Jonah Engel Bromwich
Emma Chamberlain, 18, is the funniest person on YouTube. What does she do? So far the content of her videos has not been the point: She makes cupcakes or tries her hand at sewing. Like Phoebe Waller-Bridge of “Fleabag,” an artist close to twice her age, she interrupts the proceedings constantly to speak to her audience. That’s where her videos actually happen.
Watch a video from 2018 called “MY BIRTHDAY IS RUINED.” It has no introduction, just Chamberlain, talking, pointing to the recipe pages she has taped to a cabinet. “Can you believe I literally printed out the recipe, like we’re in literally like the Middle Ages, using a printer?” she says. She claps her hands, apparently hurting herself. The video freezes and text appears: “clapped too hard :/”
Chamberlain was born in San Bruno, California, on May 22, 2001. An only child, her parents divorced when she was 5. She began watching YouTube when she was 6 “to connect with other people and see what they were up to,” she said. “And weirdly enough, it felt like I had friends that were cool, and it was people that I maybe admired.”
Growing up now means that you watch a lot of videos, and make them as well. Chamberlain made videos for school — in religion and math classes, videos were required — and for fun. During her sophomore year of high school, a few of Chamberlain’s friends began combing SoundCloud for trap rap remixes of Christmas music. They would find the funniest song they could and make up a jokey dance routine for it and record a video. Chamberlain would edit videos during fourth period and post them on a private Instagram.
Her instinctual editing style involved zooming, adding text to the screen and pausing to point out the best parts. “I felt like that made my friends and I laugh a lot more when I was emphasising these things,” she said. “Rather than us just having to catch it while watching and then it doesn’t really land as much because most people aren’t going to notice the funny little things that I would notice.”
ONE OF THE EARLY VIDEOS Chamberlain posted on her private friends-and-family Instagram — her finsta — was her reaction to a take-home chemistry test. She was one of the younger students in a very rigorous class. They were assigned an online test. Chamberlain spent three hours on it, but when she pressed submit, the website glitched and her completed test was lost. She found out later that everybody else in her class had found an answer key online.
She started making a video of herself right when she learned that the test had been deleted. She was sobbing. She said it was one of the worst moments of her life. She reacted by turning a camera on.
“When something’s really significant, whether it’s good, bad, ugly, I like being able to look back at a moment in time that was high-emotion,” she said. “Whenever I’m crying I like, weirdly, to document it. Every time I cry I always take one photo of myself afterwards because I like to look back and think ‘Remember when I was so upset about X, Y and Z? Look at me now — I don’t care about that anymore!’”
Chamberlain stopped enjoying high school toward the end of her sophomore year in 2017. She had been working unceasingly, with college in mind. Socially, she said, her values didn’t align with some students at her school, who seemed to take things for granted. “Not only things like money, but also, like, morals,” she said.
Her father, Michael John Chamberlain, drove out to the San Francisco Bay for a talk. They talked for an hour and, he said that he told her, “I was like basically, you know what, you’ve got to find something outside of school that you’re excited about.” “Less than a week later, she was like, ‘I want to start a YouTube channel,’” he said.
It’s been two years. Chamberlain now has 8 million YouTube followers. She brought in the editing tricks that first set her friends and family rolling on the floor, but now they take longer to perfect.
Chamberlain edits each video she makes for between 20 and 30 hours, often at stretches of 10 or 15 hours at a time. Her goal is to be funny, to keep people watching. It’s as if the comic value of each video is inversely proportional to how little humour she experiences while making it. During her marathon editing sessions, she said, she laughs for “maybe, maybe 10 seconds max.”
“It’s almost like when you’re doing your homework, you’re halfway through a math worksheet, you’re really in it right there. You can’t hear anything, you can’t see anything,” she said. “Or if you’re watching a movie and you’re so zoned in you don’t even remember what real life is. You just think you’re in the movie. That’s exactly how it is, but times five. I’m so zoned in. I have this weird mindset where it’s me quickly analyzing every five seconds, ‘Is this boring, is this stupid, can I cut this? Yes. No. Yes. No. Yes. No.’”
Like other professional social media users, the work has taken a physical toll on her. (She releases roughly one video a week.) She used to edit at a desktop, but she developed back pain. Now she works from her bed. She keeps blue mood lighting on, but her vision has deteriorated. She wears reading glasses “like I’m 85 years old, because my eyes do actually get really strained.” She’s training herself for long-distance editing. “I’ve actually gotten to a point now where I feel like I’m really, really mentally strong and I don’t really lose my marbles as often,” she said.
In May of 2020, she will turn 19.
OVER THESE TWO YEARS, Chamberlain invented the way people talk on YouTube now, particularly the way they communicate authenticity. Her editing tricks and her mannerisms are ubiquitous. There is an entire subgenre of videos that mimic her style, and a host of YouTubers who talk, or edit, just like her. The Atlantic recently noted this and declared she is “the most important YouTuber” working today.
“It messed with my head a little bit when people started to imitate what I was doing,” Chamberlain said. “Although I was flattered, absolutely flattered. And also, the way I film and edit, it’s really fun, and so I’m glad that other people have found inspiration in that and have taken that and done what they can with it. I think that that’s great. But at times it can be kind of uninspiring, and that’s no one’s fault but my own.”
When someone introduces a new vocabulary to a medium, they don’t have much say in who uses it and who doesn’t.
“I always fed off the fact that I was in uncharted territory and I liked that,” she said. “And then it got to a point where I wasn’t in uncharted territory anymore and people were calling me unoriginal. Which was a huge blow to me in my head! Because I was like, I created this kind of style that was super cool to me and super exciting for me, and now that other people are doing it, now all of a sudden I’m unoriginal, which is something that I’ve always really tried to be. That’s what makes me feel good creatively. So when people started to say that, I kind of had a full, you know, not like mental breakdown, but we could also say that. Not a mental breakdown! But I definitely freaked out.”
“I didn’t honestly have any perspective on YouTube or the popular YouTubers until I took her to Playlist Live and I was like, ‘Holy crap,’” said Sophia Pinetree Chamberlain, Emma’s mother, of attending the 2018 convention of YouTubers. “My life is never going to be the same. This is crazy. Because I didn’t know how popular she was. I would just go to the little Marriott store to get a little cold brew coffee and fans were wanting to take pictures with me, and I was like, ‘How do you even know who I am?’”
Chamberlain’s parents have supported her unconventional choices, like dropping out of school in the beginning of her junior year and moving to Los Angeles to live by herself while still a teenager. She says that they were and are her best friends.
Both of them worry about her working too hard. “I just want her to be healthy and happy,” her father said. “Her mom and I are not dance parents. My feeling is, and I tell her this often, you can walk away from this at any time. If it’s not good for you and it’s not healthy for you, it’s not worth it.”
In June 2018, Chamberlain left the Bay Area to live alone in LA and fully immerse herself in YouTubeland.
Professional YouTubers are the children of reality television. The dramas of their videos are often inextricable from their lives. When Jake Paul and Tana Mongeau, two famous YouTubers, said they were engaged last month, it was impossible for fans to parse whether they were telling the truth. It barely mattered. This is what celebrities are now, when they’re not the dinosaurs left over from what used to be called the monoculture.
YouTubers tend to bond and/or feud with one another constantly because this is social media as much as it is performance art. They recreate the overheated dynamics of the high school environment that Chamberlain wanted to escape.
“It’s weird because I left high school to get out of that BS and now here we are in LA, where it’s almost worse,” she said.
Viewers try to enact drama on her. They speculate about which YouTuber she’s dating, or which friends she’s on the outs with. They worry about or criticize how she looks. Some declare her fake because she’s been doing content with advertisers. “It breaks me to bits when I see the backlash because her hair and makeup is this way or that way,” her mother said. “That’s what worries me. It makes her sad and hurts her feelings like any human being. Now it’s not just two girls in high school; we’re talking thousands of people on social media.”
It also differs from high school in socially advantageous ways. For one thing, now she has the ability to remove herself, respectfully, from situations, or friendships, that are dramatic or unpleasant.
“If somebody has a bad reputation on the internet or if they have a really good reputation on the internet, I don’t care. I want to meet said person and make up my mind for myself, and then go from there,” she said.
CHAMBERLAIN ALSO MAKES good money. SocialBlade, a social media analytics firm, estimates that from her videos alone she makes at least $120,000 a year, and perhaps as much as $2 million. Sponsor deals with Hollister and Louis Vuitton are another revenue stream.
Chamberlain’s most popular videos tend to be collaborations, which tap the strength of multiple audiences like any crossover event. She has appeared several times with Ethan and Grayson Dolan, two well-known YouTuber twins. Gossip has followed.
In one video from June, Chamberlain and the Dolans pretended to be studying for high school finals, playing with the stereotype of YouTubers as stupid slackers and praising students who might be studying for real.
“For me personally, I just don’t have anything to prove anymore,” she said. “I know exactly who I am, I know that I’m intelligent and acting dumb or acting like whatever. If that’s funny to me because I know it’s false then so be it.”
Chamberlain has now decided upon a new approach. “I’m just going to not stick to one thing so strictly,” she said. Her recent videos are less jittery, less edited. She has been trying to let her narrative and her scripts speak, with fewer interruptions than before.
Recently, she has tried anthologies and also stunts, like spending 24 hours on the balcony of her house. She thinks that those videos have been different and that she has, to some degree, broken out of the box she made for herself.
The balcony stunt, for instance, she said, was one of the more emotionally challenging things she had ever done for video. She said that the more she puts into what she makes, the less she has to do to make the video work in the edit.
“I’m trying to make the stuff that I’m filming more dynamic so that when I’m editing there’s less pressure on me to kind of create something that’s not there,” she said. “I’m starting to realize that editing is very personal, and 90% of the editing is just so that I’m not bored. So I don’t have to overdo it. I’m trying to find that balance right now, so that I don’t overwork myself.”