We’re a decade into online video emerging as the most powerful and popular form of mass media, and yet almost none of its stars have truly “crossed over” into mainstream success
In 1998, 76 million people tuned in to watch the final episode of Seinfeld, an event often cited as television’s last mass culture moment. Twenty five years later, its actors Jerry Seinfeld and Jason Alexander have all retained their super-stardom, and Larry David and Julia Louis-Dreyfus have only become more famous thanks to their subsequent solo projects.
In 2020, there were more than a half-billion views of Bella Poarch’s “M to the B” lip-synching clip — making it the most watched video of that year. Today she is the third most-followed individual on TikTok with 92.7 million followers, and this success landed her a recording contract with Warner Records. Bella Poarch shows us what success looks like on social media.
But would anyone say that Bella Poarch is “famous” the way that the Seinfeld gang are famous? And this is not a problem unique to Poarch. Familiarity with “The Best YouTubers Of All Time” is not ambient knowledge but requires being extremely online. Some of this stems from the 21st century's massive generational split in media consumption, where adults have no idea what kids are watching or listening to. But by many objective measures, the most watched stars of internet platforms have yet to achieve the markers and profits of “mainstream stardom” — while a batch of non-online stars continue to do so. Zendaya and Naomi Osaka came up offline in the internet era, and this year they appeared in advertisements for Louis Vuitton. By comparison, online video stars haven’t broken into the global status hierarchy. Yes, TikTokers get invites to the Met Gala, but once they're through the doors, they're clearly at the bottom of that social ladder.
We could easily attribute this phenomenon to hysteresis — a lingering respect for Hollywood movie stars and pop musicians despite the waning cultural influence of those industries. But we’re now at least 15 years into the dominance of online video within youth culture. In the early 2010s, surveys started to find that teenagers were much more interested in YouTube creators than legacy media stars. At the time, it seemed plausible that youth would carry these preferences into their 20s and elevate their favorite creators. That didn’t happen. Online creators remain the petit bourgeoisie of the entertainment world, despite the fact that more people consume more online video today.
A good way to test this is to read the article “The Stars of YouTube Rewind 2012: Where Are They Now?” in which the answer is “nowhere”: MysteryGuitarMan, Annoying Orange, Smosh, Jenna Marbles, and Ryan Higa only stand as signifiers for the primordial sludge of early online content. In 2023 they may even be living well off of their one thousand true fans, but none of them took their online fame and turned it into offline stardom. Even with the internet becoming the default proxy for understanding “real life,” true global stardom is still only possible after receiving validation from the movies, Top 40 radio, marquee TV shows, and international brand advertising campaigns. Justin Bieber technically launched his career on YouTube by uploading an amateur audition video, but Scooter Braun scooped him up and made him a star through traditional channels. Bella Poarch can get a half-billion views in one year on TikTok but the caliber of companies reaching out to her for celebrity sponsorship deals is HyperX High Quality Gaming Gear, not LVMH.
This situation is a good reminder that the “mere exposure effect” — the idea that repeated exposure makes us like things — is much more complicated than pop sociology wants us to believe. Anyone who has ever suffered through the continuous death loops of cloying Japanese supermarket jingles knows our brains aren’t so dumb. We like things not just because we’re exposed to them, but because, before exposure, we have opened our hearts to liking them. And this is why internet platforms have failed to create true stars: We don’t trust the success on these platforms as something impressive. Social media apps don't imbue status value upon their most successful performers, and the platforms themselves haven't emerged as arbiters of high status. Here are a few reasons why:
1. The internet is not a taste authority
The internet is inherently democratic and participatory. Some manner of elitism, however, is required for an authority in taste, because people look for certainty in guidance for cultural choices. In the 20th century, magazines had this authority. They never just relayed information to audiences but also legitimized that information. By highlighting one individual or phenomenon over others, editors sent an implicit message that you should know about this. The New Yorker offered readers outside of New York the ability to know “the talk of the town.”
The biggest internet platforms like YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok don’t have this power of legitimization because (1) democratic uploading means they don’t choose whose content appears, and (2) algorithms means they don’t actively choose what specific content people see. Internet platforms can’t say you should know this — only, you could know this. Without the implicit promise of high-status editors making the selections, the “winners” of the platforms receive no halo of legitimation.
2. Internet stardom bestows no glamor
The democratic and teen-orientation of these platforms also means that there is no classic "glamor" in winning huge view counts. Often this is because the top content appeals to a lowest common denominator teen viewer or that creators may have relied on tricks to reach their huge numbers. But the striver aspect of internet stardom also means that we assume they are self-made “nobodies” rather than "chosen ones" who won over gatekeepers. And unlike real stars, we don’t see these creators hanging around with established athletes or billionaires in real life. Achieving a legendary “internet fail” means you get to be in Weezer’s “Pork and Beans” but not go with Weezer later to hang out at the Playboy Mansion.
3. There is a bias towards traditional artistry
There also remains an inherent bias in favor of “artistry” within high-status circles, and internet stardom seems much more about moxie and hustle than innovative creativity. For every Top 40 radio hit, we, rightly or wrongly, assume some exceptional level of musical talent. For every actor in a Hollywood film, we assume exceptional dramatic skills, or at least, natural beauty. So yes, MrBeast must possess some talent to reach #1 but it's "comedic entrepreneurialism" rather than artistry. As long as glamor emerges within the high-status world of power, fame, and money, internet stars are at a disadvantage if that world doesn't respect their particular types of talent.
4. Internet creators are often not ready for stardom
Many YouTube creators build their massive audiences through sociopathic stunts, and it’s not surprising when the creators turn out to be sociopathic in real life. Similarly the violently-minded Soundcloud rap movement ended when actual violence got the best of them. For non-sociopathic creators, winning the virality game can also be like winning the lottery, and few creators are set up with team that helps them prepare for long-term stardom. With no managers or public relations advisers micromanaging their career choices, they may shrink away from the opportunity or feel invincible enough to double down on tasteless stunts. Major consumer brands or media companies may have considered working with PewDiePie, and then he paid someone to hold a sign saying "Death to all Jews."
In the mid-1970s, the Sex Pistols only took two years to move up from squalid London squats to the top of the British pop charts. Why hasn't a decade been enough time for DIY online video creators to turn their view counts into mainstream stardom? In 2023 we still live in a bifurcated media environment without much crossover. A merger remains inevitable, but it's going very slowly because the internet inherently can't imbue its success stories with high status. The end result is a generation of internet stars who are watched but not truly esteemed, and for that reason, they're not picked up for the chance at broader success.