I started a YouTube channel for a hot minute back when I was in sixth form and first year. The videos are still up and I should probably take them down (note to self). I don’t really know why I started doing it (probably a lifelong fascination with the digital), it was just me sat in my family bathroom against the wall with my iPad (won in a school competition) stacked on top of a pile of Harry Potter books. I’d perform monologues, do book hauls, a room tour of my campus bedroom. There was no particular rhyme or reason to the channel, I just wanted to start and do something with my summer holidays, I supposed.
(and I guess the allure of ‘fame’, in my seventeen-year-old mind, was also a factor)
Claire Gaydon’s performance See-Through documents her (we assume real) process of starting a YouTube channel at the age of 29 as an unemployed actor. We see her design a banner, make a jingle, and take photos for her profile picture (whilst talking to the photographer about a wet dream she had). “I want my channel to be like…fun” she says, as she embarks on a series of challenge videos.
Claire contextualises her project with a series of research. We watch her search on her laptop (facing away from us, with the screen projected on the curtain) the highest-paid YouTubers in 2018, and find that PewDiePie has over 60 million subscribers – the same as the population of Italy (!!!). There’s also the unsurprising statistic that 75% of schoolchildren want to be a vlogger or influencer as their career – higher than actor, pop star, doctor, or lawyer.
The thing I found most interesting about this performance is the audience. I think I’m one of – if not the – youngest audience member. Whilst the majority of the audience gasps or seems shocked at the statistics in front of them, I sit stony faced. ‘Well yeah, obviously’ I think. And it kind of hits me how normal the online life is to me. How many facts I know about vloggers, how many usernames I’ve heard of. For me, the world of YouTube is just another facet of our society, another realm of celebrity. But for so many others it’s still unchartered territory or something they haven’t seen the need to learn about. When Claire asks an audience member to film her doing the 7 Second Challenge, she mentions it’s by Dan and Phil: ‘do you know them?’ she asks the audience member. ‘erm, no I’ve never heard of them’ he says.
Most of the performance is us watching Claire make her YouTube videos on her laptop. We watch as she stumbles over words, redoes her greeting (“hey people”), and leans over to her notebook to check what she should be saying next. Turns out it’s not second nature to make videos, it takes practise. But as Claire gets more confident, her videos become more revealing. She talks about having sex whilst high, about a guy wanting to drink her pee. Basically; she talks a lot about sex. The audience laugh awkwardly, but it just washes over me. It’s weird that this is so normalized for me. I’ve watched my fair share of outrageous ‘Story Time’ videos, even subscribed to vloggers who talk about sex education. It’s not a new concept to me that people talk about ‘taboos’ online.
I think what See-Through does really well is that it doesn’t condemn or praise YouTube culture. It’s presented pretty matter-of-factly and covers a lot of ground. The set-up of the performance – Claire eating a bowl of Krave cereal whilst clicking through videos – is excellent, and captures a lot of people’s (including my own) watching habits. We don’t hear Claire speak much, at least in person, and get the filtered version of herself through her videos.
“I want to deepen the connection with you guys” she says to her subscribers (and I guess, us). But how can I feel connected to someone when they’re through a screen?
It’s only the final moments when Claire turns to the audience and sings ‘Lone Star’ that it makes a bit more sense. It might be an obvious take, but it’s really fucking lonely online, no matter how many followers you have. And if you get sucked in to doing things for fans, the ties you have to people irl can begin to loosen, or break.