Given YouTube’s popularity, it’s surprising that the video platform doesn’t have its own Breaking Bad, Mad Men, or Game of Thrones—a singular story that creates shockwaves of influence across culture—especially considering YouTube’s recent push into scripted original series with YouTube Red. With billions of daily viewers and millions of creators, there should probably be at least one show or channel that we could point to and say, “This changed everything.”
Strangely enough, that’s not the case. There have been countless viral hits, memes, and even YouTube celebrities, but no single work that has changed how people tell stories online. YouTube Red hasn’t made a dent since launching last fall, having produced no critically or commercially successful shows to convince its audience to start paying. (Can you name a YouTube Red original?) Why? Because while YouTube is a great medium for many types of content, from personal vlogs and comedy shorts to music videos and found-footage horror, drama never quite landed.
When I say drama, I’m not just referring to the frowny-face opposite comedy, but rather the idea that the ending to a story is different from the beginning, that characters change by facing challenges. The power of dramatic storytelling is why people still study The Iliad and The Odyssey 2,500 years after their first telling, why we keep forcing Shakespeare on high schoolers, and why #GoT trends on Twitter for 10 consecutive weeks a year.
The absence of those stories doesn’t mean YouTube is any less valuable than film or television. Much of what succeeds on YouTube wouldn’t succeed anywhere else. Demonstrably, Grace Helbig, a comedy vlogger with 2.9 million YouTube subscribers, couldn’t muster an audience of more than 290,000 people to watch her television talk show, which was cancelled after eight episodes.
The elements that make YouTube important are what prevent it from being conducive to sweeping drama that can jolt the zeitgeist. Whereas most traditional media aims for the largest possible audience, YouTube (and the internet in general) prioritizes specificity and a form of personal communication to attract “alpha users.” Viewers don’t follow stories on YouTube, they subscribe to people. For many fans, YouTube creators can feel more like friends than celebrities. To be successful, creators have to be raw and available, not over-produced and polished. Fans expect creators to establish an open dialogue through their content, as opposed to the one-way communication we see from cable.
It’s harder to tell a story when your audience feels entitled to have a say in how it goes.
This formula for online engagement mostly rejects dramatic narrative. It’s harder to tell a story when your audience feels entitled to have a say in how it goes. It’s even harder to build drama without an ending, and YouTube channels have fallen into the habit of making the same sort of content in perpetuity.
Vloggers face the extra challenge of making their content more or less in real time, and because their content aims to be nonfiction, it’s difficult to plan a proper story arc. After all, it’s hard to have the hindsight to know the important parts of life when you’re busy living it on camera.
And much of the fictional content on YouTube is episodic rather than serial. So even if content is planned in advance, it’s still more sketch- or sitcom-based. You don’t need to watch every week to stay current and coherent, which isn’t the case with Game of Thrones or Mad Men.
There is one genre of YouTube video that, in a roundabout way, is fictional and serial, and that’s Let’s Play. Let’s Players, who record and offer commentary as they advance through video games, are some of the most successful YouTubers. Their style of video making benefits from borrowing the dramatic narrative of the games they’re playing. The appeal of a Let’s Player not in their own stories but in their reactions to a game, or their performance of it. Much like sports, Let’s Play gives viewers a chance to feel connection to gamers over a period of time.
Why hasn’t any of this momentum translated to good scripted dramatic content for YouTube Red? Drama is hard. Screenwriting, acting, directing, editing, and everything else that goes into dramatic storytelling are all incredibly expensive and tough to master. And where Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu have recruited proven Hollywood and TV talent to produce their original content, YouTube Red is drawing from its pool of popular YouTubers, who, while talented at what they do, are not necessarily cut out for an entirely new mode of entertainment.
Viewers don’t follow stories on YouTube, they subscribe to people.
A bigger reason that dramatic content on YouTube Red hasn’t worked is because, fundamentally, people don’t go to YouTube for YouTube, they go because of the individual channels. YouTube Red is based on the idea that all of YouTube can be condensed to a channel catering to many audiences. But YouTube really resembles all of cable—providing millions of different channels to just as many audiences. If someone in the audience wants to support someone they like on YouTube, it would be better for that person to support the creator directly through something like Patreon rather than give money to YouTube and hope some of it makes it into the pocket of the individual creator.
Perhaps YouTube will never produce that one great story that will change everything. There may never be a YouTube video that professors will teach. But maybe YouTube doesn’t need to force its way into that niche. Because for millions of viewers around the world, YouTube has become its own special part of the media lexicon. Besides, we already have YouTube to thank for Justin Bieber, and really, isn’t he enough?