Two stars are born

SN&R’s fame-obsessed writers chase YouTube stardom

Can two non-professionals produce videos that go viral?

Can two non-professionals produce videos that go viral?

Photos by Maria Ratinova

YouTube—the Wild West of video streaming. Between the content directed at kids, the white supremacist-benefiting algorithms, the demonetizing craze and the lawsuits, succeeding in YouTube without really trying will be difficult, but that’s our goal.

Meet the players: Rachel Mayfield, above average typist and infrequent watercolor-er. Maxfield Morris, former photo booth operator and current amateur dancer. Can two talentless upstarts film, star in, edit and publish a series of videos that launch them into YouTube stardom, all while writing this enthralling story? We hope so.

We’re going to produce four entire videos for the public’s enjoyment, using mostly our dogged determination and classical film training, or lack thereof. Our bona fides? We can both hold a camera.

Oh yeah—and one of us owns a camera-mounting shoulder rig for videography, one that was homemade out of PVC fittings, tape and plastic tubing. At the yard sale where it was acquired for $1, the seller said it was originally used by a little YouTube group you may have heard of: “Smosh.”

Now, we’re not ones for superstition, but given the present circumstances, we’re convinced that, much like in the 2002 movie Like Mike, in which Lil’ Bow Wow’s character inherits the abilities of Michael Jordan from a pair of his used sneakers, our endeavor is blessed with totemic streaming potency. Sure, Bow Wow gets struck by lightning as he retrieves the shoes from a power line, but that’s not important. What is important is getting some good ideas for sweet, clickable content.

We tossed around a whole bunch of ideas. There’s a crumpled piece of paper with ideas that didn’t make the cut: a prank show where the prank is setting a forest fire, a situational comedy about a man and his puppet, a brand new challenge where people eat a handful of dirt (aka “The Dirt Challenge.”)

Shooting began tentatively, much in the way baby mountain goats take their first steps on sheer cliff faces, but instead of the threat of falling to our deaths, we were faced with a bigger dilemma—failing to be entertaining.

That’s when we decided to reach out to the experts: YouTube stars, talented professors, folks who watch a lot of videos. We would run our best ideas by these titans of media in order to mold our videos into sure-fire, viral sensations.

Will our efforts end in failure, or will we find ourselves in Hollywood, bathing in the sun, soaking up the fame and showering with loofahs made from $10 bills?

YouTube in the crosshairs

We’re venturing into a lucrative, but controversial world. YouTube, which started in 2005 and was acquired by Google in 2006, is now the world’s most popular video hosting site. But it has been criticized for violating users’ privacy. In September, Google agreed to pay a $170 million fine for illegally collecting personal information from children on YouTube and using that data to target them with ads.

YouTube has also been blamed for spreading disinformation and lies during the 2016 presidential election. In 2018, The Guardian reported that in engineering its algorithm, YouTube prioritized extending the time users spent watching videos over the quality and diversity of suggested videos. It’s a strategy that resulted in placing political conspiracy theory videos next to regular news coverage of the election.

It’s pretty harrowing stuff, and it makes us wonder: What’s our move? Strive to produce quality content, or game the system?

How do we reach kids?

One of us had a brilliant idea. It would have kick, moxie and rhythm—and best of all, it capitalized off a YouTube sensation. We would parody Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road.”

It has been done, sure. Remixed by Lil Nas multiple times, parodied by ’Tubers who came before us. But we were convinced there was still mileage on the track, which becomes clear from watching the other top parodies, including Swartz Creek Community Schools’ take, “Hometown Road,” and “Old Thanos Road,” with 22 million views. The competition is not at all fierce, the quality of these music videos is universally terrible and we were on the bullet train to YouTube stardom. We just had to find our angle that would make our video the sure-fire hit of the parody season.

A few weeks into our production, we took notice of a wildly successful phenomenon that tipped us off to the perfect market for our musical experiment:

Kids. They’re easily distracted, enjoy colorful things and haven’t yet developed a sophisticated sense of humor—just like us! They’re a perfect mark for our channel.

And that’s when it hit us: What do kids like more than anything in the world? That’s right: clean teeth. Our next move became obvious: a parody of Lil Nas X’s masterpiece with a dental hygiene theme and told from the perspective of overeager orthodontists.

Their new YouTube channel is live, but will it become popular?

To make sure we were on the right track, we talked to a bona fide child, a co-worker’s 4-year-old son. We tried to pick the brain of this avowed YouTube consumer on what works for kids his age.

At first, all Elliot would really say is that he liked Pokemon, but he finally let slip a few valuable tidbits.

“I like to watch on YouTube, and YouTube is my favorite thing to watch. The HobbyKids, gosh, they play some games,” he said before subtly asking about the cinnamon almond butter one of us was eating and finally asking for a taste. Elliot then asked to see photos of the Pokemon Dragonite.

“Enough!” we wanted to bark. “Tell me what kinds of content we should produce! You’re a golden goose that won’t produce!”

But we kept it together, and our co-worker filled in a crucial piece of Elliot’s viewing profile: He’s a fan of “Ryan ToysReview,” a channel featuring a child who reportedly earned $22 million in 2017-18.

In his recent videos, Ryan opens toys supposedly given by his parents. He galivants in enormous sets, mugs for the camera and interacts with product-placement merchandise that can be purchased in stores across the world.

Our findings—mirrored across all YouTube content aimed at kids—showed that these videos are soulless cash grabs aimed at exploiting kids. Finally, after weeks of searching, we had found an angle.

But we realized that, like Ryan, if we wanted to truly really make a brand for ourselves, we needed to branch out. We needed to produce our own creatively independent content instead of just copying viral sensations. We needed an original idea.

Air ball

So we asked ourselves: What unites people? Stories—there’s nothing more powerful in the world than a good story.

OK, technically Tyrion Lannister said that in Game of Thrones. But we decided to tell our own story about a potted plant’s unlikely journey toward basketball stardom.

It has everything: drama, suspense, pathos. Viral moments are fleeting, but crafting a story that will embed itself in the cultural consciousness and live on long after we’re dead—that’s the mark of true success. Plus, we could probably capture some wild trick shots, just like the ninth most popular YouTube channel, “Dude Perfect.”

Our writing process was simple. We created a shared Google document and banged out a couple pages of unpolished scene descriptions and dialogue before giving up. We had done the hard part. Now, it was time to shoot!

We had a camera. We had a basketball. We had our plant. We had steely resolve.

Things started out smoothly enough. We captured the arc of the ball as it smoothly spun from our hands into the air, before bouncing violently toward a co-worker’s desk. It was pure cinema.

But it wasn’t long before we hit some bumps in the road.

We started to realize how difficult this video would be when we tried to pass the ball to the plant, and it would bounce right through its leaves. We don’t know about you, but if you’re telling a story about a plant that plays basketball, shouldn’t the plant at least be able to catch?

We were reluctant to admit it, but it was becoming clear that we had made a pretty serious casting error.

We needed to call in bigger guns.

Back to basics

Oh, did we mention one of our videos involves a shovel? No? Well, one of our videos involves a shovel.

The deeper we fell into the world of YouTube, the more we realized that becoming a star is serious business. We weren’t sure if we were fully prepared for the time and commitment it takes.

Just this month, lifestyle and comedy personalities Ethan and Grayson Dolan announced that they would no longer be uploading weekly videos because their rigorous schedule (uploading 20-minute videos every Tuesday) had damaged their relationships and their mental health.

So how do YouTubers avoid burnout? We agreed that, before diving too deep, we needed to gather as much information as possible and develop a serious plan. It was time to hit the books—specifically one single e-book, YouTube Channels for Dummies.

Written by Rob Ciampa and Theresa Moore, the volume covers “Managing Uploads,” “Understanding the YouTube Ecosystem” and even explains the basics of what each button on YouTube does—the one that goes to the homepage, the button that plays the videos. We didn’t read what the “pause” button does, but we’ve got a few leads.

As we clicked through digital pages, we read a few interesting theories about what makes a video go viral. Our best chances at blowing up the internet are to “engage the viewer” and “add humor.” No problem! But wait, we also have to “listen to feedback?”

We decided that books just weren’t for us.

We also decided to incinerate the book, but then we realized it was an e-book, so we spent three hours each researching how to get all the catharsis of book-burning without the toxic fumes from setting a computer on fire.

And then, it hit us—the name of our channel. “Explosions Only: 24 Hours a Day, 7 Days a Week.”

Catchy, right? We originally wanted it to be “Explosions Only 24/7,” but YouTube wouldn’t let us put the slash in our name. It’s a little long, but we’re convinced that it’s good enough to grab the attention of enough YouTube surfers to rocket boost our profile and rocket launch us into rocket stardom.

Almost immediately, we were faced with a problem. It’s difficult for people to find our channel. It doesn’t even pop up if you search for “Explosions Only: 24 Hours a Day, 7 Days a Week” word for word. In fact, that phrase gives results for countless other unrelated channels, including “Chris Mcfarlane,” which has two subscribers and one upload from 2014: a 28-minute jaunt titled “Adult egg unboxing” with 18 views.

Ask an expert

It was time to consult the experts, namely Sacramento resident Beau Straub. He is a producer for the YouTube channel “Animators VS Games,” which has gained more than 120,000 subscribers in its first nine months. That’s pretty darn impressive, so we asked Straub to fill us in on YouTube’s secrets for success.

“Right now there are so many people putting up so much content on YouTube, even though there are billions of viewers, the algorithm kind of runs everything,” he said. “The great black box of the YouTube algorithm really decides for just random viewers out there what videos get recommended to them. And overwhelmingly, that’s what they end up watching.”

There’s a lot of competition, and Straub says that videos with a high click-through rate get recommended more. The trick is to get on that recommended list, but we might be at a disadvantage.

“As far as starting a new channel, yeah, that’s incredibly hard,” Straub explained. “If you don’t really have any subs and you don’t really have any viewers, YouTube’s algorithm is not even going to statistically have any data.”

As the cast, crew and creative team behind “Explosions Only: 24 Hours a Day, 7 Days a Week,” we are all too familiar with that situation. How did “Animators VS Games” take off?

“The two main characters on our channel are DJ [Welch] and Alan [Becker]. Al is already kind of YouTube famous,” Straub said, laughing. “Alan was actually making videos before there was YouTube, back in the day when internet connections weren’t fast enough to stream video.”

“There was a Flash animation called Animator vs. Animation. That was Alan. Alan did that in high school. So he actually started on YouTube at the very, very beginning, so he’s had a very long, slow burn. I think he’s at 9 million subscribers.”

Unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury of a built-in fan base of millions of people. Straub studies analytics for their channel and videos to see which topics and videos do well—another tool we don’t have because we haven’t posted any videos yet.

When we reached out to YouTube titans such as “Smosh” for some worldly advice, we were met with stone cold silence. It looks like we’ll just have to improvise. And we will—look for our first video on Thursday, Oct. 17, plus one on Friday, Saturday and maybe Tuesday.

Still not convinced we’re qualified to produce blindingly gorgeous YouTube content?

You might be onto something. But we may have a few surprises up our sleeves. To find out, just remember to like, subscribe and buy the merch for our new channel: “Explosions Only: 24 Hours a Day, 7 Days a Week.”