YouTubers are no longer hesitant to put themselves in the spotlight to share knowledge. An overview and trend of a new form of knowledge dissemination in the digital age.


In 2017, YouTube was visited by 96% of teenagers aged 13 to 19, with 8 out of 10 having an account—a significant jump from their mere 45% in 2015. This surge in popularity already made it the most frequented social network among this age group. In 2018, it remained the top favorite, ahead of Snapchat and Facebook, which have clearly been abandoned by the new generations. With about 15 hours per week spent online and an average video length on the front page being 14 minutes and 50 seconds, considering that 80% of videos are under five minutes, you can calculate how many videos your teenager consumes each week (feel free to share your results in the comments!).

Let's now turn our attention to the Top 10 YouTube channels, those that generate the most traffic in France and thus occupy a significant portion of the available attention span of millennials. What observations can be made? YouTube is primarily a platform for teenagers and young adults seeking entertainment, and let's be honest, it tends to be more or less mindless. That seems to be the prevailing theme.


Now, let's look at the successful formats of this massive machine that published 300 hours of video every minute in 2016—three times more than in 2013: short videos with rapid, tightly edited cuts, often featuring a person speaking directly to the camera (often referred to as "face cam"), and occasionally a backdrop related to the topic or inspired by television sets. As for the content, it often revolves around the everyday questions of their target audience ("Why is learning a foreign language so hard?", "How do I cook with myself, my muscles, and my girlfriend?"), parodies of series, movies, songs, and so on. In essence, personal antics that become a hallmark of a community.

However (fortunately, there's a "but"), while these statistics are overwhelming in terms of quantity, they overshadow a flurry of smaller channels that produce an incredible diversity of topics and approaches, particularly leaning towards informative and creative subjects. Those occasionally referred to as "serious topic YouTubers" not only exist and are multiplying*, but they're also gaining recognition from academic circles and so-called "traditional" media. Straddling the line between popularization and "infotainment," these niche YouTubers, increasingly seen as creative and brilliant phenomena, are being invited to public radio shows and publishing books with major publishers—ultimate recognition in conventional knowledge spheres.


Most of these popularizers are very aware of their impact on their audience's knowledge. To stand out in an ultra-prolific (if not competitive) ecosystem, YouTubers need to capture their audience's attention. This often involves conforming to a certain format: short, fast-paced videos with a light, sometimes humorous tone. This stands in stark contrast to the rhythm of traditional pedagogy, and these YouTubers are well aware of it. They don't claim to teach through this medium; instead, they aim to spark curiosity, cultivate critical thinking, draw attention to interesting facts, convey a passion for a discipline, demystify the relationship with education and school (which they might have personally experienced and struggled with), and, of course, to have fun exploring topics they're interested in. In these cases, while YouTube might not be a direct knowledge transmission tool, it serves as a binder, a supplement to learning, another voice/path.


Indeed, since the advent of the internet, the avenues for acquiring knowledge have diversified and reinvented themselves. The numbers show it—for instance, searches for "How to" on YouTube have been increasing by 70% annually. From sewing, gardening, cooking, magic tricks, meditation, decoration, household hacks, to literally everything, it's all on YouTube. On a more serious note, more and more people are educating themselves online, especially through video resources, with YouTube being a practical host. You can now learn about serious subjects and even real professions—design, fine arts, computer science, philosophy, health, coaching, law, economics, marketing, languages, and more. Much like the hundreds of ultra-specialized YouTube channels, universities, schools, and even some companies (like Microsoft) have joined in and now offer MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses). In the era of DIY and googlization, we're learning alone in front of our screens, and video resources (tutorials or MOOCs) are a favored source.


Ultimately, the YouTube phenomenon is nothing more than a side effect of the massive and profound transformation of our relationship with information as a whole, which began with the advent of the internet a few decades ago. Transmission is no longer vertical, from a knowledgeable person to learners, but clearly horizontal. On the web, where anyone can express themselves, it's only natural that the majority of content isn't pedagogical or even serious. Since YouTube is on the brink of replacing television, one need only look at the current TV schedules to see how many serious programs exist. Why would that suddenly change? However, this shouldn't undermine or disregard the informative and educational part that is bound to have a great future, along with a revolution in our approach to learning.


First and foremost, YouTube is an entertainment tool in the sense that viewers access it during their free time. Yet, the messages conveyed have a real societal impact. One controversy perfectly embodies this dual nature of entertainment and education—a conflict that's soon to be outdated. It involves Amanda Hess, a journalist for The New York Times, and Laci Green, a YouTuber specializing in sex education. The former, unsurprisingly, criticizes the latter for her lack of seriousness, diplomas, scientific rigor, and essentially accuses her and her peers of being charlatans. Where the "dialogue" becomes interesting is when Green responds in kind on Medium. She deconstructs each argument, but more importantly, she passionately advocates for the free dissemination of knowledge, particularly via YouTube, which helps address potential knowledge gaps that could have dramatic consequences. In a society caught between (still) puritanical America promoting abstinence and easily accessible hardcore pornography on the internet, the "sex-ed queens" offer teenagers a third path—one that's compassionate, playful, and inclusive:

"Our society has let young people down en masse. The open internet has given us the power to change that. This floodgate is not without flaws. It is not without growing pains. But let me be clear: YouTube sex educators and their base of supporters aim to make real change in how our society addresses issues in sexuality. While nobody else will, we want to talk about how to ask for consent, how to properly use condoms, what a healthy relationship looks like, why loving your body is okay, why it’s okay to be LGBT, how to prevent sexual assault, why your body does that one weird thing, how to take care of your vagina, how birth control works, what STIs are, and so many more things. We want to make the world a safer, healthier place."


Behind the glitz and glamour, there seems to be genuine commitment. What if YouTube is a liberator of talents? An open space for a different, creative, fun pedagogy, like the teacher who raps the Pythagorean theorem? On YouTube, everything is possible. In essence, we're experiencing the same upheaval as during the advent of the printing press: a technological revolution that allows for an astonishing democratization of knowledge—where anything and everything, including hybrid forms, sometimes clumsy, ingenuous, brilliant, or failed, reflecting while having fun. So, what do we do? Cancel everything? Or do we let knowledge remain in the hands of the masses?