Cultural Trends

photo above by Johan Larsson

Not all YouTube users are alike. It’s easy to see the high view counts on videos and envision a mass of viewers all doing the same thing, but it’s more complicated than that. There are varying degrees of involvement, from minimal interactivity all the way through “full time job.”

Understanding engagement on YouTube starts with understanding the people on YouTube, and the varying ways they use and interact with the platform. While this list is not meant to be exhaustive, it does cover the core differences among users, and it should be helpful when building and engaging your audience.



Lurkers simply watch rather than engage. They might be compelled to share from time to time, but they rarely comment and certainly don’t create videos. Lurkers are as close to a passive audience as audiences get. They are hard to find and may not even login to YouTube to watch or subscribe to channels, leaving little evidence they were ever around, except for a view count. But, all engaged users gotta start somewhere, and with more engaging content hitting YouTube every day, these lurkers will continue to jump in and get involved more and more.


These viewers comment and subscribe. This could range from a handful of subscriptions and a comment now and again, to having entire conversations in the comment sections.  When thinking about fans on YouTube, this is the segment of the audience we tend to think of most frequently. They may not be the largest group, but they are vocal. These fans enter giveaways and respond to calls to action. When things change, like aesthetics of videos, fans take note. Fans follow their favorite YouTubers on other social media platforms. For them, YouTube is part of their media routine. Sharing is a huge part of this audience segment; they evangelize what they like. The fan category does not exclude influencers (explained below). Most influencers are also fans, but not all fans are influencers.



photo by Joel Olives

Anyone who makes YouTube videos is an influencer. By creating and uploading videos, they are influencing the scope and direction of the platform in their own unique way.  Influencers are still fans in their own right, but they are adding to the conversation much more actively, and they are always pushing it forward. Influencers can range from the earliest stages of making videos to being on the cusp of YouTube fame.

There is, however, a difference between most influencers and “professional YouTubers.”  The line between being a professional YouTuber and being an influencer is a bit challenging to differentiate. Some of the most famous YouTubers are still in school, middle school, high school, college or beyond. Does their enrollment in school prevent them from being a professional YouTuber? Not necessarily.  In many cases, fame is in the eye of the beholder. And, just as all influencers are fans but not all fans are influencers, likewise all professional YouTubers are influencers, but not all influencers are professionals.

Ultimately, choosing to put out content on YouTube is a brave move. It requires filming, editing, uploading and then publicizing a video and releasing it for public viewing, and hence criticism. Thus, it is especially brave for vloggers and people who show themselves on camera and actually speak directly into the eyes of the viewer, where they are left especially revealed and vulnerable. When compared to text based communication, making videos is is an act of real strength, and the influence coming from such people is similarly strong in its overall effect.


Professional YouTubers, aka The YouTube Famous

Even famous people on YouTube are fans if they are native to the platform. YouTubers start as fans, and it is their fandom, and sometimes brandom, that keeps them on YouTube. These are the people that organize meet-ups and are on panels at VidCon. They make the front page, get written about and, most of all, have large subscriber bases. YouTube famous people tend to make their money on Youtube and are full-time YouTube personalities. This class of YouTuber posts regularly.  They also run social media in other forums and engage with fans online and offline. YouTube famous individuals also tend to generate money through brand integrations or alternative revenue streams. Many are looking at monetization strategies that extend beyond YouTube.

It is important to note that scoring one viral video does not make someone a professional, because they may not be able to leverage that one-hit-wonder into a sustainable community. But, viral videos can serve as launch points to vibrant YouTube careers.

When it comes to drawing lines, even VidCon has a hard time differentiating between influencers and professionals as illustrated by the following image and quote from the “Special Guests” section of their web site:


“It’s always been really hard for us to draw the line between attendee and “Special Guest.” But we have to draw it somewhere, and it is clearly more of an art than a science. But, basically, we think the people below will be of particular interest. It is entirely possible that your favorite creator is coming to VidCon but isn’t on the list. That’s just because it takes forever to crop pictures, so we have to stop somewhere.”

As the YouTube community continues to grow and evolve (with more than 1 billion unique users visiting each month), it seems likely that the kinds of users, and the creative way those users interact, will continue to grow and evolve as well. So, stay tuned.


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