The Fine Brothers Backlash and the End of the YouTube “Superfan”
Unless you’ve been living behind a social media deflector shield for the past few years, you’ll no doubt have seen – or at least heard of – The Fine Brothers and their hilarious series of reaction videos.
The videos are wide-ranging in subject matter, covering – for example – the older generation’s response to Netflix or how young adults react to a “Surgeon Simulator.”
YouTube’s most prolific stars
But while they have popularized the idea of the ‘react’ video, they have many imitators. Or, taking another view, the Fine Brothers became most associated with the format by sheer volume alone, while – in tandem – many others played with the ‘react’ format, sometimes generating views on par with the Fine Brothers’ videos.
Regardless, the Fine Brothers undeniably hit a YouTube goldmine. Their videos have ranked them amongst YouTube’s most popular and profitable, by doing what other YouTube stars have done alongside them: creating content that is entertaining and niche, and matching it with intense volume to drive hits and rankings. And they – like other YouTubers – have built their brand and popularity based on perceived accessibility, which has become known as “friends, not fans.”
A betrayal of fans’ trust
So it should have come as no surprise that the Fine Brothers’ “friends” reacted with vociferous disappointment when they announced plans to trademark the ‘reaction video’, which would have enabled the Fine Brothers to effectively license the ‘react’ format, and therefore take a share of profits for any imitation video that generated revenue. Many described it as an attempt to squeeze money out of fans paying homage and a betrayal of fans’ trust, which had already been eroded by the Fine Brothers’ practice of taking down imitation ‘reaction’ videos. And fans walked the walk as well – according to Socialblade, the Fine Brothers lost over 115,000 subscribers on their main channel in over the course of a single day.
“Native creators are starting to think they’re outgrowing YouTube”
The Fine Brothers are not alone in seeking ways to extend and protect their YouTube brand. As we discussed at Music 4.5: The YouTube Paradox last month, the current trend among the top YouTubers is to become a sustainable business beyond the Google-owned platform. “Native creators are starting to think they’re outgrowing YouTube,” said Mark Mulligan of MIDiA Consulting.
If the Fine Brothers were taking other stars as example, there were many successful precedents – albeit in a different area. “Past success at branching outside YouTube has been largely to sell related products,” said Dominic Smales of social talent agency Gleam Futures. “Zoella has become a publishing phenomenon, and her line of beauty and make-up products at Superdrug make up 65% of market share.”
The power of “friends, not fans”
The perceived accessibility of YouTube stars is down to two key differences between them and traditional celebrities. One, YouTubers often film themselves in their own home environment, straight-up, without any of the ‘gloss’ that traditional stars have. As a result, their communications convey authenticity that is most times lacking in the scripted performances of music and film stars. Two, YouTube provides a simple, straightforward tool for fan interaction: the comments section. Successful YouTubers use this to great effect, thanking fans for their support directly, and sometimes engaging in friendly, personalised conversation and debate on par with the interactions between ‘real’ friends on Facebook.
“Ask a YouTuber why they’re so popular, and they’ll say that fans literally think of them as their friend,” said Nic Yeeles of Peg. “Traditional celebrities are on a pedestal, compared to PewDiePie, who is much more accessible.”
“YouTube is also a social network,” said Tristan Lillingston of 1983 Management, whose clients include YouTube star Emma Blackery. “YouTubers are interacting directly with fans in the comments.”
Backlash in the face of change
Such is the uniqueness of the ability to give direct comments to YouTube stars that YouTube itself faced a backlash when it changed its comments system. PewDiePie disabled comments on his channel before reinstating them a month later. “Changes to any big social media service (see also: Facebook) often attract a lot of criticism when they happen, before it settles down,” wrote Stuart Dredge in the Guardian. When it comes to YouTube, it has become clear that user reactions to change do not settle easily or quickly. That fans reacted so violently to the Fine Brothers should have come as no surprise. Fans – it seems – expect to be treated as trusted friends.
“Friends, not fans” may no longer be viable
Still, it’s arguable that the current levels of fandom and YouTube stars’ accessibility are unsustainable, and possibly coming to an end. YouTube star Zoella and her boyfriend – fellow YouTube star Alfie Deyes – recently made a plea for privacy after too many fans showed up at their new house, with Zoella allegedly telling fans to “get a better hobby.”
It’s clear that the rules of YouTube fan engagement are changing, even though we’ve only really just come to understand them. How will YouTube stars balance fan engagement with the desire for doorstep privacy? Because it’s clear that YouTube fandom’s dark side reveals itself when changes are made – fans don’t just expect friendship, but ownership of whatever actions or extensions that YouTube’s native creators attempt. Perhaps the fan-star relationship can morph into something less intense and voyeuristic, but at what expense?
For now, the Fine Brothers have to start the painstaking process of rebuilding the trust (and the subscriber numbers) they have lost. Whether they do so is down to the fans, and whether or not they can forgive what constitutes “betrayal” in the YouTube world.