Meet the new generation of digital content creators

Words: Modupe Oloruntoba | Photographs: Ashiq Johnson

YouTube’s evolution into a home for content with depth beyond clips of laughing babies and water skiing squirrels has led to the development of ‘channels’. Much like the shows you’d flip through on television, Youtube videos are produced for viewers on pretty much anything you can think of, from how-to’s on traditional food and fashion being lost to homogenised society to the mind-boggling ‘unboxing’ video. Thanks to this decade’s digital media explosion, content creators all over the globe have “hacked” the often closed-off television entertainment world to create YouTube channels with more loyal viewers than some popular TV shows. It’s the industry disruption no one saw coming, not even local gaming expert and full-time YouTuber Grant Hinds.

“When I started it was kind of like a Wild West,” Grant says of his channel’s debut in 2011. Not so long in the real world, but six years is an age online. “Monetisation hadn’t even opened up. People were still trying to work out what they were doing with the platform… Now things are a bit more established, the medium has been taken hold of by viewers. It’s become something I don’t think YouTube was anticipating it was going to become, and that’s really exciting.” Like many in the content world, Grant jumped onto YouTube long before he started producing anything, just to book his name. He was actually already working in digital video for a local company before making the jump to self-publishing on the back of the personal brand he’d built reviewing and discussing video games on radio, TV and magazines. “What I’ve been doing on my channel is creating content with the same quality that you’d expect from an international creator and with the same regularity and upload schedule as you would see from YouTubers you might follow abroad. Doing that puts you in the same league as those people. You’re not a hobbyist anymore, you’re a professional YouTuber, or broadcaster if you’d like.”

Grant’s channel has come a long way in six years - especially after he quit traditional media work altogether a year ago. 14 500 subscribers later and it’s all still for the love of video games and the community who plays them, arguably the largest community that has made the platform home. “I’ve got a 70% South African audience and it’s because gamers have been online this whole time, they’re watching YouTube, they’re ahead of the curve. So you find that they are very aware of how the system works... I don’t want to sound arrogant here but I think gamers have started a lot of the trends on YouTube, if you look at Pewdiepie and what’s happening on Twitch (the world's leading video platform and community for gamers). Livestreaming really took off when gamers got hold of it.” 

YouTube have made exciting strides with the tools available to its creator community in just the past couple of years. They’re beta testing a social media microsite and as we speak, Grant is publishing a video (one he’s already recorded, edited and uploaded) from his phone. As these things increase so does the potential for growth. Enter the YouTube Sub-Saharan Africa Creator Awards co-hosted by Grant on the 11th of November, the first for the region, and tangible proof that Google and YouTube are committed to the African creators contributing work to their platform. “It was an amazing thing that YouTube Africa did,” says Grant. “The biggest takeaway for me was that it showcased African content to Europe and America, because they don’t really get to see what we’re making. We’re kind of walled off by language and culture, whereas because their cultures (Europe and America’s) are very similar they get to intermingle content.”

One way to cut across barriers is common subject material and we have plenty of that. Case in point: You would only know beauty YouTuber Cynthia Gwebu lives and works in Cape Town if you watch her lifestyle vlogs. Her makeup tutorials stick to a simple standard format developed by YouTube’s beauty community that is easily digestible for most users (it also helps that her videos are in English). With that background, those title effects, and the products she features, she could be anywhere in the world. 18 months in, things are going incredibly well. Cynthia is one of only a handful of beauty bloggers in South Africa catering to black users with thoughtful reviews, funny collaborations, and useful techniques. She's also one of even fewer who is closing in on 7000 subscribers. 

After an internship in a fashion magazine’s beauty department, Cynthia started out making videos for someone else. “I think the passion for it came while I was there. It became a conflict of interest, and I had to go from the one side of working with a company – it’s already established and you’re just adding to the team – to starting from scratch, trying to build your own brand. It was a challenge but it was welcomed, obviously it had to happen. Then there’s the nice part, where you’re finally doing it the way you want to do it and it’s your creative vision and the way you conceptualise things, you actually have that authority to put it through and implement. Those are the perks.”

Once you’ve mastered consistency – the key to success with content on any platform – building community is the next priority, and the trending approach is going offline. When your entire experience of someone’s brand is in front of a screen, real face time can be effective for strengthening the connection and extending the brand’s reach, à la Michelle Phan. Cynthia’s keeping mum on the details, but her possible plans include events like workshops and masterclasses for her followers. “I’ll try things out and see what’s next, what works. This blogging thing is a short stint for me – five years tops – and then I need to have my own sort of management agency. This is a means to an end, but a means I still very much love.”

So the content is there and the content is good, but how do we get more South Africans on board? Younger audiences aren’t on traditional media anymore, but they’re not in the subscriber counts on these channels either, at least not in the numbers they could be. “Even your audience, who are buying goods, would buy clothes here, online, as opposed to in a store because it’s better and once you taste that, you go back to that experience,” Grant says. “It’s the same with YouTube: why would anyone watch content that is packaged like it’s been packaged for the last 60 years on television when you have all these great new genres that are being formulated for you, the audience member, based on how you watch that content – why would you go back?”

Data costs and unreliable internet connections that can’t handle streaming are part of the issue. Another is that the content consumers who do use YouTube for entertainment still shun local content in favour of international by and large. Closing the appeal gap will take time and work, but this community is up for it if they can access the things they need. Cynthia thinks creators need better visibility of their community and more available shared resources like Youtube’s Spaces program – an open and fully equipped studio space for content creators in cities like London, LA, Berlin, Paris, Mumbai and Sao Paulo. Entertainment reporter Moyin Oloruntoba is of the opinion that brands could be more receptive. “Not to diss bloggers, but brands are willing to work with a blogger who has 1000 readers when they aren’t working with YouTubers yet and we also have thousands of views. I think we give such a cool, full experience, that’s something brands should be open to. They need to understand how we create content and why paying for it is important.” 

Grant believes the biggest cultural hiccup that’s affected growth in South Africa is the fear of change, a result of the mindsets apartheid left behind. “It first permeated racially and it created a culture of very conservative people that are very scared of novelty. When people say South Africa’s always a few years behind the rest of the world technology wise, the reason we are is because we have a bad attitude to technology. We’re suspicious. We’re not welcoming to anything that’s new. You’ll see that from the television shows we watched in the 90s all the way to the media and people and platforms that we don’t understand – everything is scary. We need to break out of that. This is a very cool thing that’s happening. We have some of the best creators is the world - I firmly believe that… It’s like Shakespeare built the Globe Theatre, but he built it in South Africa for the rest of the world to watch and just tune in on their computers and phones at home. We have the opportunity to put our best talent on those stages and make the coolest stuff but here there’s already an antagonism to a new form of talent.”

It’s now the creator’s job to get young connected South Africans comfortable consuming content they already love on a new platform. Content like the local entertainment news Moyin Oloruntoba covers on The A1. “The market is ready for it. People watch it, people enjoy it, people want more. When we don’t put up a video people start asking.” The channel publishes a once (sometimes twice) weekly segment called The Lowdown, which is a straightforward roundup of everything from Bonang’s announcement that she’s writing a book to the EFF’s Julius Malema coming after record label Mabala Noise. “The channel has done really well this year considering that we’re only 13 months old… you just have to keep at it. From June it really started booming, and that’s nine months in. It’s probably thanks to the Best & Worst videos.” 

Moyin’s most popular content type sees a group of regular young people critiquing fashion on South Africa’s red carpets. The results aren’t always kind, but they’re relatable, on the nose, and side-splittingly funny. “By the end of the year we should reach one million total views so that’s very exciting. We’re also launching a new series on 6 December, a chat show.” The thing about any kind of news is that until your audience is an attention-commanding size, the content – however popular – is hard to monetise. Sponsored episodes are a common approach to start turning profit. “Starting to work with brands on the channel would be great, so that’s definitely next.” Moyin says of her plans. “In the next year or two we’ll diversify. We’ll launch another channel linked to this one.”

With celebrity comes pop culture, and with pop culture comes Pap Culture, made up of Nwabisa Mda, Thembe Mahlaba and Bongeka Masango’s take on the world around them from the perspective of young black South African women. Their discussion based content on pop culture, their personal realities, relationships and feminism in their Ride Along, React, and On Location series’ resonates with their peers on an unprecedented level. Anne Hirsch and Khanyi Mbau have been guests on their show, which is hosted by Nwabisa and Thembe and produced/edited by Bongeka, but the friends aren't fazed - they're just trying to make sure the duct tape and prestik keep the DSLR on the dashboard this time. 

"We didn't start the channel as a response to societal issues," Nwabisa explains. "We all had done some media related things and were keen to do something online and Youtube happened to be something we were all keen for... Ideally what we had in mind was something like Power FM's The Breakfast Club, something similar to what Anele (Mdoda) does with her guests, where they're just able to get to the truth of people." Thembe and Nwabisa are somehow able to treat serious content with a light lens. "There are so many serious things going on and you want to deal with these issues but you really don't... it's nice that we have created something that people can come to as an escape. So when you watch our Reacts videos you can just laugh but when you really want to get into it you can go to Talks."

The channel has led the trio to a TEDx talk, an invitation to host on the red carpet and present an award at the YouTube SSA event, and a brand partnership with Libresse on Vagina Varsity, an incredible month long youth sexual health education series made available for free to anyone who signed up for the project’s newsletter. You may have been first introduced to both Pap Culture and Sibu Mpanza, a YouTuber reporting on local current affairs with a dash of South African humour, in a popular video they collaborated on earlier this year discussing the controversial blesser finder app.

Sibu, like Pap Culture, has received a lot of attention in traditional media recently as a top five finalist in Cell C’s well meaning but arguably misguided competition #BreaktheNet. Contestants are given weekly video tasks and have to shoot, edit and send them to Cell C in a matter of days. Once the videos are live – on Cell C’s YouTube channel, not their own – the contestants have another few days to get as many people as possible to watch their videos and the highest ranked entries go through to the next round. In their advertising, #BreakTheNet told people entering that the job was to ‘make it go viral’. The phrase is cringe-worthy in the world of digital content, because anyone who produces it knows that a spontaneous combination of factors that no one has control over is what results in memes, photos, and videos crossing the globe in a matter of hours – you can’t make something go viral.

“That’s a bad premise for a campaign,” says Grant, who is rooting for his friend Sibu’s success as the competition nears its end. “I think it’s great, intentionally, what they’re doing, but I think more people who are putting campaigns like that together need to understand the medium before they do it.” Cynthia just said what every local YouTuber was thinking when they saw Cell C’s call to action: “I don’t get it. Like, how do you make a video go viral? I love the opportunity they’re offering to whoever wins, R250 000 and a trip to LA, but how do you have control over that?”

The truth is no one does. Not the people who own the platforms, and not the people who create the content that keeps audiences there. It seems YouTube is still the Wild West, and maybe that’s not the worst thing in the world – it means the barriers to entry are gone. For the creatively inclined among SA’s largely unemployed youth, a smartphone and an internet connection might unlock the world.