Mediating Makeup on YouTube

Alisa Wiersema

Over the past three years or so, I have been following a group of YouTube bloggers (vloggers?) who post videos about beauty and fashion topics. The majority of these bloggers are girls my age and in the short time that I’ve been viewing their videos, I’ve noticed a definite shift in the way they portray themselves as in their videos. While critics (and there are many critics in the comment section of the videos) cite the changes to be attributable solely to the bloggers’ personal decisions, mediology dictates otherwise, citing YouTube to be the catalyst in their transformation.

Three years ago, when I stumbled across Elle Fowler’s YouTube channel (AllThatGlitters21), she looked just like any normal college girl who was making makeup videos on her MacBook camera for fun as visible in a screenshot below: 

Now, her videos look more like the high-quality, professionally produced, DSLR videos one would see on the websites of well-known fashion magazines:

So what happened in those three years? Did she suddenly become wealthier, more business oriented and more camera savvy? Yes and no.  While it is easy to say that Elle’s changes happened solely as a part of her own doing, the medium of YouTube needs to be de-black boxed in order to demonstrate its hand in her transformation.

YouTube pays its most successful “partners” an undisclosed, small amount per video view. Additionally, due to its involvement with Google, the ads running before some videos bring in additional revenue. Given Elle’s increasing subscriber and viewership base over the past few years, it is safe to say that YouTube’s financial incentive has provided her the opportunity to not only purchase new products to talk about, but also improve her video surroundings. Additionally, YouTube’s switch to HD video prompts partners to make their videos in a higher-quality.

When viewers watch Elle on YouTube, it is clear that  Debray‘s points about “[the mediological revolution] stirring together concrete things and myths” are demonstrated to be true. As far as the average viewer is concerned, Elle lives in the square box of her videos, where everything is perfectly lit up and edited to perfection. Since everything is shot prior to uploading, she has the liberty to go back and set up certain shots to look better than they would in real life, thereby creating the myth of perfection that is very much associated in the beauty and fashion industry. By perpetuating it further through the medium of YouTube, Elle mixes the reality of being a “regular person” with the myth of socially-codified perfection, while YouTube transmits this message to the masses.

Other YouTubers have enjoyed the benefits of partnerships by way of the YouTube Boot Camp, which brings the website’s most successful bloggers/vloggers to Google’s Manhattan headquarters to receive training in how to make their videos more likely to go viral, brand themselves and increase viewership. Clearly, this partnership is beneficial to both the vloggers as well as YouTube, and it would have most likely never happened had they chosen another medium on which they could post videos. YouTube is somewhat of a digital institution, and it actively mediates this kind of interaction with its partners for the sake of increasing the viewership and revenue of the website as a whole. In this sense, it is definitely an institution of transmission because it doesn’t just extend these services to a specific kind of vlogger, but any and all successful partners.

This complex, symbiotic relationship of the transmission institution and those producing the videos ties into the topic of what is transmitted about the medium itself, since many of the YouTubers who attend these sponsored sessions will later discuss their experiences about it in videos. This then creates a cyclical process in which the institution is prompting its partners to hype up its digital predominance and implicitly dissuading any other similar media from achieving the same amount of success since it wouldn’t be able to provide the same kind of training.

As mentioned in  Debray’s questioning of whom the “authorship” of a mediated message is designated to, it is interesting to discuss whether the authorship of YouTube videos belongs to the YouTubers or to YouTube. After all, doesn’t YouTube contribute just as much to the “coding” and format of the videos as the YouTuber him/herself?