Can We Stop Putting Quotes Around The ‘Celebrity’ Part Of ‘YouTube Celebrity’ Now?


Here is an example of a scare quote: “Native American” actor Johnny Depp has shown interest in buying The Wounded Knee Historic Landmark; probably because he feels so bad about the whole Tonto thing.

Scare quotes are a troublesome little grammatical phenomenon. For journalists out there, scare quotes are a way to embrace a popular turn of phrase without agreeing that it is common vernacular. They serve to say: “This is what people call it, but as a professional, I’m not there yet.”

The second, much more interesting use of scare quotes involve deploying the grammatical instrument to cover everything in a thick layer of irony. This use is a way to express that although some people (idiots) may see someone or something a certain way, you’re not buying it and your readership shouldn’t either.

One such group of people who have been on the business end of scare quotes for far too long are YouTube creators. In the past, and even to this day, an article that mentions a creator will most likely contain this sentence: “YouTube ‘celebrity’ Ray William Johnson…” It’s a wink and a nod to their audience that says, “Some people call him this, but we know he’s really not.”

The problem resides within our cultural definition of celebrity. At some point in recent popular culture, the word celebrity evolved to hold several different, varied meanings. Pre-film, television and radio, celebrity was reserved for historical figures and authors, tycoons and war heroes. I am generalizing, but the notion of celebrity held a fairly specific set of variables. With communication being limited, celebrity status of the past was given to only those who could reach out and touch the masses through print or their amazing, publicized accomplishments.

Modern pop culture, however, adopted a very different set of rules for who should be called a “celebrity.” At a certain point, celebrity broke away from solely magnates and writers and wrapped itself around our film and television actors, athletes and fashion icons. Each type of celebrity varies on the invisible scale of “star power” so that the podcast host is far below the reality television star, yet both are rarely ever enveloped in the damning scare quote.

That invisible star power scale seems to be powered in part by the visibility of any given celebrity. “Native American” Johnny Depp is a bonafide megastar simply because he is seen by millions upon millions in countless films that make millions upon millions. Okay, so that’s one qualifier, but don’t scare-quote-earning YouTube creators receive comparable exposure?

Your average episode of Ray William Johnson’s “=3” racks up around 1.5 million views a week globally. It isn’t “Man of Steel” opening weekend numbers, but these are weekly videos that are posted year after year. Over time, those numbers add up; in RWJ’s case, that’s around 780 million annual views on “=3” alone.


Generally, this idea that YouTube creators are simply renting space in the limelight originates from the precursors of YouTube fame. As Chris Crocker and Charlie of “Charlie Bit My Finger” proved in the past, fame by way of YouTube was fleeting. These early viral sensations burned as bright as any celebrity at one point, but were snuffed out before they even had a chance to settle into stardom. In many ways, this stigma has carried onto our modern YouTube creators. Subconsciously, people and media outlets are seeing YouTube fame and seeing one-hit wonders, although creators’ full-fledged careers and major endorsement deals beg to differ.

It’s possible that the YouTube community will never shake off scare quotes, but maybe that’s not a bad thing. Perhaps true celebrity recognition would drag YouTube more into the world of corporate shadiness than it is already is. Countless reality stars and kid actors have given crystal clear examples of how simply being branded with “celebrity” resulted in a tidal wave of yes men, corporate sleazebags and other unsavory customers.

The cultural grey area in which many creators find themselves may be a blessing. Scare quotes, for all of their ironic shade-throwing, could be the reason why this platform is growing so quickly. They’re a means to keep creators grounded, yet always reaching for something more.


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