In January 2012, the YouTube channel SourceFed was launched by longtime YouTuber Philip DeFranco. Originally conceived as an aggregate that released several short daily videos addressing news topics, the channel has grown to feature a bevy of content. When discussing SourceFed, along with its offshoots SourceFedNerd and the now-defunct ForHumanPeoples channel, it is necessary to explore fan reaction and interaction, on which the channel heavily relies. This viewer interaction can characterized by an intimacy that transcends the barriers of the screen to have a significant effect on all involved, exemplifying the fruitful (though sometimes damaging) ways that online experiences can shape one’s life.
Part of the early success of the channel is due to its link to DeFranco, who had already been a popular YouTuber with a sizable following. As an offshoot of a pre-existing online space, there was already an audience willing to sample this new channel’s offerings; as SourceFed grew, it came to stand on its own feet, and a sister channel, dubbed SourceFedNERD, was launched soon after. Within six months, SourceFed amassed roughly half-a-million subscribers and 150 million views, with the current number of subscribers surpassing two million. During the channel’s development, viewers’ interest and ease of access was of utmost importance. When DeFranco’s team first developed a mobile application from which users could watch the videos, there was no way to monetize the views. Subscribing to a “[p]eople first, money second” mentality, he trusted that investing in viewership would pay off financially in the near-future (Humphrey). He also accepted a smaller budget from YouTube in order to secure a greater degree of creative freedom.
Examining the creator-viewer relationship within the online SourceFed community reveals a great deal of intimacy. Since much of the channel’s content centers on the hosts’ personalities and interests, viewers are attracted to their often comedic genuineness. One of its flagship programs, “Table Talk (See Fig. 1)” features three hosts sitting around a table to have conversations based on user-submitted topics; the conversations often spin off into tangents and discussions that have little to do with the initial topic, signifying the informal and loose nature of this particular program. This fuels the sense that viewers are not only watching charismatic and funny people goof off, but are also in the room with them, weakening the barrier of the screen.
Fig. 1: An episode of Table Talk featuring Steve Zaragoza, Bree Essrig, and William Haynes
Another important element that characterizes SourceFed and its fans is the use of inside jokes and references only regular viewers would understand, and this creates the sense that these people are part of a close-knit community. Unlike most other media, such as film or television, there tends to be greater creative freedom on YouTube, allowing creators the opportunity to convey their opinions and personalities without the same type of risk that a television news anchor might experience. This also allows for a deconstruction of the process of content-creation, as behind-the-scenes glimpses and bloopers are very common and readily available. SourceFed fans tend to be familiar with camera operators and editors, and are also aware of what the writer’s room looks like. This creates an attractive transparency that allows the viewer to step into the world of SourceFed and to understand the goings-on that surround the content creation. The illusion and artificiality of the content are purposefully displayed and weakened. During any given video, a regular viewer has a strong sense of the bodies inhabiting the space outside of the frame. On non-YouTube platforms, even more behind-the-scenes content is shared with fans; photos and videos taken at the SourceFed offices are constantly uploaded by the hosts on their individual Instagram accounts, blending their work and personal lives, and sharing it all with their fans. This formal/informal blend also manifests in the design of the physical spaces inhabited by the SourceFed crew. Many of the sets on the SourceFedNERD channel are filled with geek-centric paraphernalia, including toys and replica film props, which are things that might be found in a collector’s home (see Fig. 2). Fan-made items are also featured in these spaces; the bowl used to hold the “Table Talk” topics was made and sent by a fan. Similar to the way the site for The Suicide Girls bills itself as goth/punk-centric, SourceFedNERD’s content skews heavily toward movies, games, comics, and anime to solidify their nerd brand (Senft 28).
Fig. 2: The figurines in the background emphasize the “nerd” brand
Many viewers have attributed SourceFed to helping with their lives; for instance, during a Reddit Ask-Me-Anything session (essentially an online Q&A) with host Steve Zaragoza, a user commented that the channel’s content helped them from “going suicidal,” thanking Zaragoza and the SourceFed team for making their days brighter. Fans have often referred to the hosts as being like friends and family. Using Sara Ahmed’s concept of the “homing device,” SourceFed is an interesting mechanism for one to feel as though they are at home (9). A Reddit user once commented that having “Table Talk” conversations playing in the background reminded them of growing up in a big family, making SourceFed a mechanism through which one can experience feelings associated with home-life.
Host Matt Lieberman’s personal YouTube channel is heavily geared toward audience interaction, often hosting live-streaming hangouts with his fans, who have been dubbed “Lieberfriends.” Another regular part of his programming is a pre-recorded Q&A segment in which he responds to questions that viewers have sent him via email. These videos often cross the twenty-minute mark and are unedited, giving the sense that his responses are raw and unfiltered. Many of the questions are of a personal and serious nature, with users seeking advice relating to relationships, anxiety, and more; viewers tend to be young (teens and twenties), often looking for a form of guidance. Perhaps part of the reason is that Internet anonymity reduces the worry of embarrassment, and that these viewers do not feel comfortable discussing these issues with people in their personal life. As with online role-playing games, people are given “an opportunity to construct an identity, inhabit a social space” and explore aspects of themselves that they would otherwise be unable to (Taylor 23). With an Internet personality like Lieberman, they experience not just the closeness of a kindred spirit or an understanding ear, but also a safe distance from which to find the comfort to open up.
When a Reddit user asked host Joe Bereta whether it feels strange that viewers know him so well and even consider him a friend, he replies:
“I think it’s hard to truly wrap my head around the fact that there are people represented by the number counters on the YouTubes and Twitterz. But I get open-palm slapped into a state of reality and understanding when I go to VidCon or get stopped on the street or when I’m walking down aisle 5 at Ralph’s with my daughter and I get stopped (happened twice in a week). Those are the moments where I partially understand the reach… and it makes my heart place warm.”
When making and uploading videos on the Internet, it can be difficult for a creator to truly grasp that behind the numbers and statistics are actual individuals. This is one of the reasons SourceFed has committed to doing many live shows and appearances, such as VidCon, an online video conference; it helps keep them aware of their fan base as people rather than an intangible and arbitrary set of numbers. Normally, a viewer gets to see the hosts, but not the other way around. Live appearances help to even out the playing field to an extent, and SourceFed has also begun to dabble in Google Hangouts, which allow them to live-chat with viewers via webcam, seeing not just typed comments but also fan’ faces; still, it is clear that fans will always know the hosts better than the other way around, but the effort of the hosts to interact is appreciated.
The concepts of genuineness and reality in regards to the Internet bring to mind the case of LonelyGirl15, an actress posing as a teenage video-blogger named Bree on YouTube. When her audience discovered that she was not who she had claimed to be, some felt duped and there was a great deal of backlash. Insincerity is a touchy subject in the YouTube world, in which viewers hold genuineness in high regard. Even a channel such as SourceFed, which produces budgeted pre-written content, is not considered disingenuous because of the active relationship the hosts have with their viewers. This relates to the concept of the micro-celebrity, and the difference between Internet personalities and mainstream stars (of film, television, etc.).
In her text, Theresa Senft quotes film theorist Richard Dyer as stating that the “media construction of stars encourages us to think of ‘really’,” meaning that audiences constantly wonder what a celebrity is actually like away from the public eye (25). When it comes to Internet stars (or micro-celebrities), this is typically less of a question. Most of our exposure from a Hollywood actor, for instance, comes from their on-screen performances, which are purely fictional; when it comes to YouTubers (video-bloggers, in particular), much of their content relates to and revolves around aspects of their personal lives. “[O]n the Web, popularity depends upon a connection to one’s audience, rather than an enforced separation from them,” signifying a creator-fan relationship that is active and direct (Senft 26). As opposed to mainstream media, there is a “distinctly social aspect to YouTube use that reflects its social networking characteristics” (Soukup 7). YouTubers and other micro-celebrities make frequent use of many social media platforms to keep viewers updated on their work and/or lives, as well as to communicate with them directly. Of course, the very nature of being filmed alters one’s composure in some way, and the concept of self-surveillance comes into play. Content creators monitor their behavior, subconsciously or otherwise, because of the awareness that they are being watched. Still, it can be argued that one is always “performing;” even the clothes we wear are chosen to convey a certain image of ourselves. We want to be perceived a certain way. For many YouTubers, even when content is pre-written or planned, it is typically done to highlight their interests in a way that connects with their audience. Even though viewers are aware that many micro-celebrities are exaggerated versions of themselves or withhold aspects of their personal lives, they rarely consider them to be fake, because the stars’ personalities and idiosyncrasies still manage to shine through.
SourceFed’s relationship with their audience results in a double-edged sword; when the channel falters in certain ways, there tends to be worry among fans, because expectations run high. Recently, many changes were made to channel’s video line-up and schedule. While fans were made aware that changes would be coming, little specificity was given. During the transitional period, fans voiced their displeasure at not being forewarned that certain shows were canceled or would be released at different times. For instance, the fan-favorite “Table Talk” program is typically released at 11:00 A.M. EST from Monday to Thursday. During the initial phase of the changes, they would be released less consistently, with the time changing each day; some days, the program wouldn’t appear at all. Plenty of confusion was generated during the early weeks of the changes, because the routine was shaken. Fans were used to having these videos released at specific times during the day and week, as the channel has become a daily part of their lives as well as a source of reliable comfort. Though viewers tend to experience trepidation and even panic when it comes to changes, one can understand their frustration considering their passion for the content; they are invested and dedicated, relying on consistency and quality. When SourceFed falters, the viewers begin to feel temporarily alienated, confused, and out of the loop, which is a harsh contrast to the positive side of the experience.
The SourceFed community can be reflective of social structures, and not always in a good way. For example, uneven gender dynamics can be explored through SourceFed in terms of viewer response. Throughout Trisha Hershberger’s time on the channel, frequent comments would be made about her breasts, with many viewers treating her as little more than an object; some would also falsely claim that her persona as a video game and tech geek was fake simply because of her gender. These viewers appear to view gender through a binary lens, indicative of Judith Butler’s concept of performativity. According to Butler, gender is a social construct based on conforming to pre-established cultural stereotypes and regulated practices based on one’s biological sex (62). Many of the social differences between men and women are not intrinsic, and this performativity becomes naturalized through constant repetition. Many consider gaming, comics, and tech to be male-centric, which accounts for the false assumption that women such as Hershberger are being disingenuous in their interests. This is due to a cultural “overuse of sex categorization,” which allows for little overlap regarding women and men’s shared endeavors (Kilmartin 97). There is also a subconscious “awareness that heterosexuality is fundamentally fragile” among such binary-driven men, who attempt to reaffirm their heterosexual masculinity by not allowing women into what they perceive to be their area (Elias, Lovaas & Yep 200).
Over the years, SourceFed’s news stories have dealt with cases involving victimized women. A notable example can be found in an early video centered on the case of Savannah Dietrich, an American teenager who was sexually assaulted by two boys, who struck a plea deal to lesser charges. The court also added an order for the victim, essentially preventing her from discussing the case in public; if she were to publicly release her rapists’ names, she would be jailed; ignoring this, she refused to keep quiet. Hosts Elliott Morgan and Trisha Hershberger spend much of the video ridiculing the case, as they consider it to be a gross miscarriage of justice that does more damage to the victim than to the attackers; they repeatedly emphasize the names of the Dietrich’s abusers to show their support for the victim (SourceFed, “Victim Punished”). This is an example of an online space’s capacity to be a sort of haven in which injustices can be laid bare.
In other gender-centric cases, there tends to be a high degree of backlash in the comments. For instance, a 2014 video hosted by Hershberger and Matt Lieberman criticized those involved in the distribution and consumption of stolen private photographs featuring nude female celebrities. While the hosts frame the hacking as “a serious and sickening” invasion of privacy, many of the comments take a decidedly less mature approach, with one comment reading, “If your [sic] retarded enough to put compromising images on a server connected on the internet your [sic] deserve to get hacked” (SourceFed, “Celebrity Nudes Leaked”). This case is reflective of disproportionate gender relations in society, which include victim-blaming and assumptions that the victim is untruthful if they are women.
To conclude, analyzing the community of fans surrounding viewers shows the significance that the virtual world has on everyday life. There seems to be a societal assumption that online experiences have little impact on what people refer to as the “real” world, but clearly this definition of reality is limiting. If one can feel a sense of kinship with online personalities or find a place in which they can discuss/explore their feelings, it cannot be said that this experience is not meaningful simply because it was done with the aid of a computer or mobile device. I have personally been a fan of SourceFed since its inception, and have been viewing its content almost daily for over three years. It’s a strange feeling to “know” people I have never even met, and even more-so to realize that I have even subconsciously adopted some of their speech patterns and colloquialisms. I rarely comment on videos or message boards, but I still feel the intimacy that other more active viewers seem to feel. It is always disheartening when I read comments that are racist, misogynistic, or hateful in any way. It makes me think less of the SourceFed community as a whole, until I remind myself that online, as in any walk of life, the ignorant simply tend to be the loudest. By searching through the channel’s official Reddit forum, it becomes clear that devoted fans tend to be thoughtful of and thankful for the channel, which is sometimes difficult to gather from comments on the YouTube page; any viewer can comment directly on the video, but it appears that those with a genuine interest in the channel are the ones who explore it through other platforms.
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