This weekend, an article was published online for The Guardian, in which columnist Zoe Williams claimed that Zoe Sugg (aka Zoella) is “the vlogger blamed for declining teenage literacy”. Naturally, many a tweet was sent, many eyebrows raised by fans and people in the same industry as Sugg alike over this scathing article which came across as under-researched, poorly written, and generally jealous of a young woman’s achievements – just because they were obtained in a way which was not the norm even five years ago.
To begin with, the article’s headline, which claims Sugg has single-handedly made teenage literacy decline, is not ever backed up with any research or facts within the article itself. Who blames Zoella for teenage illiteracy? How do we know illiteracy in teens is rising? How do we know it is just Zoella and not other reasons, such as video games or poor teaching standards in schools? So many questions are raised, and yet no answers are given in the article.
Instead, it is an empty quote, I assume aimed to make readers click the story. It almost feels as if there is a list somewhere in the Guardian hub: “ah, what shall we blame vloggers and new-age creators for this week…I have it! Teenage literacy!”. It’s empty and shallow, and downright disgusting to accuse someone of something, especially someone so largely in the public eye, with little evidence and hard fact. Let it be noted that Ms. Williams is a columnist as opposed to a journalist. I suppose her stuff is more opinion than fact, anyhow.
For a short paragraph, let us perhaps correct Williams’ statements and throw some questions at her before moving on to the larger issue of why mainstream media seems to hate on vloggers so much.
Firstly, amongst many of Sugg’s business ventures is a trilogy of books, the Girl Online series, which were best-selling and had some of the highest records of sale since sales records began in 1998, beating other authors of the age group such as J.K Rowling, Jacqueline Wilson, and Stephenie Meyer. This, alongside her highly successful book club with W H Smith, show that young people, when encouraged by figures they admire, are in fact very interested in reading, and sales records show this. Secondly, the other criticism, is not about children reading, but about whether these novels are challenging enough for young people. My answer is this: as long as young people are reading and exposing themselves to literature , surely that’s a good thing? They can later move on to more challenging works if they so desire. When I was fourteen I wasn’t reading Wuthering Heights, I was reading Twilight – I’m now studying for a degree in English.
In real life practice, Sugg’s series has made my sister, seventeen years old and struggling with severe Dyslexia, pick up a book of her own accord and start to read again; something she previously did not enjoy due to how difficult she found it.
Additionally, Williams’ article clearly did not watch the video she cites in the article, which she claims had Zoe talking about herself in third person. In fact, she was talking about her friend. Just a small thing, but thought I’d just placed it in here.
Williams’ article attracted a lot of comments – both agreeing and disagreeing with her piece – and one of these responses was a video from YouTuber and musician Dodie Clark, which is the inspiration for this blog post:
In this video, Dodie eloquently explains all of the wonderful things the YouTube community and creators does, from helping young people see their own beauty, or being a place full of LGBT+ people who are a comfort to young LGBT+ people who may not know where else to turn, and are being encouraged to express themselves and feel comfortable in their sexuality, or YouTube as a place to share mental health stories and talk openly about the stigma surrounding it, amongst other things. I urge you to watch this video as it mentions things I shall not, for fear of repetition.
Mainstream media is quick to flag YouTube creators as daily vloggers, make-up tutorials, and candy-eating videos. Of course, these videos do exist on YouTube and there is absolutely nothing wrong with them – but outlets such as the Guardian appear to categorise these types of videos as dirty and negative, which is laughable really, considering how just over ten years ago we had the rise of the reality television star from Big Brother in the UK such as Jade Goody, or even the carefully-curated reality television shows such as ‘The Simple Life’ which exploded and even outranked some scripted shows in TV ratings. Surely vlogging is a step-up from these shows, as instead of having a persona crafted by a television production company in order to make you sell perfumes, autobiographies, and other products, the vlogger/YouTuber/online creator (whichever term you prefer) is able to create themselves and be in control of their own public image from the get-go. It’s a step up from having to hire a big company and create a large show – vloggers do all of that themselves, in their own space with their own equipment and ideas and talent (though some have branched out).
Perhaps it is this autonomy which scares mainstream media outlets, or specific members of them (usually those of an older demographic, though I admit I have no statistics). It is this autonomy which allows vloggers to be able to work with the brands that they would be happy to promote or be the face of. It is this autonomy which allows vloggers to be able to create something new every single day such as ‘Vlogmas’. It is this autonomy which allows young people under the age of twenty-five to have started their own business and their own brand, fulfilling their dreams and taking on projects which would never have been achievable eight or nine years ago. Emma Ganon has come from her blog to launch a book and successful podcast, Hannah Witton has written a sex-education book, Jack and Dean have created two series’ of a comedy show for FullScreen, Savannah Brown has self-published her own poetry collection thanks to her audience, Sugg is one of the faces of mental health charity Mind, and Louise Pentland interviewed Ed Milliband for the 2015 election, and a variety of US YouTubers including Tyler Oakley and Hannah Hart have spoken at the White House over the years. The list goes on – sometimes it’s products, but a lot of the time, it is activism that these vloggers are pushing forward and being a part of.
Is the mainstream media scared of these young people being so successful, having taken a non-traditional, new pathway? Are they scared of their own jobs and of not being seen as relatable, so they throw in a couple of choice buzzwords such as “Zoella”, “vlogging”, and “millenial”. into an article to generate clicks? Why not work together, mold ‘traditional’ media with the ‘new’ media which is still finding its way, and we are still learning from it every single day.
Let us stop with the hatred of vloggers and those who work in the online space. If we want to make critcisms of any of their actions or that world in general, let’s do it calmly, and with proper research to back up statements. Let us stop with hatred and jealousy and embrace the new media. Don’t hate something until you fully understand it.