YouTube and Beyond: The Parasocial World of Self-Broadcasting

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YouTuber Nasim Aghdam carried out a mass shooting at the video-sharing website's offices in San Bruno on April 3, 2018. She had been posting videos explaining her unhappiness with YouTube. (Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

Before Nasim Aghdam became the “YouTube Shooter” she was an aspiring "YouTuber." She uploaded an eclectic collection of videos that featured her exercising, dancing and talking about animal rights. Like many of the millions of contributors to YouTube, Aghdam was trying to build a following and earn money.

Some of her videos got more than 100,000 views, and she boasted of her popularity and success on her personal website. She had crafted a whole online identity through a range of digital platforms: Instagram, YouTube and Telegram, a messaging app. She created a new name for her online identity. She was not Nasim Aghdam. But Nasim Sabz, a self-identified vegan activist.

Aghdam was not happy with YouTube, and she made her dissatisfaction public. In 2017, she posted a video where she complained that YouTube censors content and filters which video creators it allows to make money off advertising. YouTube recently made it harder for videos with fewer views to make money from ads.

On Aghdam’s personal website, she posted this video by a high-profile YouTuber named Casey Neistat. In the video, Casey says, “What YouTube has in this space that no one else has, is this sense of community, this kinship with creators like me and the platform that is YouTube, but for us creators, loyalty is a very delicate thing here.”

It’s dangerous and reductive to say that Aghdam’s actions were driven simply by her anger with YouTube. But her frustration does underscore the complicated relationship between websites like YouTube and the contributors who fill them with content.

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YouTube started in 2005, and it’s still the largest video social media site and the second-most-trafficked website on the internet. But YouTube is no longer the only game in town. There are all sorts of sites where people stream videos of themselves. And many, like YouNow, allow people to do it live.

On YouNow, people, many of them teenage girls, livestream themselves for hours. Some sing or play instruments. Others just pour themselves out to the camera. Those viewing can chat with the person livestreaming, who will then shout out or interact with the fan. Viewers can also leave digital tips that translate into real money. This is a way that those on YouNow can “monetize” their live streams: by convincing their viewers to pay them.

One of the most popular livestreaming sites on the web is Twitch, where you log on to watch other people play video games. And if that sounds like an absurd premise, bear in mind that Amazon bought Twitch for almost $1 billion in 2014.

Twitch gamers can get tons of views. A gamer who goes by the name CDNthe3rd has accumulated over 19 million views of him playing games. He, too, has to stroke his fan base. As he runs around in his virtual world and shoots things, he frequently shouts out to his fans, who he calls his OGs (original gangsters, FYI).

Psychologists have a term for the kind of one-sided, voyeuristic experience of watching another person: a parasocial relationship. There have been studies done about the pressures put on vloggers to share intimate details. And for a heady, critical-theory take on what is happening with online identities in these kinds of parasocial video relationships, here's an article that goes deep into the subject.

Regardless of the psychological principles at work here, there is clearly an economic one. Making and retaining fans is what it takes to monetize an online video existence. People want to feel like they really know a vlogger, like they're real-life friends. This takes a lot of work, says Gaby Dunn, a comedian and writer who launched her career on YouTube.

“There’s a lot of pressure to share a lot of stuff,” Dunn says. “I have to find a balance between how much you need to share with your audience when your audience feels loyal to you, versus how much I want to keep to myself because I don’t want to be on this platform forever.”

Dunn now has a podcast, "Bad with Money," and she's written a book. She says in this day and age, you can’t be beholden to just one platform.