YouTuber gives personal advice to her viewers emulates that which might exist between sisters or friends, and indeed, the relationship cultivated in teen magazines between writer and reader. The fact that the YouTuber is giving both friendly, intimate advice as well as existing as a source of information about make-up and fashion connects close female relationships and femininity to the consumption of these products.
Interestingly, although I somewhat resent the effects of this influence, others felt differently. One respondent noted that because she “[didn’t] have an older ‘role model’ in [her] life who [had] this kind of knowledge … these creators really help[ed her] out.” Just as studies have found that young people refer to online figures rather than traditional celebrities or magazines to recommend certain products, this respondent finds that because she is a student she “can’t afford to blindly buy things, so being able to see and hear other’s perspectives on things helps [her] make more informed purchases.”
As those of us who found ourselves implicated in this sisterhood grew older and wiser, we moved away from the uber-popular YouTubers that were recommended to us in the beginning. While I drifted off towards YouTubers talking about study, books, and cooking, others drifted towards smaller beauty channels or towards lifestyle, comedy, and cultural commentary because they “like their … style of videos and their personalities better”. Perhaps it is mere coincidence, but my spending on make-up dwindled to almost nothing after this switch.
Over time, as they drifted into other territory that felt closer to them and was less centred around spending money, the young women that I surveyed came to view the YouTubers whose channels were driven by spending money, sponsorships, and advertising with increasing scepticism. In every response that I received, there was a hyperawareness about the presence of sponsored content, the prolific PR packages of luxury make-up sent to influential YouTubers, and the vested interests of some YouTubers in creating consumers of their viewers. A number of women felt that where they were once naïvely and closely engaged with the content that was presented to them on YouTube, they now viewed it with greater distance and suspicion. However, even despite their better judgement and the recognition that “spending $30 on a pencil” is “absurd”, the price of cosmetics now seems less “shock[ing]” because they know, as a result of YouTube, that there are significantly more expensive items on the market. After all, “$15 for an eyeshadow brush” does not seems so bad when “there are $100+ brushes.”
Thirteen years after it was first launched, the effect of YouTube on the spending of young people has become a well-documented phenomenon. Rather than turning towards traditional celebrities, magazines, and television to tell them which products are worth their time, younger generations – my generation – turn to online influencers to inform their purchases. This isn’t news. Relying on the opinions of YouTubers is probably even wiser than relying on those of their better remunerated and more removed A-list counterparts, but that is not what this is about.
What is perhaps more important is understanding how watching women regularly dropping hundreds or thousands of dollars on items that they then use to constitute their femininity influences the spending and gender performance of their viewers. For young women who already face significant social and cultural pressures to spend their money on items like clothing and cosmetics, but also face lower wages, higher debt, and retiring with up to fifty percent less superannuation than men, influential online figures normalising frequent spending on these things could serve to worsen women’s already poor financial state.
In my own experiences and in those of the women that I surveyed, I found that although this consumerist impetus does exist and effectively exerts its influence over young viewers, there is nonetheless a great deal of awareness of this influence and the ways in which it compels the individual to spend. Although watching YouTube videos played a role in the ways in which I and other young women learned to perform our femininity and manage our money, as we grew older and drifted from the videos that originally captured our attention, we were able to view them and their dependence on consumerism more critically. We are no doubt different women than we would have been without YouTube, but perhaps YouTube has simply taken the place of those magazines which Mary Talbot describes, in which femininity is defined by consumerism, but also, importantly, by the relationships that women experience with each other.
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