Last week saw the L&H’s James Joyce Award presented to Jenna Marbles, a YouTube personality. More people than I’ve ever seen queue for anything in my four years in UCD stood in a line wrapping around the old student centre, for over five hours, in a bid to see her in the flesh. So many people, in fact, that a Skype-hosted live-stream of the event was organised to cater for students who didn’t fit into an already overflowing Astra Hall, and were waiting around the Atrium of the student centre.
It is very difficult at the moment to get students to be excited about anything. With the demise of the bar, it seems students see little reason to stay on campus after hours, and it has been noted innumerate times this year how empty society events and debates have been, while even the re-opening of the bar saw poor attendance. The social side of UCD has all but dissipated, yet is seeing just under a thousand students not only attend an event, but wait around for hours for it to happen not the sign of something great happening on campus?
However, a small furore surrounded her visit, and the majority of it centred around whether people who created their own fame on the internet are really worthy of our time and/or praise. A number of students vehemently argued that Jenna Marbles receiving the award was disrespectful to James Joyce himself, and everything he stood for.
While it’s not for me to decide what James Joyce may or may not have stood for, especially having barely made it through the one book of his I’ve read, it’s worth noting that the award is completely made up purely to bring in people who have excelled in or are well known in their respective fields. Their many and varied fields. You don’t get anything for it besides a piece of paper and a frame, and you have to give a talk to students to actually receive it. No one said you has ever said you had to be the next Joyce to receive this (fake) award. It’s been given to musicians, actors, comedians, writers, sportspeople, politicians and activists. It’s been given to everyone from Noam Chomsky to JK Rowling to Gary Lineker to Alan Rickman, and more often than not, its recipients haven’t been any way involved with literature or novels.
Jenna Marbles is the first in the field of YouTube personalities to receive the award, and no one can argue she hasn’t excelled. Having racked up almost a billion video views and over seven million subscribers, she’s the third most subscribed to channel on the website. The problem is less to do with a measure of her success on YouTube, but a measure compared to every other person who was ever famous for anything. It should be noted that that is quite a wide scope and includes the entire Kardashian family, and many of the bikini models you find hanging around Stephen’s Green.
In fairness, a quick Google search to find out about internet celebrities doesn’t leave you inspired to believe in its validity, with many, many articles about how to become one. The main suggestions include ‘go on the internet’, ‘take pictures of yourself next to cool stuff like uglydolls and cupcakes’, ‘write about how popular you are and how busy you are replying to everyone even if you aren’t’ and ‘copy other people in ways that aren’t noticeable’. While these may land you some e-fame, it’s likely that that fame will only exist in the form of a meme.
Really, it’s a question of talent, and if you’re simply Overly Attached Girlfriend or Good Guy Greg, then yes, I’m mortified for you, but many YouTubers have actual talent, even just as entertainers. If Jenna Marbles was on stage doing stand-up, and she remained as funny doing a full set as a string of videos, it’s likely that she’d be celebrated for being an amazing female comedian, but for some reason once that’s transferred onto your laptop screen, she’s just a weirdo at home in her bedroom making nonsense videos? That doesn’t make sense.
Maybe 20 years ago it might have been understandable to be confused by a vlogger’s existence, but the internet is a really real thing now and in the eight years since YouTube’s founding, a lot of things have changed. Just because she’s on the internet doesn’t necessarily make her, or any internet celebrity, less talented than those who do what they do on a stage; the medium is just different, and it’s a medium that many prefer to say, television. Jenna has had offers of parts and auditions in TV shows, but she said herself that she just prefers making videos, being her own boss and interacting with her subscribers easily.
That’s the thing about many successful people on YouTube or in blogs: they have so many followers because people like what they do and want to know them, but more than that, can feel like they know them. Because blogs and vlogs are more accessible than television or print or more traditional mediums, fans feel like celebrities are interacting with them constantly. It’s far more personal than anything else.
People don’t put YouTubers on as high a pedestal because they are accessible and they feel like they could be friends with them, and that is shown when you look at the sheer number of people who arrived at the Astra Hall last Wednesday. David O’Doherty, an Irish comedian who had a TV show on RTÉ a few years ago, only half-filled Astra Hall an hour later, while Des Bishop, a comedian who gets a new series on RTÉ every other year, couldn’t fill it either back in November, and no one questioned what they were doing on campus.
While there are obvious differences between the two, you can’t argue the internet’s illegitimacy when it comes to people who have a talent of some description. The internet is a vast place and there is a lot of nonsense on it, and while, as with celebrities in traditional mediums, you can choose not to like people or you may not enjoy what they do, that doesn’t discredit the entire medium.