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How Tyler Oakley gained 5 million new subscribers in 2014 alone
Tyler Oakley talks privacy, new platforms, and plans for 2015.
At 25, Oakley knows how to seamlessly command an audience, be it a single reporter over coffee, an event hall full of screaming fans, or through the lens, as he did hosting CBS’s 2015 Grammy Awards coverage this weekend. No fancy editing needed; he’s the real deal.
Of course, that doesn’t mean Oakley shies away from good editing in his chosen medium, and stylistically, he fits into the canon of modern YouTube stardom. To watch an Oakley video, you have to adapt to the frenetic pace of his delivery, quirky pop culture observations, and personal asides where the host seamlessly drops the brand mentions that power the Oakley machine. Pressing play is like calling a best friend you’ve known for years but haven’t talked to daily and getting a quick update on their life and their opinions—but with annotations that let you click to buy products or to view those specific moments in time. Thanks to a legion of dedicated fans GIFing his videos, crafting art, and supporting his #TeamInternet philosophy, his presence extends well beyond the YouTube platform, too. Thousands use his name and likeness in their social profiles (an Oakley misspelling on Twitter has over 18,000 followers, even). Almost weekly the real Oakley is off somewhere, speaking at a college or filming videos with fellow YouTubers or participating in secret projects he cryptically tweets about but holds close to his chest.
Oakley’s life wasn’t always this grand of an adventure. In 2007 he started filming from his dorm room for an audience of no one. But in seven short years, that all changed. Oakley’s subscriber count skyrocketed in 2014, leaping from a respectable 1 million and change last January to 6 million by year’s end, cementing him as one of the most influential voices on the platform.
“Back then, nobody was doing it professionally, so my motivation wasn’t to become something; it was just to have the platform,” Oakley told the Daily Dot over coffee in Los Angeles. “So a rise in subscribers was never the goal, although that’s a cool side effect. We were just making videos to make videos. There was no money to be made; there were no awards to be won. Sure, there was a few YouTubers with more than 100,000 subscribers, but they were legends, icons.”
YouTube moved from hobby to profession, one with an increasingly mainstream presence as YouTubers dominate highly sought-after teen and tween attention. Digital celebrities outrank movie stars for youth recognition and respect, and YouTubers have been crossing over to more traditional outlets like TV and film. While many other YouTubers of Oakley’s ilk are making permanent, or at least hopefully permanent, jumps off digital, Oakley says that’s not his game plan.
“I definitely have aspirations outside of YouTube, but I think there’s a lot of people on YouTube who want to leave YouTube,” Oakley said. “I don’t want to leave; I love it. Even if I have huge accomplishments offline or on TV or whatever, I still want to acknowledge the fact that this is where I started. … All the journeys I’ve had in the past year, with all the trips, those are awesome. But what’s equally awesome is coming back to my living room and talking about it.”
That living room, where Oakley perches to record his weekly video, can be deceptively intimate. Oakley walks a thin line between being an open book to his fans and holding back some of his personal life to keep it, well, personal.
“I’ve always had a distinct line of what things I will talk about and what things I won’t,” Oakley explained. “I’m so used to the boundary. There’s plenty that I don’t share. It’s interesting though, because it seems as if I share a lot, because I do share a lot. But I think a lot of people think that it’s 100 percent, and it’s very, very far from that.”
One area Oakley is extremely cautious about is his relationships. Early on, he admits he wasn’t so careful and would talk about them in his daily vlogs. After a bad breakup, the guy in question disappeared from Oakley’s social presence, a red flag for fans who wanted updates on what was happening.
“Luckily it happened when I had like 50,000 subscribers, but I can’t imagine that with 6 million,” Oakley laughed. “I’m so happy I learned that lesson early on: that some relationships and some experiences are for me. You don’t go to your 9 to 5 and share every story with your coworkers, and in the same way, not every YouTuber shares every story with their audience.”
Oakley’s audience tends to respect his wishes, thanks in part to the view that he’s not above them, but one of them: the Internet’s No. 1 fangirl. This respect is not always the case for celebrities, digital or otherwise, whose personal lives often turn into a scavenger hunt for ambitious fans or media outlets. Oakley says his audience has always picked up on his boundaries and remained respectful; they’ll even self-police within the community when someone gets out of line. When the rogue fan goes a little too far, Oakley says he tries to see the situation from their perspective.
“I understand the excitement of whatever the experience may have been that changed what they thought was appropriate,” he said. “I try to see it from their perspective, and when I do I understand. A lot of YouTubers don’t have that. … I try to respond and encourage and focus on the people that do the behavior I appreciate. I hope by doing that I’m able to shift what is encouraged.”
“All the journeys I’ve had in the past year, with all the trips, those are awesome. But what’s equally awesome is coming back to my living room and talking about it.”
Oakley jokes that his interactions with fans like that are simply him putting his college degree to good use. Oakley studied marketing and communications at Michigan State University, where he got his start vlogging as a way to keep his friends and family updated on his college life. As his audience grew, so did his opportunity to make a career out of the medium, complete with ad revenue and brand deals. In the last year in particular, Oakley says he’s seen a shift in companies that are more willing to work with digital influencers on a big scale.
“I think a lot more companies or organizations or whatever are taking the quote-unquote ‘risk’ to work with a digital talent, even though there’s so little risk because the reward is so high,” he said. “They still consider it a risk because they don’t get it. Almost everything is incoming, and they’re very curious about the space. I find that really incredible, but there are still a lot of people who need to understand it more. I’m fortunate enough that there’s so many people who want to get involved, we can pass on the people who don’t get it because they’ll be back next year and they’ll get it.”
But just because the brands and the money are out there doesn’t mean Oakley is snapping up every opportunity to profit. He admits he says no a lot, avoiding “anything I’m not interested in, anything that doesn’t give value to my audience, anything that isn’t fun.” He knows the key to keeping his loyal audience loyal is not bringing them products he doesn’t have a genuine passion or interest in. He’s famously a fan of Taco Bell, something that started as personal passion and transformed into a partnership. Recently, he took steps to make his videos more inclusive, closed-captioning his entire backlog of 371 videos so hard-of-hearing viewers can engage in his community as well, and he encouraged other content creators to do the same.
He’s also lent his voice to charity, using his birthday last year to raise over $525,000 for the Trevor Project, a nonprofit that works in suicide prevention for LGBTQ youth. This year he’ll attempt to best that donation with another fundraiser, with extra encouragement for his fans to contribute, as one lucky donor will win a trip for two to L.A. for VidCon 2015 that includes backstage access with Oakley. The things that mean a lot to Oakley are prominent in his videos and social feeds. If Oakley doesn’t like a product, he says you’ll never hear him talk about it.
“I don’t want my voice to be used or heard as one that talks shit,” he explained. “That’s not my game. Before, I sometimes may have done that and thought that it was snark or sass. I don’t think that’s the route I want to go. As of two or three years ago, I steered away from that. … Because even I’m talking shit, I’m still giving them promo. And that’s a waste of my time.”
In 2015, Oakley doesn’t have time to waste time. He says he’s already sat down and mapped out the year, career-wise—something he’s never done before.
“We mapped out every single month, and I’m like, ‘Holy crap,’” exclaimed Oakley. “I’ve never done that before, until this year. … I’m really spontaneous. I’ll get emails of opportunities that are happening tomorrow and I’m like, ‘Let’s do it.’ … So I am leaving a lot of gaps for spontaneous things. Like when I found out I was meeting the president, I found out that week. I had to really rearrange my schedule to make it happen, but the spontaneous things are usually the most fun.”
Oakley’s made videos with both Barack and Michelle Obama, along with a slew of other collaborators from inside the YouTube sphere and outside in the greater entertainment world, like Glee’s Darren Criss and CBS’s Julie Chen.
“In the past, it’s all been incoming [with celebrity guests],” Oakley explained. “I think a lot of what I wanted to do in 2014 was build a repertoire or a portfolio for what I can do with traditional celebrities or with brands or whatever, to be able to show brands or celebrities that I aspire to work with, ‘This is what I can offer.’ Maybe 2015 is the year I start reaching out to people I always dreamed to do stuff with.”
WIth such a large audience already, you’d think Oakley would throw caution to the wind and ask any and every celebrity to make videos with him, like a late-night show books guests. But Oakley is much more cautious about his legacy. (“What’s a less dramatic word for ‘legacy?’” he pondered.)
An Oakley misspelling on Twitter has over 18,000 followers.
“There’s definitely people that I’m waiting on,” he said. “I want to make sure that I’m ready, and it makes sense at the right time. You’re not going to email Oprah when you have one subscriber. I want it to be a no-brainer from the first time I email. [Michelle Obama] wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t paid my dues or worked up my portfolio in a way.”
The bread and butter of Oakley’s digital reach is his interactions with other YouTube celebrities. The stars of the platform rose to the top not from outside intervention, but by collaborating with one another and building the audiences in the process. Just as often as Oakley shares screen time or tweets with his fellow stars in the million-plus club, he’s also interacting with everyone from viewers to smaller-scale vloggers that share his sensibilities. He’s also not shy about pointing out flaws of his fellow digital celebs—or the culture surrounding them. Most notably, it was his attention to Vine star Nash Grier’s homophobic language that rallied the rest of the community to call it out and for Grier to subsequently apologize. Oakley’s social media life is not always so controversial, but it is quite diversified. He’s got 3.66 million followers on Twitter, and his Tumblr is one of the clearest hubs of his fandom, one in which Oakley himself spends every day immersed.
“I spend all day replying to tweets and reblogging posts and sharing fan art,” he explained. “I think it’s the most important thing I can possibly do, to stay involved in the community as a part of the community, not ahead of the community. I’m very much the same level of them in it.”
Of course, Oakley has the platform to reach that community en masse. In doing so, he’s expanded his empire to new ventures that he only plans to amplify in 2015. He’ll continue traveling the country, and possibly beyond, this year on his popular Slumber Party Tour, which he started last year to get face-to-face with his audience. Last year he also started Psychobabble, a podcast with friend and frequent collaborator Korey Kuhl. The duo turn off the cameras but leave on the mics, spending 30 minutes gossiping about whatever topics come to mind. Oakley admits he wasn’t a podcast junkie before he started making his own, and he was even dubious despite his older brother insisting three years ago that he get into the arena. Now, Psychobabble sits atop the iTunes charts weekly.
“Now I’m like, ‘I’m sorry, you were right; I should have listened to you’,” Oakley laughs. “Now it’s the most fun I have all week. All our friends and family at home say it’s the most us they’ve heard or seen in any of our work. We get to go unedited, we get to expand on things. There’s a difference between trying to compact something into a five-minute video where you can’t really explain yourself, and a podcast that can be 30 minutes and you can dive deep and really explain yourself for 10 minutes on how you really feel about Justin Bieber’s underwear campaign. We had offers to make it a video podcast, but I didn’t want it to be GIFed. It’s so longform, it can’t fit into a GIF. The conversations we’d be having couldn’t be summed up into little moments. It should be only audio.”
Oakley has other auditory ambitions in the future—no, not an album, like many of his YouTube brethren are inclined. After a stint for the BBC1 radio show, he says he’s “totally open to it.” When pressed on his future goals, Oakley is smartly evasive, although the glint in his eyes and the laughter in his voice betrays that he really would like to spill the beans. Literature is another avenue that YouTubers have pursued lately, and when asked if that’s in the cards for him as well, Oakley is cautious.
“I think it’s the most important thing I can possibly do, to stay involved in the community as a part of the community, not ahead of the community.”
“I have had so much feedback that [a book] is something people want,” he allowed. “Writing is something I want to explore. If I were to do it, I would want it to be not a book made by a YouTuber; I would really want to respect that craft of literature and just be an author. Detach myself as a YouTuber, because I don’t want to ever look at an opportunity, whether it’s book or TV or movie or whatever, as—not to say that anybody has or is doing it—as a moneymaking opportunity. If I were to want to do a book, it would be because I have a passion for it, and I respect the literary world. I don’t want to look at it as an extension of me as a YouTuber; it would be a whole different facet of me as a human.”
Not that Oakley has to do anything but make great videos to keep his seat as the king of teen YouTube. While diversification, when done right, doesn’t hurt the digital star, there still a massive number of digital consumers yet to be reached. For Oakley, his career, and the careers of his superstar friends, is hard work, not a flash in the pan.
“I think the most frustrating question you can ever be asked as any YouTuber, is when people ask, ‘What was the one video that changed it all?,” he explained. “Because, yes, there are people that have that, but that’s 1 percent of 1 percent. For the majority of YouTubers who are doing it full-time now have been doing it for years and years. I watched the slowest growth for all my friends, to boil it down to one video that accidentally went viral minimizes all the hard work I saw them put in.”
Oakley’s 6 million fans are about to witness all that hard work yielding his biggest and best year yet. Will you be watching?
Photo via Tyler Oakley
A former YouTube reporter for the Daily Dot, Rae Votta has more than a decade of experience in the digital and entertainment industries. Her work has appeared on AOL, Huffington Post, Out Magazine, Logo, VH1, Current TV, Billboard, and NYMag. She joined Netflix in 2016.