In 10 years of YouTube, the platform has generated its own crop of highly influential talent—from vloggers to musicians to dancers to beauty gurus—and managed to keep the spotlight on already-established pop-culture figures. For 2015, the mix of the platform’s top creators reflect the growing diversity of its audience, the hot topics that have ignited discussion around digital talent, and what it takes to make a splash in a crowded marketplace of creators.
1) Tyler Oakley
One YouTuber’s name has become synonymous with success on the platform: Tyler Oakley. He may not be the most-subscribed-to user, but he’s one of the main faces of YouTube, from billboards to talk show appearances to books and movies. For the generation of teens and young adults who flock to YouTube as their main source of entertainment, Oakley is often their ambassador to a world of digital creation. Read more in our end-of-year Q&A with Oakley as he looks back on 2015 and discusses his plans for continued success. —Rae Votta
2) Nicole Arbour
Canadian comedian, actress, and musician Nicole Arbour has been active on YouTube for years, but all it took was one video for her to go completely viral—and earn the wrath of much of the YouTube community.
She released “Dear Fat People” on Sept. 3, a five-minute rant in which Arbour makes fun of people are overweight or obese, compares the fat-acceptance movement to assisted suicide, and complains about the advantages that fat people have in public places—all under the guise of satire. Her channel was suspended and then restored, but her video struck a nerve on both sides. Many YouTubers and members of the body-positivity movement were outraged and spoke out against it, and it allegedly cost Arbour a role in a feature film, which she denied.
Since then, Arbour has made more videos about abortion, black people, and the Syrian refugee debate, but most of them haven’t come anywhere close to the 8.7 million views she got from “Dear Fat People”; her follow-up video only got a quarter of that with 2.4 million views. —Michelle Jaworski
3) Ingrid Nilsen
This year, longtime beauty guru Ingrid Nilsen inspired the world with her personal coming-out video on YouTube. It quickly moved beyond her 3.8 million subscribers, gaining the attention of Time, People, CNN, Vanity Fair, and Teen Vogue. Today, the nearly 20-minute vlog has been viewed more than 13.2 million times, making it the most viewed coming-out video on YouTube.
Nilsen first started her channel in 2009 while studying architecture in college. Obsessed with the beauty tutorials she was binge-watching at night, Nilsen decided to secretly upload her own.
Today, the secret’s out: Nilsen’s success has traveled well beyond YouTube, with collaborations with CoverGirl, the chance to judge on Project Runway: Threads, and a Teen Choice Award nomination.
Her channel is a balance between external and internal beauty tutorials. For every makeup tutorial, apartment tour, or clothing lookbook, Nilsen makes the point of talking to her young female audience about self care, sex education, jealousy, self esteem, and breakups. For many, she’s both a big sister and mentor. —Carly Lanning
4) Todrick Hall
If you can make a musical parody about it, Todrick Hall is there. The 30-year-old YouTuber got his start auditioning for American Idol, before eventually transferring to Broadway roles and YouTube fame, with 1.9 million subscribers and counting. His success even hit the atmosphere, literally, with an air safety video for Virgin America in 2013. This year Hall and his production team starred in their own MTV show, Todrick, which follows the production of his Web videos from start to finish. The finished product lives on his YouTube channel instead of on television, marrying traditional and new media.
He’s parodied everyone from Nicki Minaj to fellow YouTubers Pentatonix with his musical numbers, and even taken his show on the road for the Toddlerz Ball. With famous friends like Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Lance Bass at the ready for a collab video, there’s no doubt Hall will soar into 2016 with more inventive music, dance, and comedy. —Rae Votta
5) Sam and Nia
You might not have heard about Sam and Nia Rader before 2015, but one pregnancy test changed all that. In August, the Texas couple uploaded a video to their channel, which has more than 380,000 subscribers, showing husband Sam “stealing” his wife’s urine from a toilet and using it on a pregnancy test. He then surprises her by telling her she’s pregnant. While many fans of the Christian vloggers thought it was cute, others thought it was a little creepy that Sam took the moment away from his wife and made it about him.
Thus began the domino effect, as the Raders posted another video just days later saying Nia wasn’t actually pregnant, and many called them out for using the news to drive clicks. Sam then followed that up with the admission that the videos were staged, but absolved himself of any responsibility by saying it was “orchestrated by God” and that his good Christian family was being persecuted by the anti-family media. If anything, it was an interesting experiment in clickable outrage, and how quickly that cycle can consume fans and creators on YouTube. —Audra Schroeder
6) Franchesca Ramsey (Chescaleigh)
Franchesca Ramsey is the definition of badass woman. The current host of MTV’s Decoded, Ramsey has made it her mission to expand our conversations on race, gender, racism, allyship, and more through her YouTube channel Chescaleigh. Ramsey first experienced her big YouTube break in 2012 after her video “Sh*t White Girls Say to Black Girls” received over 11.6 million views. Ever since, Ramsey has continued to navigate tough but necessary conversations with her audience in ways that are engaging and encouraging. Her library is a mix of parodies, life vlogs, and beauty tutorials for the often-overlooked audience of women of color.
During this year’s Race and Representation panel at VidCon, Ramsey inspired other creators to talk honestly about the added struggles they face being creators of color: lack of resources, invitations, and branding opportunities given freely to white creators half their size. The panel was the first of its kind and showed YouTube just how important diverse representation is to its campaigns and audience.
Then, while covering this year’s VMAs, Ramsey’s press coverage quickly devolved into a fight between her and a racist white man sitting next to her. Attempting to explain why #AllLivesMatter was not more inclusive than #BlackLivesMatter, Ramsey approached the situation the same she would a YouTube video: Stand up for what you believe in and engage.
Ramsey’s example reminds us all to be a bit braver, and that standing up against injustice is a privilege we should not take for granted. —Carly Lanning
The 26-year-old Swedish gamer who’s known more often by his YouTube handle than his real name helmed last year’s most-subscribed YouTube channel, and in 2015 he showed no signs of stopping.
This year, PewDiePie (real name Felix Kjellberg) became the latest YouTuber to write a book, chatted with Stephen Colbert on The Late Show (which introduced him to an audience who probably wouldn’t normally watch PewDiePie on YouTube), hit 10 billion views on YouTube, and became an early advocate for YouTube Red—YouTube’s new ad-free service—by teaming up with the people behind The Walking Dead for a new YouTube Red-exclusive series.
But PewDiePie has received his fair share of criticism from his viewers. He reportedly makes $12 million a year from his videos, which has led to fans complaining about the size of his paychecks. He can’t say how much he makes, but he has addressed his critics head-on and opened up about why he believes in YouTube Red. He may be successful in a career he never imagined himself, but that’s because he works his ass off. And it’s clearly paying off. —Michelle Jaworski
8) Heaven King
She may only be 5 years old, but Heaven King became one of music’s most influential trendsetters without ever singing a note. Before everyone from Disney characters to Hillary Clinton started whipping and nae nae-ing for attention, King helped birth the viral song on her YouTube channel, as part of an initiative between Atlanta rapper Silento and her multichannel network, DanceOn.
Thanks to the campaign, sales for Silento’s track tripled, and he was signed to Capitol Records as the song dominated the airwaves. The video of King and her friend dancing to the track topped YouTube’s year end trend list for 2015 and has been viewed more than 117 million to date. King and her mother, Tianne, who runs her social media, have been frequent guests on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and have been making viral waves since King was 2 and dancing to Beyoncé tracks. Image what King will have up her sleeve when she hits double-digits. —Rae Votta
It was a great year for Team Internet, and no musical group proved that better than Pentatonix. In 2015, the a cappella quintet went from serenading Tom Hanks to winning a Grammy to landing a documentary on Vimeo to grabbing the No. 1 spot on the Billboard charts with their self-titled album, beating out Demi Lovato. The Arlington, Texas, group is known mostly for a cappella covers of songs, but this year they debuted their first original song, “Can’t Sleep Love,” signaling a natural evolution of sound that’s been propelled along by a solid YouTube fandom of more than 9 million subscribers. Winning over a bunch of Star Wars fans wasn’t a bad move either. —Audra Schroeder
10) The Muppets
In Adam Schleichkorn’s mashups, the Muppets are anything we want them to be. The Swedish Chef, Animal, and Beeker are transformed into the Beastie Boys. Miss Piggy is the star of a revenge thriller, Kermit and Fozzie Bear team up for some M.W.A., Dr. Teeth makes for a perfect rapper, and Scooter proves he just might be the most underrated Muppet of them all.
Now how long before someone brings Hamilton into it to create an unstoppable force? —Michelle Jaworski
11) Matt Bellassai
There are few things YouTube viewers love more than a booze-fueled story. Consider the immense popularity of the Drunk History wedding story, Hannah Hart’s My Drunk Kitchen, and now, BuzzFeed’s Whine About It with Matt Bellassai.
Currently in its second season, “Whine About It” is a weekly series in which Bellassai drinks an entire bottle of wine at his desk and drunkenly dissects why Halloween/pants/mornings/skiing/etc. is the absolute worst. Following the upload of the series’ first video, Bellassai quickly saw its viral potential, telling the New York Times in a recent feature, “Four or five weeks into it, we realized we could hit a million or two million views pretty easily.” And from that second week onward, a viral star was born.
The series’ appeal is just as much the content as it is Bellassai himself. His almost acrobatic usage of the English language has brought millions of viewers to tears every single week. He’s the sassy drunk Dumbledore of YouTube with a wisdom and comedic timing unmatched by few other online personalities.
Out of this success, Bellassai has become a recognizable face all his own. He’s been nominated for a 2016 People’s Choice Award and is working on both a “Whine About It” book and national tour. —Carly Lanning
12) Colin Furze
You’ve probably dreamed about having real, working Wolverine claws, but Colin Furze made them a reality. YouTube’s mad scientist excels in taking ideas that we mere mortals have only thought of after, say, a bong hit, and creating an alternate universe where beds eject you, giant butts fart at France, Magneto’s magnetic shoes exist, bread can be toasted and cut at the same time, flames can be shot from wrists, and go-karts look like something out of Mad Max: Fury Road. The U.K.-based Furze doesn’t just show you his inventions; he lets fans in on the process as well, and doesn’t shy away from letting us know when something just doesn’t work.
Furze explains on his website that he’s not some master inventor or engineer; he’s a plumber who just decided to have a go:
“The things I make are made with tools that proper engineers would laugh at but I’m proof you don’t need an expensive lathe and huge welder to create something amazing. What you do need though is a place to do stuff and the right people to help ask when needed and also someone to tell you you will fail as that drives you on a bit more.”
Illustration by Jason Reed