How YouTubers synthetically bond with viewers

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DePaul alum Iliana Raykovski of "That Gibson Girl."

In the social media age, those who are lonely can scroll through the endless feed of their favorite outlet to find a creator or influencer to keep entertained during their most isolated times. The most famous YouTubers have hours of content made to keep the viewer occupied, and the automatic “up next” feature’s algorithm uses the previous videos to create a perfectly addictive flow of interesting content. 

Many college students suffer from isolation because they have grown accustomed to social media’s authoritative impact of their everyday lives. In a study from the University of Pittsburgh and West Virginia University, social media use, mainly the negative experiences that occur on social media, are linked to an increased isolated and lonely feeling in college students. The same team responsible for the study also found that for every 10 percent increase  in negative social media interactions, the user’s risk of depression rose by 20 percent. The researchers suggest that the connection between social media and depression is likely a two-way street — people who already experience depressive symptoms may be more likely to use social media and have negative experiences while using it. 

Here, in lieu of therapy or an IRL support system, social media influencers, particularly YouTubers, can supply an unexpected friendship. The first minute of a YouTube video is obscure, but critical – “hi guys, how are you?” is a simple but controlling way of comforting a viewer. Regardless of the video type, YouTubers across the platform use a term coined by linguistics professor Norman Fairclough  in 2001: “synthetic personalization.” It’s a phenomenon that Fairclough calls “a compensatory tendency to give the impression of treating each of the people ‘handled’ en masse as an individual.” Basically, YouTubers use personal directives by addressing a singular “you” in order to create a synthetic, unofficial personal relationship with the viewer. 

Take Jeffree Star, the Myspace star-turned-makeup-artist. He has amassed 17.3 million subscribers on YouTube in the six years he has actively been uploading content  to the platform. Star is an unofficial expert on synthetic personalization in the way he uses not only his YouTube channel, but his daily minutes-long stories that he uploads on his Snapchat and Instagram. “Hi guys, how are ya?” he begins most every video, just before he tells his followers  about his day’s plans, his cosmetics company or updates on one of his latest feuds. He recently came under some criticism when he uploaded a video of himself crying on his Instagram story, telling his viewers to “swipe up” to see the real reason his five-year relationship with his boyfriend ended. The swipe led directly to his latest video, which currently sits at a massive 29 million views. 

The video itself is an emotional tell-all of his feelings regarding the breakup. At 17 minutes and 16 seconds, Star allows his viewers to see him cry over the person he repeatedly calls the love of his life. It’s hard for the viewer not to feel something for Star, and the comments reflect  that. The comment section of the video shows love and support for Star’s difficult time as he enters the year alone, as he puts it. His followers tell him he isn’t alone – he has fans and friends from around the world who will still support him during this time. Star puts all of himself out there for the world to see, and his fans respond positively to his vulnerability.

But Star’s life exists online one-dimensionally. We can’t know what Star says when the camera is turned off. Star contrived his social media presence using the tactics of synthetic personalization to blind his viewers from this fact. YouTubers, intentionally or not, want to keep their views up so their channel and social media presence will continue to thrive in a saturated market.

“That’s not to say the only incentive is money – it’s not,” said Arienne Ferchaud, an assistant professor in the School of Communication at Florida State University. “People also want to feel like they’re close to their audience (…) There is more social interaction [than a medium like television], and I think creators want to have that, otherwise they would not do YouTube. They would do something else.”

Although YouTube can provide  an extremely lucrative career, it seems that the heavy hitters like Star do not make their personas so personable just for the money. Star seems to really enjoy what he does as an entrepreneur and a social media personality. He juxtaposes his down-to-earth realness with his lavish lifestyle well enough to attract such a vast  and dedicated audience. 

“Like a lot of advertising, it presents a lifestyle that maybe you want,” said Leslie Rasmussen, an assistant professor of communications at Xavier University. “Even if they’re not advertising a product in a video, they’re presenting this life that you connect with somehow.”

This is as simple as changing the verbiage in a makeup tutorial video from “I’m going to now apply some eyeshadow” to “We are now going to apply some eyeshadow.” It’s like the viewer is sitting across from their favorite content creator and dishing over the latest gossip with them. 

Most of Star’s followers never have and will never meet him. The pseudo-relationship can seem a little sci-fi or dystopian, but that’s not viewing the entire picture. Despite the physical barrier that is the computer or phone screen, YouTubers give more of their emotional and personal moments to their viewers because it means something to them. Whether it is out of authentic admiration or pure capitalism, it still helps those struggling with isolation issues. A simple upload of a video can brighten their day, just like a surprise knock on the door from your best friend.