Masters of the internet: how savvy teens rule social media

Masters of the internet: how savvy teens rule social media 3rd - April 2016

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Trevor Moran was 10 when he posted his first video on YouTube. Photo: Supplied

John Bailey 
Published: April 9, 2016 - 6:37PM

Trevor Moran's average day sounds like that of plenty of 17-year-olds. Get up at noon, lunch with a friend, back home for some Mario Kart. Outside for the tanning, checking the emails. Make a video. Practise some music, meet up with more friends then bed. But that video ...

That video will be viewed 100,000 times before the week is out. Likewise, 20-year-old Andrea Russett will post a selfie to Instagram and score 120,000 likes in four hours. Kian Lawley and Jc Caylen will tweet a "sorry for not posting anything" apology and that non-message alone will score thousands of retweets.

Not long ago they would all have been written off as being famous for being famous, but that cliché is proving a blinkered one. It fails to comprehend how a wave of kids who grew up on YouTube are making a career out of it, in ways that frankly often baffle their elders. While old media was busy cranking out thinkpieces on "How Social Media is Changing the Way We ...", a younger generation was harnessing that social media for its own ends.

Trevor Moran was just 10 when he posted his first video on YouTube. "Fun at The Park" is exactly what it sounds like – pint-sized Trevor playing on a swingset, doing cartwheels, with the footage sometimes in reverse. It's not Scorsese. His second video, however, was received as a modern masterpiece.

"APPLE STORE DANCE!!!" is young Moran turning on the webcam of a demo computer at his local Apple store, finding a random song on it and busting out some moves. His technique is nothing special but the enthusiasm is infectious, and as he began posting more of these in-store performances his fame grew. By 13 he had floored US X-Factor judges with a hilarious cover of Sexy and I Know It, but more importantly the footage of the sequence was being shared online, earning him tens of thousands of followers each week.

Now Moran employs an agent, manager, and several visual directors to help curate his online presence. He makes enough to live independently in Los Angeles. He's 17, remember.* To be fair, Moran is a bona fide singer these days, but he's also evidence that doing goofy dances to other people's music is a legitimate career choice now.Fellow LA resident Andrea Russett guesses she was 11 or 12 when she uploaded her first video, in which she and a friend dance around the bedroom to Miley Cyrus. Now she has companies such as Pizza Hut and Netflix approaching her with partnership deals. Her YouTube channel has 2.4 million subscribers – more than 10 per cent of Australia's population.

There's a whole industry selling corporations on the idea of going viral, but for Moran and Russett and their peers it's kids' stuff. They know that the stars of "Double Rainbow" and "Bed Intruder" and "Charlie Bit My Finger" received millions of views but had no control over their sudden fame, and no way to channel it in the direction of their choosing. This crowd is different.

Moran, Russett and a whole gaggle of other online stars are in Melbourne and Sydney this month as part of Amplify Live, a concert-style event featuring the internet's "hottest influencers" that is touring Australia and New Zealand. It's telling that it takes such a loose term as "influencer" to describe what they have in common – they're singers, video bloggers, advice gurus, comics, podcasters, reality TV veterans and more.

Russett sees her job as "a content creator: I create content, whether it be on YouTube, Instagram, Vine, Snapchat or even in movies and shows not on the internet."

The duo Kian and Jc put it more bluntly. "We just do stupid shit and we like to make other people laugh at our stupidity," says the former.

A typical Kian and Jc video might see them punching each other in the face in glorious slow-motion, taking a spelling bee with rat traps to the fingers for each mistake, or donning white tuxedos for a paint war. It's post-Jackass tomfoolery that has spawned a merchandise store and a just-announced book. It makes them "enough to live in Hollywood," says Jc. "It's comfortable. I wouldn't say we make a lot lot lot."Gold Coast 19-year-old and Amplify headliner Kurt Coleman might be Australia's biggest internet star. The day we speak also includes filming a video with a friend, a radio interview in Sydney and an appearance at a school. He's off to Canberra the following day for the National Photographic Portrait Prize – a shot of him is in the top 50 out of more than 5000 entries.

That Coleman is in demand is without doubt. For what, exactly, is harder to pin down. "People always say that I'm a narcissist and stuff," he says. "In actual fact a narcissist is someone that doesn't care about anyone except themselves and that's not me. I care about a lot of people. I care about anyone that needs a hand or some inspiration."

Coleman has hundreds of thousands of followers across many social media platforms (it's difficult to work out how many accounts he has on Instagram alone). His posts are almost without exception images of himself, and he has no illusions as to how that might read to an older crowd. "Yes, I'm a vain person, and I will admit that. But it's a different thing to narcissism."

If you've any harsh thoughts about Coleman's perma-spray tan, eyebrow deforestation or general pout-and-eyeroll attitude, he's heard them already. "I've always had criticism from everyone. When I was young the teachers would be rude to me. When I was really young, probably around eight or nine, I didn't really have many friends. I would sit and people would walk past and be rude to me. I didn't even do anything. People have always done that to me."

As a child Coleman used to agonise over why the bullying he faced was as casual as it was merciless. As an adult, he says: whatever. "My message is to love who you are. Always value yourself and never let anyone else tell you that you're not right or not good enough."

Growing up on the internet means that the unfettered hatred of strangers is a part of your diet. "It's literally all the time online," says Coleman.

There's a community among online stars, however. "Most of the people who are going to Amplify are my friends," says Moran. "It's super cool to do stuff together with them."

Russett agrees. "We are all like the first wave of this whole internet weirdness where we don't really know what we're doing, nobody does, but we know that we're in it together and we're there to help each other figure it out."

Where only a few years ago would-be celebrities were leaking sex tapes as a method to fast-track fame, the Amplify generation seem to intuit that there are more sophisticated ways to achieve relevance. They don't need to reveal anything about themselves that they don't want to, and even then it can just be tease. Kian and Andrea were an item for a while, but a year after they broke up the pair made a new video in which they made out on a couch and snuggled together in bed. There's no pretending that it's anything other than an in-joke for gossip-hungry fans.

It's common to label the Amplify crew as Generation Overshare, but the opposite may be the case. "My family life, my relationships and close friendships, I try to keep all that stuff private," says Russett. "I don't like to tweet about personal stuff or anything like that."

Moran is equally circumspect when it comes to privacy. "I don't really talk about politics or religion, I stay away from that. I don't talk a lot about relationships." Growing up on the internet meant seeing the public trainwrecks it produced in the past, and learning how to avoid the same fate. "It held me back from doing stupid stuff. I didn't hang out with the bad kids from school, I stayed home and made videos," he says.

Yet Moran may be the first person to come out via music video. Last year's song I Wanna Fly was accompanied by a clip set in a Divergent-style dystopia where teens are rounded up for breeding; he fights back to be with a male lover. "I think it's important to realise it's 2016 and it's not a big deal any more," he says. "I'm proud of the world."

The pressures this group feel aren't necessarily those projected onto them – they know how to keep their private lives private, and their relentless self-promotion is professional rather than pathological. Their biggest challenges are business-related: for Kian and Jc it's about devising "crazier stuff than other people", while for Russett it's maintaining colour "themes" across multiple Instagram posts, producing a sense of continuity and flow.

But in the end they don't work for the internet. They make it work for them. For all his online fame, Coleman only checks his phone when he gets up in the morning and again before bed. For most of the day he's offline. "All those times you're on your phone, you're not actually seeing what's happening in front of you. Look at what's going on," he says. "Everything you can see and feel is life. Social media's not life. It's just like a game."

If you're 17 or younger there's probably nothing on this page that's news to you. It's more for your parents and other seniors who think you spend too much time watching videos of strangers telling you about their day. You may go back to building your own multi-platform world-conquering entertainment empire now.

Amplify Live in on April 7 at Melbourne's Palais Theatre (from $76.65) and April 12 at Sydney's Big Top at Luna Park ($85.40).

(Fairfax Media)