At the end of the video “REVIEWING YOUTUBE’S HQ *insane*,” YouTube’s CEO Susan Wojcicki joins YouTube star Emma Chamberlain on screen and passes her an iced coffee. “Oh my God, Susan. Thank you Susan,” says Chamberlain. The two turn to smile at the camera before the video pauses, a little tune plays, and the image zooms in. While Wojcicki’s name is made visible on the screen, the relationship between the two women is left unaddressed.
Two years ago, Chamberlain’s videos usually garnered a steady and relatively humble 1,000 views, until the viewer count after one post titled “we all owe the dollar store an apology” blew up almost instantly to 500,000. Within a year, her account hit 5 million subscribers; now, at 18 years old, she has over 8.5 million. Her videos almost always trend, and the popularity of her style of vlogging and editing has landed her a spot in this year’s TIME 100 Next Most Influential People in the World. Dubbed “relatable” while being undoubtedly aspirational to her teenage fanbase, Chamberlain has found a successful formula to maintain her online personality.
While Emma Chamberlain is a big deal for YouTube, YouTube is an even bigger deal for Emma Chamberlain. At the beginning of the video, Chamberlain offhandedly notes the coincidence that YouTube headquarters happen to be located in the same town where she grew up. The uncanniness of this fact is extreme. Not only did YouTube provide Chamberlain with the online platform on which she could share her videos, but it also furnished Chamberlain with a financial system, culture, and community that reshaped her life—the same life that she continued to broadcast on her channel. When it comes down to it, the content of Chamberlain’s videos is less a creative project than a presentation of YouTube at its most profitable.
Whereas many YouTubers might gain traction from prior adjacency to fame or presence in a different type of media or platform, “relatable” YouTubers tend to emerge specifically through the popularity of the YouTube-specific videos they produce. In fact, they tend to be much more uniform than the word “relatable” might imply. This group of girls, including others like Summer Mckeen, Ellie Thumann, Avrey Ovard, and Hannah Meloche, are all conventionally pretty, skinny, and white, with bubbly personalities. That they’re termed “relatable” perhaps stems from the fact that at the start of their careers, the experience of these girls mirrored that of their fanbase: middle-class white American high schoolers. Yet in use, and especially as the material circumstances of YouTubers evolve, the term “relatable” has less to do with experiential similarities between viewers and YouTubers, and more accurately suggests a type of performance that produces an effect of intimacy.
The originality of Emma Chamberlain’s onscreen personality and editing style prompted her rise in the ranks of YouTube royalty. Chamberlain has a particular manner of speaking and acting on camera that appears overwhelmingly familiar and raw, while simultaneously being extremely funny. Much of this relies on hyperbole: Chamberlain exaggerates her emotions and opinions, adding false intensity that reads as well-executed mockery. In the Dollar Store haul video where Chamberlain shows off 12 items bought with 12 dollars at a dollar store, the off-brand hard lollipops she purchases are “the funnest candies I think I’ve ever seen.” She pops one in her mouth, makes a dramatic expression of disgust and says “oh god.” After spitting it back into the wrapper, she says “Oh yeah, so good. That doesn’t taste like medicine at all.” Chamberlain maintains playful but committed sarcasm, as if her act is an unexplained bit that we are all expected to understand. In this way, and others, her audience is implicated in her performance. Speaking about the blue plastic recorder, she claims “If you didn’t play these in elementary school, I’m so sorry, your elementary school must have been horrible.” Here, her fake enthusiasm or rage is at once something to laugh at and a way for her to make herself vulnerable to her viewers. Her sincerity is inauthentic, but it’s an inauthenticity that feels overwhelmingly sincere. Her act is executed so well that it doesn’t feel like a persona, and perhaps, at points, it isn’t. This must just be exactly what Chamberlain is like, thinks the viewer as they are drawn in to the allure of her company.
It is normal, in vlogs, for YouTubers to speak directly to the camera, remaining aware that what they film will eventually by watched. The YouTuber greets the audience at the beginning of the video and says goodbye at the end, fills the audience in on information they think is relevant, and provides advice or recommendations that are intended to seem personal. The trick lies in playing to an anonymous group of potential viewers to which your video might appeal, while maintaining the feeling of one-on-one intimacy and companionship. Chamberlain’s style works this paradox expertly. She fires off turns of phrase that anticipate the viewers, or suggest that she remembers they are there with a quick “I don’t know about you,” or even simply, “You know what I mean?” Yet the viewer is also in no way precious; of the orange plasticky hair extension headband, she insists, “Try to tell me this doesn’t look good. You can’t. ’Cause you’d be lying.”
Perhaps one of her most effective “relatable” techniques is Chamberlain’s way of drawing her viewer into an imaginary shared space of understanding. When Chamberlain explains, “Like Skittles, Starbursts, Jolly Ranchers, they’re fine, they’re good,” the viewer is more inclined to agree with her on this point, and suspend their own sense of judgement in order to participate in Chamberlain’s bit. Again, if we look closely into Chamberlain’s form, it becomes clear that her style relies heavily on her specific way of communicating with the individual viewer at home—she narrates through ideas and trains of thought to her audience as if they are universally experienced. Chamberlain further orchestrates the relationship by putting herself in a humble and vulnerable position; she makes fun of herself and privileges her more embarrassing stories. Moments that once would have appeared awkward and uncomfortable if caught on camera are emphasized in Chamberlain’s videos, as she dances freely, only to trip and fall down.
This summer, the title of Chamberlain’s W Magazine profile made a bold claim: “Creating Emma Chamberlain, the Most Interesting Girl on YouTube.” To justify the superlative, the writer narrates a scene in the interview: “Chamberlain instinctively whips out her portable video camera and zooms in, rather comically, on the plate of pasta in front of her and then records her own bug-eyed response. ‘My eyes are watering,’ she says at the restaurant, biting into a piece of bread. ‘I’m emotional. This is like my dream come true.’ Then she reaches for her camera again. Welcome to Emma Chamberlain’s channel.”
Hyperbolic emotion, the suggestion of her own vulnerability: these qualities are distinctly Chamberlain. Yet “interesting” does not seem like the correct term to describe this sensibility. While incredibly compelling and humorous, Chamberlain does not show off any particular skills or knowledge. When she vlogs, she allows the viewer to follow her around her life in Los Angeles or on vacations and work trips. Getting coffee, working out at a spin class, getting her nails done, and going shopping at popular teenage shopping spots like Brandy Melville and Urban Outfitters—this collection reads like a list of various lifestyle-oriented activities, but in fact, it’s a nearly exhaustive account of what Chamberlain chooses to record. The extent to which Chamberlain repeats these few activities feels almost ironic. After seven minutes of watching Chamberlain eat room service or food ordered on delivery apps, one wonders why so many viewers put up with such banal content, even if it is mediated through a friendly and engaging personality.
The majority of Chamberlain’s oeuvre is pretty typical of YouTube vloggers. She cooks, travels, and reviews trends and products. She films ‘transformation’ makeovers into different personas, or various beauty procedures, like getting her nose pierced or dying her hair. All of these can be interesting in their own ways, but crucially, this is normal YouTube material. In other words, when it comes to content, Chamberlain is not particular. She doesn’t talk about specific music, books or movies. Not only are her videos void of political or global issues, but Chamberlain avoids controversial topics altogether. Her more original videos feature challenges that Emma generates for herself and then completes. In “I’M PREGNANT,” she wears a fake pregnancy bump while getting coffee, shopping at Target, and doing floor exercises. In one of her more daring challenges, Chamberlain lives on her balcony for 24 hours. In general, these interventions mainly involve a rearranging of her everyday activities or, at her most inventive, dabbling in some light arts and crafts.
Thus the ‘interest’ in Chamberlain lies more in the ‘how’ rather than the ‘why’ or ‘what.’ We could read the writer of the W magazine profile to suggest that Chamberlain’s specificity, or perhaps her talent, comes from how she responds to things. In these moments of perception or analysis, Chamberlain can best perform her sarcasm and engage her audience in vivid descriptions and “takes” on banal things that happen to her.
While the descriptor “relatable” speaks to Chamberlain’s style of speaking, it certainly does not extend to a real intimacy with Chamberlain as a person. Imperfections and jumpy cuts do not logically contribute to a heighted knowledge of the identity behind the sarcastic, funny, and awkward YouTuber. In fact, what her viewers are most curious about is withheld: her secret boyfriend, or the falling out she had with two relatable YouTuber best friends. These realms of Chamberlain’s life are rigorously theorized in the comments section. But on online forums dedicated to solely her, or on YouTube gossip channels, not a word of it is uttered or even suggested in the “relatable” videos she posts.
Chamberlain’s “relatability” surpasses her warm and open rapport—it becomes a quality that informs the form and composition of her videos. Chamberlain is known for her editing style; in fact, TIME includes Emma in their “most influential” list because her editing style “spawned a subgenre of young creators following her lead.” Chamberlain manipulates her filmed footage with zooms, pauses, filters, sound effects, and repetitions. She creates a video of continual stimulation, where the typical visuals of vlogging are slightly distorted in a way that is surprising, exciting, and most pertinitenly, engaging to watch. Her videos feed off of imperfections: if she captures a strange gesture or awkward facial expression while recording, she might zoom in to isolate the weird moment, or slow it down, or play it again with a funny sound effect. Her style might even be described as clownish as Chamberlain uses the manipulability of digital editing to exaggerate and mimic the gestures and idiosyncrasies of her own personality.
In the 1970s, film theorists identified the illusion of reality as the attractive quality of conventional narrative films. Careful cuts created perfect temporal sequences that enveloped the spectator in the make-believe scene and encouraged them to abandon themselves for the world inside the screen. This ideal form of cinema might be loosely identified in the evolution of vlogging styles. Earlier YouTube vloggers perfected their videos with smooth transitions and carefully controlled temporalities. The recorded segments retained a quality of perfection that suggested they were one of many takes. Then came Chamberlain, who created one of the first popular vlog channels to explicitly upset the ideal of formal cohesion in the vlogging world. Chamberlain’s intervention involves opacity: she abandons the ideal of smoothness or cleanliness of previous editing processes by making her edits obvious. For example, in the middle of the vlog, Chamberlain will drop in a clip of her commentary from the moment of her editing. The temporal structure is hardly ever realistic when the footage incessantly starts and stops, sometimes repeating like a broken record.
While discussions of Chamberlain’s particular popularity focus on her novel style, they do not acknowledge the fact that Chamberlain’s intimacy, honesty, and relatability are not truths but effects of Chamberlain’s videos. Despite the amalgamation of gimmicky filters of editing software, Chamberlain’s videos still register as cohesive and easily digestible. In fact, Chamberlain’s editing works to enhance the allure of the video, attracting the viewer with surface level simulation rather than seamless reality. A different filmic reference offers a model for Chamberlain’s style: the cinema of attractions. In contrast to voyeuristic, immersive, narrative based films, film theorist Thomas Gunning identifies early Avant-Garde cinema as the “cinema of attractions.” These non-narrative productions rupture a self-contained story or world with magical spectacles of film-making; the “attractions address the viewer directly, soliciting attention and curiosity through acts of display.” By engaging the surface and performing to the viewer, these works embrace the function of film to show rather than to represent. Chamberlain produces a “cinema of attractions” through digital means, adding carnivalesque gestures and machinic movements as appeals to her spectator. Goofy face warps and inserted comments speak directly to the experience of the viewer. Post-production camera effects and filters emphasize the surface of the image, making it a space of excitement, fun, and surprise.
The term “relatable” contrasts another prevalent descriptor and popular category of social media influencers: aspirational. In a profile published in the Atlantic this summer, Chamberlain is denied this quality: “In fact, she doesn’t make her life seem very aspirational at all: In many of her videos, she looks like she just rolled out of bed.” Out of bed, and into her luxurious Los Angeles apartment, where she might pull on a sweatshirt featuring a cartoon of herself. She doesn’t have to worry about school—she dropped out and moved to LA alone. Despite persistent attempts in the media to describe Chamberlain as an anti-influencer, the activities she now showcases in her videos and on social media are not feasible for non-wealthy teens. She leaves her house for several rounds of intricate coffee drinks, flashy exercise classes, and the more than occasional tropical vacation, but she stays in to film extensive clothing hauls and enjoys Postmated health food dinners.
Chamberlain’s transformation from quirky high schooler to LA it-girl required significant funds. The social media analytics site SocialBlade predicts that Chamberlain has earned up to 2 million a year in ad revenue in her two years of YouTube work. This sum does not take into account any earnings from sponsorships, personal merchandise sales, and collaborations with brands to create Emma-specific products—of which Chamberlain has plenty. The affordances of such a wealth certainly shows. Over the course of her YouTube career, she has switched out her old clothes, belongings, interests, and friends for ones new and improved. With her Louis Vuitton handbag(s) and Gucci belt, Chamberlain will still perform as “relatable,” but her look can only be sought after.
If Chamberlain’s videos were never about anything particularly interesting, then it was not difficult for the subject matter of her videos to shift into this newfound luxury lifestyle. Her airy modern apartment with quirky furniture serves as the backdrop to multiple videos. She vlogs vacations in Fiji and Hawaii. When Chamberlain posts a fashion week vlog, the flight, hotel room, meals, makeup, clothing, and activities are all bought by Louis Vuitton. A YouTuber will often spend money to create specific content for their video, and the money spent is considered an investment in their channel. But in Chamberlain’s case, the impact of her YouTube earnings on the content she produces feels structural rather than incidental.
Beyond her expenditures, the culture of YouTube seeps into Chamberlain’s world. All of Chamberlain's friends are other YouTubers, presumably those she mingled with at conventions, brand events, and collaborations. For two years, Chamberlain’s position as a lifestyle vlogger has forced her work and life to overlap, blurring the boundary between the two categories. Her relationship to real life and things is so embedded in her YouTube personality that when she does reference a specific product, she jokingly qualifies her comment with “not sponse,” as if one would expect Emma’s recommendation to be bought.
It is as if Chamberlain’s weekly videos have become effects of her career, and thus inseparable from the structure YouTube has provided. Chamberlain doesn’t use YouTube simply as a platform on which to upload her creative content, and her viewers and subscribers are not isolated witnesses of her videos. Instead, the structures of advertising and marketing tie the action of watching YouTube directly to the content they see: the life of the YouTuber generated by the money they earn, the brands she works with, and immersion in the YouTuber community. That Chamberlain frequently ends her videos with “If it wasn’t for you…” is an admission of her utter dependence on the viewers that catalysed her success.
When we recognize the extent to which Chamberlain’s YouTube success is generative of her channel as a whole, the collapse of YouTube star into the YouTube offices seems almost allegorical. The premise of the video has the potential to force the viewer to recall what remains invisible when we watch short videos on the internet: the fact that YouTube is not a neutral platform but a profit-making company—and that YouTube needs our views just as much as Chamberlain does. Instead, she fires off a series of ratings: the chair in the lobby receives a 6/10, and the next point of interest, a massage chair, gets a 10/10. Nearing the end of Chamberlain’s “tour,” we realize we have barely learned anything at all about YouTube’s headquarters; after all, we could have guessed there was a VR room and a smoothie bar. Again, Chamberlain’s video presents us with almost arbitrary, commerce-oriented material, continually mediated through Chamberlain’s calculatedly engaging personality and editing style.
Chamberlain leaves her acne uncovered and doesn’t edit out her on-camera burps, but little imperfections can’t prevent her teenage fanbase from dreaming about a life like hers. Her “relatable” style, which feeds on humorous honesty, represents a kind of aspirational model that isn’t based on perfection. Chamberlain is chill, fun, and down to earth—most of all, she’s likeable. It is the viewers choice as to whether or not Chamberlain’s company is worth sitting through vlogs of mediocre cooking, banal days-in-her-life, or sponsored monologues about skincare, all interspersed with unskippable ads. Millions have already decided to keep watching.
ISABELLE REA B'20 is not sponse.