“Be yourself” has become the mantra of YouTube creators everywhere — but what does that actually mean?
In 2017, Savannah Brown’s channel went dark. This young adult had been on YouTube since the age of 13, but after spending a third of her life on the platform, Savannah stopped uploading videos.
Six months passed, and then the channel was resurrected with an upload titled “i broke up with youtube but he won’t stop calling me.” In this low-res webcam vlog, Savannah explains the numerous reasons for her hiatus, but the one that stands out most to me is the desire for her person-hood to exist as “its own thing” and not “a consumable thing.”
What are you selling?
When you put yourself on YouTube, or any social platform, you become something that platform can sell. Deeper than that however, you’re also invited to sell yourself — your brand, some would say — to sponsors as well as subscribers. It’s a blurry line for many vloggers, who often have a hard time keeping their public YouTube life separate from their private life.
At one point Savannah says of her previous videos, “I am existing for other people to perceive me as something,” a notion that she understandably finds exhausting. She’s not demonizing her fans here; she’s acknowledging the toll it takes on a person to put yourself out there, over and over again, during what are often called the formative years of your life — that transition from teen to adult. Add to that the potential to turn your personhood into a paycheck, and things get even messier.
This conflation of brand and identity is perhaps the reason “be yourself” has become such popular advice for new YouTubers. Authenticity is the ultimate goal for many vloggers, though what that actually means isn’t always clear. Marketers and viewers alike place value on authenticity, but is authenticity something you can buy and sell? How do you balance privacy with authenticity? Does holding parts of your life back make your channel less authentic? What happens to your personhood when you become the product?
These are tough questions, but every serious creator will have to answer them at some point. Whether you’re collecting revenue on your videos or not, success on YouTube often requires the presentation of a crafted persona that suits the expectations of your audience, your advertisers and your own self-image. How do you balance these sometimes opposing forces to create a video that’s truly authentic?
Authenticity and performance are seeming opposites, but they’re not mutually exclusive. Anytime you step in front of a camera, or out of your house for that matter, you’re giving a performance. You’re presenting yourself to be perceived by others, and that can be exhausting and scary and just plain weird at times.
But if appearing on camera is always a performance, what does it mean to be yourself on YouTube? To answer this questions, we must remember that we are the only ones who can define our values and identity. To be yourself is not to reveal everything, to give up your privacy or to present a consistent perspective video after video. To be yourself is to uphold your values and allow for change. Identity is a process, not a destination.
When Savannah realized she didn’t like making videos as much as writing, she took time to work on her novel. Now that she’s back to uploading, her posting schedule is sparse and irregular, but the videos she does post take a more casual tone. The choice to shoot with a webcam emphasizes the shift. She’s still performing, but now it’s a more authentic performance aligned with her own values and sense of self — not the static self that was projected onto her and that she had internalized but the still-evolving self that she continues to shape through experimentation and introspection — the authentic self.