Last month, Zoe Sugg – otherwise known as YouTube blogger Zoella – launched her debut novel. It shot to the top of the charts but within hours there was widespread speculation that the book, ‘Girl Online’ had been ghostwritten. Cue a press shitstorm.
The mainstream media generally struggles to understand the culture of YouTube and the stars it has created, but they’re more at home with a scandal such as this, and they’re getting a fair bit of mileage out of it.
Ghostwriting is not uncommon – Katie Price openly acknowledges that she uses one (namely Rebecca Farnworth who sadly passed away last month). Generally a ghostwriter will take plot ideas and characters from the “author” and turn it into a piece of fully formed writing.
But let’s put that to one side. The general reporting is not so much about the fact that Sugg used a ghostwriter, but that she hasn’t been more upfront about it. The common argument seems to be that her brand is built on authenticity and that by covering up the ghostwriting, trust in the brand has been diminished. I think they’ve completely missed the point, perhaps deliberately in order to make a better story.
Vloggers like Sugg don’t build their brands on ‘authenticity’, but more on what viewers don’t see. Look at many of the comments on their videos and you will usually find a very suspicious viewership. A re-occuring topic is whether or not Sugg has stopped being ‘best friends’ with fellow vlogger ‘SprinkleOfGlitter’ just because they haven’t appeared in a video together for a while. And there were many comments relating to her relationship with fellow vlogger Alfie Deyes (PointlessBlog) months before they were revealed to be an item.
This is not a brand that’s built on authenticity, it’s one that is built on curiosity, gossip and a bit of light scandal. A reality based soap opera if you like. I’m by no means calling Sugg a fraud – she has always seemed a fairly sweet, ordinary girl that has been thrust into the limelight in such bizarre circumstances.
In fact, the whole concept of ‘Zoella’ becoming a brand is partly what has caused this media storm to blow up. The ‘Zoella’ that millions of viewers invest their time in is not a brand, she is a person. The decision to convert this new media entity into an old media brand could ultimately prove her downfall as the style of both worlds clash. A perfect example of this is the way in which Penguin Books released their statement regarding the ghostwriter in the old school ‘letter to the press’ format, whereas Sugg’s statement was issued via Twitter, but looked incredibly proof-read and signed off by her PR. The fact that Sugg then went on to personally address issues in her regular less formal style was even more jarring.
There is a bigger picture to this recent saga, which has been completely missed by the media. Prior to Ghostwriter-gate, cracks had already been emerging. Sugg and Deyes have recently both spoken out against some of their viewers for their comments, which have become more critical of late. In one recent vlog, many mentioned the irony of Deyes attending the recording of the Band Aid charity record before getting into a helicopter and visiting the huge extravagant house owned by PR guru Matthew Freud.
In a fairly passive-aggressive tone, Deyes threatened to turn off the option post comments to his YouTube channel if the posts are not more positive in future (he later carried out the threat). Sugg, in bed by the side of him, agreed and added it was negative comments that caused her to stop making daily vlogs.
It’s a sign that PointlessBlog and Zoella are perhaps getting carried away with their own hype, and have forgotten that the very nature of what they do is based on direct feedback from their audience. If this pair continues to chastise this audience for having an opinion, and lose sight of what their popularity is truly based on, I have a feeling it won’t be appreciated, and it won’t be long until the next generation of vloggers attract the attention of a notoriously fickle viewership.