The world of kid’s YouTube is a thing unto its own.
If you don’t have a child, or spend time with young children, chances are you know nothing of Peppa Pig, surprise-egg videos or the controversies swirling around algorithm-friendly animations that range from slightly deranged to downright disturbing, all of which target children with bright colors, nursery rhymes and familiar characters. Perhaps you caught wind of the Great Momo Panic of 2019? That was kid's YouTube.
Oakland-based artist Kate Rhoades, although she’s been posting videos to YouTube since 2007, was also unfamiliar with this chirpy video hellscape, until she read an essay by James Bridle detailing the strange call-and-response of children’s video tropes that creates a breeding ground for imitators, satirists and opportunistic bots.
So Rhoades made a spoof, following all the rules inadvertently outlined by Bridle, to create the keyword-friendly “Finger Family Song Rhyme Game For Children Christmas Babies Fun” for the Wattis Institute’s 20th anniversary party last November. In the 46-second video, the artist’s face appears successively in different slight disguises on each finger of her girlfriend’s hand, singing a song the internet calls—unsurprisingly—the “finger family song,” its origins murky.
Rhoades uploaded the clip to YouTube and promptly moved on. (In addition to producing and co-hosting the weekly arts and culture podcast Congratulations Pine Tree, she teaches in the new genres department at the San Francisco Art Institute.)
Now, the video is (as of this writing) at 3 million views and climbing. To Rhoades, its success is both hilarious and inexplicable. “My favorite part of this experience is lording the views over my two teenage nephews, who are both video-game streamers on YouTube,” she says. “I’m the YouTube queen of my family again!”
Rhoades took a break from watching the numbers to chat with KQED Arts about her previous work, the mystery of algorithms and her plans for future kid video domination.
How would you describe your practice, in general, to art audiences?
Most of my work has responded to the art world in some way. I have my video series Required Skimming that was like little comedy sketch videos responding to art historical texts. And I’ve done painting series about how paintings circulate in the commercial art world. But more recently I’ve been making work that has to do with Greek mythological chimeras or hybrid animals, humanizing them and examining queerness through the idea of hybridity.
How would you describe your practice, then, to the parent of a small child—or to a small child themselves?
I would tell them I make art that makes fun of artists—with lots of puppets and flashy colors and cartoons.
What prompted you to put this particular video on the internet?
I was hoping that something like this might happen. When I uploaded it on YouTube, I gave it the word salad title that these kinds of videos have, in the hopes that it would go back to where it came from. And nothing happened! I sent it out in my newsletter, I put it out on Twitter, and it seemed like nobody gave a shit about it at all.
Had you spent any time on kid’s YouTube prior to this?
I mean I don’t have kids and my nephews are a little older than the age group that is really in the mix with this stuff, but I read that article by James Bridle. I definitely have more of a relationship to it now that I’ve accidentally made a video that is part of it.
But you didn’t make this by accident.
I totally on purpose did it, but now I’ve been swept into this world where all the videos that are related to my YouTube channel are these kid’s YouTube videos. I don’t know how YouTube works! And I’ve been on there more than 10 years.
When did you discover it was a hit?
Literally like two days ago. I was looking at my analytics, and basically on March 25 something happened that made it start skyrocketing. I think what happened is somehow it started getting suggested with these other kid’s YouTube videos.
But honestly, I don’t think that most of the viewers are human. The strange thing about this algorithm-kid’s-video-word-salad-weird-world, is that I think a lot of the entities making these videos are in India and Pakistan. And I’m wondering if there are also bot farms that are watching the videos and creating this viewer tornado that kind of gets it kicked up into where humans are actually seeing it.
After the United States, my number one country of origin of viewers is India. Again, I don’t have anything to back that up, except for that one fact.
I noticed that one of your own comments was “@youtube please let me monetize this video so I can pay my student loan!” What’s the difference between the accounts that can and can’t be monetized?
This is the saddest part of all. So back when I was an honest-to-god YouTuber making vlogs a lot I got invited to the partnership program, which is how you make money off your videos. And I was like, “Fuck that, I’m an anarchist!” What an idiot!
YouTube takes forever to review anyone applying for this. So I’m very sad thinking that by the time they approve me, I will not be getting views on this stupid video anymore.
Is this something you would try to replicate? Are you interested in exploring the world of kid’s YouTube?
I kind of am now! My girlfriend Katy Kondo helped me make that video—her hand is the hand. And she was like, “We should do it all. We gotta do ‘Wheels on the Bus.’ We gotta do ‘Apple and Bananas.’”
It would be funny to try to genuinely make these weird kid videos but then also pipe in some “it’s okay to be gay” and trans visibility and make all the children socialists.
Do you have any advice for other video artists who want to make it big with the kids?
You just gotta have all the right tags and all the right words in your title. I would also say, don’t make my mistake, you should make yours at least 10 minutes long! ’Cause that’s how you can get tons and tons of ads in there. And monetize as early as possible.
I would also like to put out there, in terms of advice to parents: Don’t let your kids watch YouTube.