When I chat with about my life, I might get the attention of two or there people (all of them related to me), tops. When Tyler Oakley does, he gets millions.
Oakley does it on the Internet. At 24, he's charming and instantly likable, perfectly suited for this age of instant stardom. Now he's one of the people in an intriguing documentary Tuesday (Feb. 18) on PBS' "Frontline." Here's the story I sent to papers:
By MIKE HUGHES
This is a new kind of fame game, built from “likes” and
“tweets” and such. And some people win big.
Meet Tyler Oakley, Internet star. At 24, he has 3.8 million
YouTube subscribers … and 1.9 million Twitter followers … and Facebook and
Tumnblr and Instgram and a solid income.
“It is a career,” Oakley said, but “it’s not a job. It’s my
favorite thing I could ever do.”
He’s featured Tuesday on PBS’ “Frontline”; so is Ceili
Lynch, a teen-ager in Mount Vernon, New York. On the Internet and beyond (as
Ceili Everdeen) she might put in four hours at a time, re-tweeting and
re-blogging anything about “The Hunger Games”; the lone reward is to be listed
among the top 100 fans.
They’re part of a savvy generation, said author Douglass
Rushkoff, producer of the PBS hour. They know “how ‘likes’ work, how to create
networks, how to build that, how to play this system.”
What they may not realize, he said, is how thoroughly they’re
part of companies’ strategy. “Advertising and marketing and public relations …
morph into this other thing.”
A decade ago, Rushkoff’s “Merchants of Cool” described how “street
teams” search for the cool kids to copy. Now that has vanished; the street is
the Internet and Oakley is one of the cool kids.
He’s fresh-faced and enthusiastic, a self-described “fangirl”
whose favorite subjects include the pop group One Direction and “Glee” co-star
Darren Criss. He lives in San Francisco now, but emerged from places with
tough, blue-collar images – Jackson, Mich., and Michigan State University.
Oakley’a three best friends had gone to three different
colleges and he heard about video blogging. “I thought, ‘Wow, I have a camera.
I could do that.’”
On-cameras, he talked about his life and his passions. “I
remember I saw that I had 100 people. I thought, ‘I don’t have 100 friends.’”
And then he had many more. He switched his major from
education to communications. By the time he graduated, he had 100,000
subscribers. He worked in marketing for a tad – first for MSU, then Chictopia –
but, after moving to San Francisco, focused on himself.
“I committed to a schedule,” Oakley said. “I committed
myself to working and developing my brand. And I started working with others
and building my team.”
That would be harder to do now, starting from scratch, he
said. “It’s a saturated space. You have so much competition. (When) I started
in 2007, it was a very different atmosphere.”
But people keep trying. “These are kids who were born with
‘American Idol’ when they were 5 years old,” Rushkoff said. They seek instant
fame, quick approval; and sometimes, they get it.
“It’s always a little bit bizarre,” Oakley said. “I’m just
sharing myself …. I never had a motive; I never had any reason like wanting to
work with brands or anything.” Now he gets paid to mention them; almost by
accident, he’s a new merchant of cool.
“Frontline: Generation Like,” 10 p.m. Tuesday,
PBS (check local listings)