Is ‘YouTube Celebrity’ an Oxymoron?

Mamrie Hart is coming to a theater near you soon.

Never heard of her? She is one of the bigger stars in the YouTube galaxy thanks to her “You Deserve a Drink” video series. And in 2017, being well-known for being on YouTube matters more than ever, apparently. Lionsgate certainly thinks so. The studio behind the Hunger Games saga just signed Hart up to a first-look deal.

Her good fortune begs a simple question: Do we really want today’s YouTube stars to be tomorrow’s A-list celebrities?

Yes, the current crop of Hollywood superstars isn’t perfect. They pop up in tabloid headlines for their frequent, and messy, divorces. Their virtue signaling on awards shows is off-putting. And many can’t hold a candle to the A-listers of yore. We miss Katharine Hepburn and John Wayne already; will we pine for them even more when they’re replaced by Hart and other YouTube-friendly folks?

YouTube has democratized stardom in some amazing ways. You may hate Justin Bieber’s antics, but he’s still a very talented singer whose rise happened much faster thanks to YouTube exposure.

The web service also levels the cultural playing field. When celebrities showed us their serious faces to push for more gun control, for example, average citizens fired back via YouTube, highlighting celebrity hypocrisy on the issue.

Yet the service also caters to our less flattering impulses. YouTube celebrities have to gain our attention much more quickly than a traditional star might. It’s all about the clicks, and about appeasing our increasingly short attention spans. That leads to the kind of robust mugging for the camera that you would likely find insufferable elsewhere. In fact, YouTube celebrities’ ability to annoy is highlighted in a new mockumentary series called Pls Like. Comedian Liam Williams stars in the BBC Three production, which takes on YouTuber’s faux cheeriness and other less admirable traits.

As well, if you thought actors hawking products was annoying, that’s nothing compared to how YouTube stars operate. Many use their online clout to promote a galaxy of products. These corporate shills might have rebranded themselves as “influencers,” but they are still trying to sell you something, often without fully disclosing the financial incentive they have to do so.

The rise of YouTube superstars is likely to inspire others to follow in their cyber footsteps. Becoming a star used to be a one in a million shot that often required years of slogging in the trenches of Hollywood before making it big. Now, gain enough YouTube followers and that path appears radically shortened. Imagine a generation of twenty-somethings spending every waking hour lovingly curating their YouTube channels, treating their lives like an audition for American Idol and the people in them as little more than audience members.

It’s not pretty.

Of course, Hollywood’s new embrace of YouTube stars might be an attempt to modernize an industry that is struggling to adapt to the online world’s influence. Large flops cost movie studios millions of dollars, and film stars no longer fill seats in theaters like they used to. Then again, Mamrie Hart’s first co-starring role in the 2016 comedy Dirty 30 barely moved the pop culture needle, and no other YouTube star has broken through in a traditional fashion…yet.

For now, let’s hope YouTubers go about their work with a little humility. Movie stardom and viral cat videos are two very different things.

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