Chris Stokel-Walker 2nd May 2019
YouTube has given 33-year-old Eniyah Rana a lot. The daughter of an Indian Gujarati dad and Kenyan mum living in Birmingham initially wanted to be a flight attendant when she was a child, but never made it. She was a self-described “bored Asian housewife, struggling to wear the hijab” when she uploaded a seven-minute video to YouTube showing how to tie a £15 headscarf she bought from Next.
Now she’s a successful YouTuber, a full-time influencer earning a wage on a following of just under 50,000. She’s carved out a niche as a modest fashion and beauty vlogger, providing a generation of Muslim teenagers and young women with guidance about how to look good and feel confident while adhering to the strictures of the Qur’an.
“I really, really enjoy it,” she says. “You have to have a passion to do it, and it’s something I love waking up to do every morning.”
She’s one of more than 100 people I’ve spoken to for my new book, YouTubers, which looks at the world’s biggest video sharing website (and the world’s second-biggest overall) and tries to wrestle with its size, its impact on society and the media, and what it means for all of us. And every one of the conversations I’ve had – and every minute of the years of research I’ve put into the book, which is published today demonstrates just how radical YouTube has been.
You don’t find many people like Rana on traditional television. The list of Muslim women wearing headscarves on British broadcasts is few and far between – and as Channel 4 News’s Fatima Manji found out in 2016 – the reaction to their existence can often be hostile.
One in eight people employed in the UK television industry are from a black or ethnic minority (BAME) background, according to Ofcom. TV adverts are better: there, around a quarter of all people appearing in the breaks between TV shows are from BAME backgrounds, but they’re rarely the main character.
That’s in part due to the gatekeepers in traditional media, and the positions they hold in the hierarchy. People cast those similar to them, and people employ people who look like them. What’s more, the number of positions in the media world is vanishingly small. To break through the layers of hierarchy, anyone from a minority background has to be exceptional.
YouTube is different. There is no hierarchy – by design. Layers upon layers of decision makers and yes men (often white, balding, old yes men) have been laid aside. The barrier to entry is theoretically a smartphone with a built-in camera and an internet connection. And therefore people like Rana can succeed.
YouTube is an entire new media that has hundreds of genres on it
Hank Green is another YouTuber I’ve spoken to over the course of my years reporting on the site not just for my book, but for many publications across the world. He’s one of the site’s biggest names, and the co-founder of VidCon, a conference dedicated to the world of online video that draws thousands to events across the globe. But when he walks the corridors of the conference he himself created, he encounters people who he doesn’t know about who have followings greater than him. “It’s gone from being: ‘YouTube is a genre of video’ to ‘YouTube is an entire new media that has hundreds of genres on it’,” he says.
And that’s the point. When you’re not fitting a fixed schedule with only 24 hours in a day, and you’re not reliant on a carefully-constructed hierarchy that tends towards cultural conservatism, in theory anyone can break through and make it big. YouTube’s biggest strength is its diversity of viewpoints. You can watch people play scratchcards, bake giant cakes, paint their nails and crochet rude messages from a single homepage. It’s the world’s biggest cinema, playing the entire oeuvre of every film ever made simultaneously. The opportunities are endless.
Yet look at the world’s biggest YouTubers and the BAME personalities are few and far between. The site’s chief operating officer, Robert Kyncl, admitted as much in his 2017 book on YouTube. “Unless you count musicians, only one of YouTube’s one hundred most popular channels as of this writing featured a creator of African descent, the British gamer and comedian KSI,” he wrote. YouTube’s proportion of black creators is no better than Hollywood’s – not exactly a shining benchmark.
It gave a lot of women empowerment
It was something I noticed when trying to encapsulate the site, where one billion hours of video are watched every day and 500 hours of footage uploaded every minute, in 352 pages. While there are plenty of ethnic minority creators out there – Huda Kattan, KSI, Eniyah Rana and Marquess Brownlee just some of them – they’re not always at the top of the tree. Correcting the underrepresentation endemic in traditional media only goes so far.
YouTube has also taken plenty away from Rana: her husband, who divorced her in an Islamic ceremony under sharia law because the imam adjudicating the case decided her openness on camera was haram (forbidden).
But taken in total, she reckons it has given her much more – and her audience, too. The divorce she went through was painful, and she did it online, in public. Yet doing it like that gave a voice to a group of women often ignored by their religion, and it gave solace to others facing the same challenges.
“It gave a lot of women empowerment and encouraged them to speak about what they’re going through,” Rana told me. “It’s a very taboo situation anyway to be talking about your personal life, especially when it comes to domestic violence.”
Chris Stokel-Walker is the author of YouTubers: How YouTube shook up TV and created a new generation of stars, published by Canbury Press on 2 May. The book is available from youtubersbook.com, Amazon, or all good bookshops.
Chris Stokel-Walker 2nd May 2019