Some people — percentage-wise not very many, but some — make money off of their YouTube channels. A very few become rich. According to Forbes magazine the highest earner is 7-year-old Ryan, the star or “host” of Ryan ToysReview. In the past year he generated over $20 million in income, which was up 100% from last year (the site has only been existence since 2015).
This is yet another of those things that make me feel horribly out of touch. I get that if, by whatever strange alchemy, you become a YouTube star or celebrity you can make a lot of money through ad revenue and selling merchandise. I understand that this mainly happens through the channels of people who play video games. I don’t play video games, but I know that many people do. I also accept that some people — if I can say it without sounding judgmental, mainly lonely people — will sit and watch someone else play a video game and just talk for hours.
I get all that. I don’t get the success of Ryan’s channel. I watched as much as I could of one episode and saw that it was mainly being presented by Ryan’s parents, with Ryan appearing to be little more than a prop being played with like one of the toys (upon reading about this phenomenon some more I discovered that Ryan has, in fact, been turned into an action figure being sold at Walmart for $9 each). His mother does most of the talking on the videos and her voice is excruciating. The production and presentation are crude. They really are awful in every way. But even if it had been well done, or if I was missing something, I still don’t understand how something like this can appeal to so many people or influence sales so much. Who watches it? Kids? Parents? Just people who want to enjoy the thrill of rampant consumerism (“unboxing”) daily? Apparently the “reviews” eschew any kind of evaluation or analysis of the toys in question but just offer up moments of sheer enjoyment.
Is this the end of the world as know it? Probably not. It’s not really that different from the story of any child star in years gone by. And I guess there is a universal appeal to voyeuristically and vicariously experiencing a child’s joy, however artificially stage managed it may be. Not to mention the fact that with daily updates, even given the simplicity of the videos the family is obviously putting a lot of time and effort into this project. There’s something about this story though, and more broadly about the Internet economy, that strikes me as both profoundly weird and probably unhealthy. If nothing else, such success stories guarantee an endless stream of imitators, just as Ryan’s channel was cloned from other unboxing sites. I wonder how much of this is just a fad, like viral fame itself, and how much of it is a real glimpse of things to come.