Adapting Big Sisters: The Intermediality of YouTubers Autobiographical Advice

By Silke Jandl

 

Introduction

YouTube vlogger is the new dream job among teenagers (see for example here and here); in fact, over the past decade YouTubers have rapidly become prominent role models and their highly subjective advice is avidly sought after. The fan communities that have evolved around YouTube vloggers have proven not only to be eager consumers of audio-visual material but also dedicated readers of print books. Starting in late 2014 numerous books published by YouTubers have flooded the bestseller lists across the globe. The CEO of Simon & Schuster, Carolyn Reidy, has commented on this trend in Publisher’s Weekly: “YouTube authors draw [sic] new reader who, having seen the personalities on the web, want to own a small piece of them. Online videos are, by their nature, intangible; a printed book, on the other hand, is anything but.”  Accordingly, I will explore the role of materiality and mediality in the interrelationship between YouTube videos and books. I will argue that the books YouTubers publish can be analyzed as adaptations, as well as transmedial expansions. I will be using Werner Wolf’s theory of intermediality in order to shed some light on certain specific adaptation processes. I will furthermore outline the relationship between YouTubers and their viewers, which will aid in the understanding the wide-spread trend of self-help books and videos. I will lastly provide a brief intermedial analysis focusing primarily on the audiobook versions of two such books.

 

Adaptation, Intermediality and Transmedia Storytelling

Given the strong ties between the book publications and the writer’s YouTube content, I argue that the books can be seen as adaptations of (part of) their respective YouTube channels. Hannah Hart, for example, has become famous for the “My Drunk Kitchen” series on YouTube, and her first book explicitly ties in with that series, as the title clearly shows: My Drunk Kitchen: A Guide to Eating, Drinking & Going with Your Gut. The book includes all kinds of content Hart has put on her YouTube channel, in addition to recipes, general advice, personal anecdotes, and comedy. The book also seeks to emulate the visual style and the pun-based humor that is characteristic for the channel. In a similar vein, most YouTubers’ books can be classified as adaptations. The two books I will be focusing on in my intermedial analysis are also adaptations of the respective writers YouTube channels. Grace Helbig’s Grace’s Guide: The Art of Pretending to be a Grown-Up is an adaptation of Helbig’s humor, aesthetic style and her pre-planned videos (as opposed to her “stream of consciousness videos”). Carrie Hope Fletcher’s What I Know Now: Wonderings and Reflections of Growing up Gracefully, is an adaptation of two specific kinds of videos that she frequently uploads to her channel: videos about Fletcher’s past experiences and issues she discusses that have mostly been inspired by the interactions with her subscribers in the comments, on Tumblr and on Twitter.

While a YouTuber’s personal life memoir might not have been the story Henry Jenkins had in mind, it is useful to apply the concept of transmedia storytelling to them. Jenkins is one of the most prominent scholars who has significantly shaped the understanding of transmedia storytelling, specifically in Convergence Culture, but also on his blog Confessions of an ACA-Fan. Given the complex interconnectedness between YouTube content, book, and social media output, it is also helpful to take transmedia storytelling, and specifically the subcategory of transmedial expansion, into consideration. Jenkins conceptualizes transmedia storytelling as the simultaneous dispersion of a story over several distinct media. Unlike transmedia storytelling in general, which assumes that there is no hierarchy between the media or storylines within a transmedia story, a transmedial expansion has one clearly identifiable core medium around which other media expand on characters, plot, and setting. The YouTube channel has clearly established itself as the core medium not least because activity on YouTube and various social media sites has been upheld or even increased during and well after the publication of the books. In virtually all cases of YouTubers publishing books, the YouTube channel and personality has grown a following over several years by the more or less regular uploading of videos to the website and the building of a consistent personality brand. As it is of key importance that the YouTube channel and the book that might grow out of it present a unified personality brand, the resulting publications can gainfully be analyzed as transmedial expansions. Given that the loyal and engaged fan bases around YouTubers are most likely what made them attractive to publishers like Penguin, Simon & Schuster, and Little Brown in the first place, it is crucial to examine the relationship between YouTubers and their viewers in more detail.

 

Vlogging: Amateur Experts, Friends and Role Models

One of the key reasons why YouTubers are increasingly seen as role models is the format most YouTubers use to interact with their audience: the vlog. The vlog, short for video blog, is a precondition for a dedicated and trusting fan base. In vlogs the camera is predominantly focused on the face of the YouTuber which creates the illusion of face-to-face communication. This set-up often seems to result in the perception of authentic intimacy that is usually associated with friendships. Indeed, “people feel like you’re their best friend […],” Grace Helbig pointed out in an interview with Amy Poehler. YouTubers are generally aware that many subscribers regard them as friends; some even actively encourage this notion. Shane Dawson, for example, emphasizes that “I’m also here to be your friend and to hopefully help you and I’m glad that I could do that” (Dawson, “AM I A VIRGIN?”). Others even go as far as to suggest that the friendship-like relationship is mutual, as Tanya Burr does in Love, Tanya: “I love reading all your comments and tweets and feel so lucky that I get to chat to people I think of as friends all around the world” (Burr, 2015: 8).

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Hoang Bin, pexels.com, CC0 1.0

Helbig, in the introduction to her first book Grace’s Guide: The Art of Pretending to be a Grown-Up, takes the friendship-like relationship into another direction, when she states that she sees herself as “the Internet’s awkward older sister. I may not have ALL the answers, but I’ve got my own advice, opinions, and theories to help get you through this arbitrary piss den called life” (Helbig, 2014: 10). Similarly, Carrie Hope Fletcher has established herself as an “honorary big sister” early on in her YouTube career. In a video that she herself titled “Honorary Big Sister” she encourages especially teenagers to turn to her for advice (Fletcher, “Honorary Big Sister”). This notion of Fletcher as an older sibling has been taken up as a selling point by her publisher; it is repeatedly used in the marketing of her book, be it in the author description on the book jacket or the quote from a fan above the blurb, describing Fletcher as a “kind, caring and witty big sister. If you’ve ever got a worry about anything, she always has a wise and hopeful word to share” (Fletcher, 2015).

In her introduction Fletcher goes into some depth, reflecting on her own, and her colleagues’, status as role models. She sees the consistent uploading of vlogs and especially sharing personal stories online as a major reason why viewers look up to them. She goes on to explain the appeal of turning to YouTubers with problems, worries and questions:

“My inbox is filled to the brim, daily, with questions that the askers wouldn’t dare discuss with their parents, teachers or other authority figures that they find scary. You turn to me, us, the generation of vloggers and bloggers, because we’re close enough in age that you know we understand and you feel like you know us so well because of the amount of our lives, experiences and stories we share with you, but we’re distant enough from your situations for you not to feel too exposed when confiding in us your deepest, darkest issues. You feel somewhat anonymous and therefore you open up more and aren’t as scared to ask for help” (Fletcher, 2015: xxiv).

Self-help as a concept that transcends media grows naturally out of the expectations for and conventions of vlogging. Vlogging necessarily puts the emphasis on the self and authenticity, while it also foregrounds personal experience and personal growth. YouTube vloggers usually present their own lives positively, showing off new houses, skills, relationships, cars, and pets, as well as chronicling mental and physical health progress. While YouTubers on occasion explicitly remind their viewers that they are not perfect and the content they present online is by definition a polished and carefully selected version of themselves, many teenagers want to emulate their lifestyle.

A sense of responsibility has grown out of the awareness of their status as role models for a predominantly teenage audience, which has resulted in numerous advice videos on a range of different topics including, bullying, school, friendships, sex and sexuality. The positive reinforcement via comments from viewers who have found courage or comfort in such videos and ask for more advice has then led to a strong focus on advice in the books YouTubers have recently published. The demand for advice is in fact so high, that YouTubers frequently take up suggestions and question in their videos to specifically answer a query from a viewer on social media and discuss an issue that was brought up in the comments. At the same time the majority of these videos also set out to be encouraging and motivational, as the outspoken goal of making content online is often to “make someone’s day better” by providing funny, entertaining and helpful content.

Even though it might seem to fans that YouTubers are sharing the majority of their lives online, in videos, social media, meet and greets, and their books, the self-imposed obligation to produce motivational content leads to the polished and near-perfect lives that viewers experience in videos. This has also had rather serious consequences. Several YouTubers have taken the opportunity of writing autobiographical books as to add some complexity and relate some rather dark experiences they have chosen not to disclose to their viewers. Thus, Jenn McAllister discusses how she was doxxed. Doxxing is the hacking of somebody’s personal information and making it freely available online. This includes phone numbers, credit card information, social media passwords, addresses etc. McAllister describes how she and her family had to cancel credit cards, get new phone numbers and eventually move house as a result of incessant privacy transgressions following the cyber-attack. This is a common threat for YouTubers, and a problem overall because law enforcement often still struggles with the concept and the handling of such attacks. Even though McAllister asserts that she was too afraid, terrified and upset to talk about it at the time, she addresses the issue in her book: “I’m going to share it with you guys now because ultimately it’s part of my story and it’s important to know these things can happen.” (McAllister, 2015: 118)

Felicia Day devotes a chapter on reflections about #GamerGate and the dire consequences of her speaking up about her experiences in the gamer community that very quickly turned hostile towards women. Day had been doxxed the year before speaking up about #GamerGate and again as a result of it, she was weary of including any mention of it in her book: “I had to think long and hard about writing this chapter, and I know there’s a good chance I will have more of my privacy violated as a result. There will certainly be another flood of online attacks because of it.” (Day, 2015: 249)

Justine Ezarik, aka iJustine, goes into some detail about an incident with a Swat Team evacuating her and her boyfriend because of the “prank” of a fan who had gotten a hold of her home address. It is rather interesting that the only YouTubers who thematized these kinds of incidents in their books, are all female and their online content often is on male dominated topics like technology and gaming. This goes to show that despite the utopic positivity that characterizes most YouTube videos, there is a large and potentially dangerous gender divide deeply ingrained in some parts of the YouTube community. These three instances also exemplify how sharing the harrowing effects of being “internet famous” can fulfil a several goals: to connect emotionally with the fans who bought the book, to present a more balanced image of life as a YouTuber, and to show how some fans’ misguided desire to get close to them affects their life and safety.

Because most YouTubers choose not to share any seriously negative aspects of their lives it is rather easy to romanticize them and their lives, which is most likely why so many (pre-) teenagers turn to them for advice in all areas of life. Indeed, this is a trend so wide-spread that all of the non-fiction publications by YouTubers share the explicit desire to make the book a helpful guide for their readers. This is typically achieved via the combination of straightforward lists of tips and advice or via telling personal anecdotes. Sharing personal anecdotes is a quintessential part of any YouTube vlogger’s online content. Adapting their style of relating such anecdotes, thus, is crucial for the success of a transmedial expansion. This is especially true if the transmedial expansion is an autobiographical book that promises – implicitly as well as explicitly – to provide more in depth discussion of personal stories. According to Publisher’s Weekly, Jennifer Bergstrom, publisher at Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster’s, explains that “fans see books as more intimate means of connecting with their favorite online stars than watching and commenting on a video.” Connor Franta stresses the intended effect of such anecdotes when he claims that one of the main reasons he decided to write a memoir was “[t]o share the challenges I’ve faced in my twenty-two years on earth – some universal, some intensely personal – and hope that they can comfort you, guide you, or just make you feel less alone with your own challenges” (Franta, 2015: 8). Much of the content that YouTubers post online or print in their books indeed is attested by fans to be helpful, and their transmedial advice is taken as a resource despite an explicitly and repeatedly proclaimed lack of qualification.

Qualifications, however, do not seem to be a priority on the Internet, a fact to which the innumerable amateur DIY videos, tutorials, how-to videos and “let’s plays” attest.  The past few years have seen a rise in appreciation for the “amateur expert,” a concept that seems to be especially applicable to YouTubers. Beauty gurus like Michelle Phan, Louise Pentland and Tanya Burr, for example have become quite famous with their make-up tutorials and fashion advice, which over time has turned them into professionals in the field of make-up and fashion. Pentland has a clothing line, Michelle Phan and Tanya Burr have their respective make-up lines; and all three of them have gone on to write books on beauty. A strong focus even in books that have a clear practical application was laid on the autobiography of the writers and their life advice for younger readers.

Another kind of amateur expert is Charlie McDonnell, who became YouTube famous through his vlogs and his tutorial on how to make proper English Tea; and who decided against doing his A-levels because he could make a living from making YouTube videos at 16. On October 16, 2016 he released a book on science titled Fun Science: A Guide to Life, the Universe and Why Science is so Awesome. With his book McDonnell seeks to explain the universe, elements, cells and other scientific areas of interest. In his introduction he attempts to “make my case as to why I think non-scientists can be just as good (if not possibly better… maybe… very maybe) at sharing the best and most interesting scientific knowledge with the world” (8). He proposes “to divide people who talk about science into two different groups: scientists and science communicators,” (16), and accordingly aspires to become a science communicator in order to instill enthusiasm for science and the scientific method in his readers.

There is an undeniable appeal to learn from amateurs; perhaps because they suggest that their skill level can potentially and eventually be reached and surpassed, or perhaps because the task of learning a skill or indeed growing personally and professionally does not seem too daunting when the process is consistently documented. The implication of presenting the practical application of a skill step-by-step or the documentation of one’s personal life is that anybody could emulate them. Vloggers suggest with their videos that self-improvement, and with it success and happiness are within reach.

 

Videos and (Audio-)Books: An Intermedial Analysis of Grace’s Guide and All I Know Now

All YouTubers’ books are intermedial in one way or another. Plurimedaility is perhaps the most common and most clearly identifiable form of intermediality. Plurimediality, according to Wolf encompasses both media combination, i.e. in instances where media are next to each other and could potentially be meaningful on their own (e.g. text and image in an illustrated book), and media hybrids, i.e. in instances where different media co-dependently make meaning (e.g. in film where image, music and text are combined to make a whole) (see Wolf, 2002: 173). Plurimediality, thus, describes how a range of media might co-exist to make and add to meaning in any particular work. Grace’s Guide is quite obviously plurimedial: it includes lots of pictures, as well as screen shots from her YouTube videos and makes use of several different modes, such as changing background colors and fonts. All of these components make the whole book into a plurimedial experience that relies on visual and textual elements almost in equal measure.

The importance of the intricate interplay of visual and verbal modes in this book is perhaps best exemplified by looking at its audiobook version. Even though the writer’s voice reading the text arguably assists in identifying humor, sarcasm and intentions more easily, the absence of visual markers ultimately results in a drastically reduced experience. Helbig’s physical book offers a variety of segments that work best in print but do not work as well, or at all, in the audiobook. The worksheets included in the book are ill-suited to the auditive medium, as they are intended to be filled out and contemplated in some depth, which is made difficult to impossible by the predetermined pace of an audiobook. Moreover, Helbig is a comedian and has provided numerous visually based jokes as well as intermedial references that are completely glossed over in the audiobook version.

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Marcin Milewski, pexels.com, CC0 1.0

By contrast, Fletchers print book only minimally relies on visual elements, except for a few illustrations as well as some subtle variety in fonts and coloring. For the audiobook, however, Fletcher has taken care to add “bonus material” exclusive to the audiobook. It includes three bonus tracks at the end of the audiobook. Two of these bonus tracks are “tags,” which are in fact staples of YouTube, and thus intermedial references. The attempt to incorporate a genre of video into the audiobook, specifically the collaborative sibling tag and the boyfriend tag, works well despite the lack of the visual component. To some degree this is due to the fact that, unlike the rest of the audiobook, these tags are live recordings that include some pauses, interruptions and mistakes, which is not acceptable in the bulk of the audiobook. Moreover, viewers, and most likely the majority of listeners have already seen Fletcher’s brother Tom and her boyfriend Pete, as both of them are YouTubers themselves. Because all three of them are well established in the audio-visual medium, and have frequently collaborated in videos, their mannerisms are so familiar that the purely auditive interactions between them are sufficient to make these bonus tracks an effective listening experience. Thus, while some YouTubers have managed to find medium specific ways to compensate for the lack of visual components in their audiobooks, others such as Helbig’s seem to be secondary and even inferior to the print version because of the failure to consider and adapt to medium specific affordances.

While plurimediality is in the foreground of Helbig’s book, implicit intermedial reference is a central aspect of Fletcher’s. Implicit intermedial references are instances in which one medium attempts to imitate another. Such references often lay higher value on mimicking structure, form and medium specific conventions rather than content. Accordingly, Fletcher’s book is structured like a theatre play: it is divided into eight acts, complete with a prologue, an overture, an interval and a finale, props and a curtain call. More than anything else this intermedial reference serves as an allusion to Fletcher’s professional life. After all she stresses in her “Prologue” that she is: “first and foremost, above all else, an actress and a singer […].” (xi) The “interval,” which features the only full page-sized illustration in the book, is also an intermedial reference. It depicts Fletcher herself as Eponine, a character in the musical Les Miserables. Fletcher played Eponine in a West End production at the time she was writing the book. While the reference will be clear to those familiar with her role and her costume – which she has shown in her videos on several occasions – the illustration comes without explanation or further context, depending entirely on the prior knowledge of her readers to decode the reference. Including these intermedial references in the book subtly and continually reminds readers that Fletcher has a professional career besides YouTube, which adds a degree of authority to the 22-year-old writer.

 

Conclusion

I hope to have shown that YouTubers’ books can be seen as adaptations of their online content. This makes maintaining a unified personality brand a crucial goal, and these brands are often characterized by positivity rather than complexity. Nevertheless, the continuity, both in personality and upload schedule, contribute to the bond many subscribers feel with YouTubers. This closeness is partly facilitated, elicited and encouraged by the vlog form and vlog conventions. Thus, certain expectations are attached to watching vlogs. Authenticity, intimacy and immediacy are presumed attributes of the vlog. This is a major reason why viewers are not only eager to ask for advice but also earnestly take the advice their role models dole out. The resulting wave of bestselling autobiographical advice books by YouTubers is, thus, a primary example for the recent success of the amateur expert in traditional media. Ultimately, I hope to have tied these components together in showing how an intermedial analysis can aid in understanding current transmedial trends.


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Silke Jandl

Silke Jandl

Silke Jandl received her BA and MA in English and American Studies from the University of Graz, Austria. As part of her alma mater’s Joint Master’s Degree Programme, she studied a semester at the University of Roehampton, London. During the 2013/14 academic year, she served as a Teaching Assistant at the University of Minnesota. She enrolled in the Ph.D. program in English and American Studies in the fall of 2014. In March 2015, she assumed a part-time position at the Centre for Intermediality Studies in Graz, and began teaching classes in the American Studies department at the University of Graz.

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