Vlogs and Pods: How Entertainment Became a Substitute For Human Connection

Hello, everyone! I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the state of American entertainment in 2020, and I’m awed by how bizarre this landscape would seem to someone from the 1980s, 1990s, or even the early 2000s. Where once the average American would turn to the movie theater or their television for diversion, now they’ve graduated en masse to streaming services and Video On Demand. While the increased decentralization of entertainment distribution represents a major upheaval of the status quo, what most interests me is the rise of what I’m calling “intimate entertainment,” aka the type of content that appeals to the individual’s personal connection with the creator of that entertainment. The best representatives of “intimate entertainment” can be found in the vlogging and podcasting world, where creators amass enormous fan bases and stacks of bills simply by showcasing their unique selves and interests to other likeminded souls on the internet. What is the significance of this shift in content, and how does it affect the viewer?

Before 2005, the concept of a “vlog” would have caused mass confusion. The idea of watching someone film their lives, with low-tech handheld cameras, no sound production, and no plot, would have seemed strange and boring. But after the creation of YouTube, vlogging (portmanteau of “video blogging”) started to gain ground, eventually becoming one of the most popular forms of online content. Today, about 1/5 of the most subscribed to channels on YouTube feature vlogging as their primary format.

The contemporary world of vlogging is incredibly multifaceted. There are mommy vloggers, family vloggers, gaming vloggers, and travel vloggers. There are thousands of channels devoted to watching someone apply makeup, eat a meal, unwrap a package (known as “unboxing”), exercise, or review technology. There are vloggers who tell stories about their daily lives, reminisce about their pasts, or reveal the occurrence of shocking events.  The most popular vlogger by subscriber count, PewDiePie, vlogs while playing video games, or talking about cringey videos and Reddit posts. For this content, he has gained 105 million subscribers, and has an estimated net worth of $30-50 million.

Vlogging has undergone an evolution in recent years and much of the focus has shifted away from edited vlogs to livestreaming. Apps like Twitch and TikTok, and livestream services like Facebook Live and Instagram Live, as well as YouTube’s livestreaming capabilities, allow viewers to watch events unfold in real time. The stream might be nothing more than watching a person play games or answer viewer questions, but the real-time nature of the content, as well as the fact that many of these platforms allow viewers to communicate with the streamer through real-time commenting, creates a type of content that is more authentic and collaborative than traditional entertainment.

To older generations used to scripted television and movies, the popularity and lucrative nature of vlogging may seem perplexing. But to the members of the Millenial and Gen Z generations, vlogging provides connection, comfort, and most importantly, a type of authenticity that traditional entertainment never could. The ability to communicate with creators in the moment, and hear them respond, is what makes vlogging into an incredibly personal type of entertainment. To their viewers, vloggers are celebrities, but they’re also like friends. Vlogging is about authenticity (or at least the performance of it), and professional vloggers use their lives and relationships as content for their viewers. This sort of transparency makes it easy to see why viewers feel personally connected to vloggers, and why they feel so invested in their interpersonal drama and so offended by their public mistakes.

The rub, of course, is that this personal connection is not reciprocated. It’s not the vloggers’ fault, of course. They are entertainment creators, and their viewers are their audience and fanbase, not their friends. However, the fact that creators don’t have a personal connection with each and every fan doesn’t stop them from capitalizing on the vulnerabilities and desires of their audience: the need to feel included, connected, and seen.

According to a recent survey by the health insurer Cigna, approximately three out of five Americans report feeling lonely, and that they are “left out, poorly understood, and lacking companionship.” The same survey found that “73% of heavy social media users considered [themselves] lonely.” If we look at vlogging and livestreaming as a form of social media, then it becomes clear why these creators cultivate a “personal” connection with their viewers. It’s truly their bread and butter, a way of transforming viewer isolation and loneliness into views, and later into ad revenue and sponsorship deals.

From beauty vlogger James Charles calling his viewers “sisters,” to vloggers Austin McBroom and Catherine Paiz referring to their audience in their videos as the “Ace Family,” creators have brought the performance of inclusion and personal connection into the mainstream. The direct-to-camera format of streaming and vlogging enables this phenomenon to happen in the first place, and the creator’s pretense of talking directly to the viewer makes every vlog seem like an intimate video shared between friends.

But vlogs and livestreams aren’t the only form of “intimate entertainment” that capitalizes on the connection between creator and viewer. Podcasts, which have exploded in popularity over the past five years, have been relying on their listeners’ personal investment in their shows since the inception of the medium.

Like vlogs, podcasts are about anything and everything. I personally listen to a variety of podcasts, including some of the most popular like My Favorite Murder, Savage Love, Criminal, and Answer Me This!. Some of the  podcasts I listen to, like Criminal and the investigative journalism series Teacher’s Pet don’t fit into this category, as they’re mostly investigative and impersonal, like traditional news radio. But for shows like MFM, Savage Love, and Answer Me This!, personal connection is their lifeblood.

In the case of MFM, the hosts have made incorporating fan experiences a central part of the show by having short “hometown minisodes” where they read listener letters, and inviting audience members to tell their stories at their live shows. The hosts share personal anecdotes about their lives and speak to listeners like they are friends or family, and the  listeners do the same. As a longtime listener, I find myself falling into this trap too often. I’ve talked about the hosts as if they’re my own friends, dear pals that I’ve just never had the occasion of actually meeting. Even though I’ve never met these women, and probably never will, their frankness on the show gives me, and many others, the impression that we all share a deep personal connection. On the one hand, it makes me feel happy and connected to a community. But on the other hand, all of this connection is only taking place in my head.

So where does intimate entertainment leave us? Is our focus on vlogs and podcasts, and our deep investment in one-sided relationships with creators making us more lonely, or is it a way of soothing the loneliness that already exists? I can’t answer that in a 1100 word blog post, but I think it’s definitely a sign that entertainment as a whole is undergoing an irreversible  sea change. As our world becomes more and more hectic, perhaps watching a beauty vlogger, or listening to a podcast, is the easiest and fastest way to find some peace. It could also be a sign, however, that real human connection is being replaced by a more convenient, and less authentic alternative.

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