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 five. She began watching YouTube when she was six “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 glitches 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 learnt 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. 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, “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, 10 seconds max.”
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.”
In May of 2020, she will turn 19.
FAME AND COPYCATS
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.
“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.”
MAKING A LIVING
Chamberlain also makes good money. SocialBlade, a social media analytics firm, estimates that from her videos alone she makes at least $120,000 (Dh440,716) 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.”