YouTubers' Emotional Vulnerability and its Effect on Self-Presentation Online

Curator's Note

Technology has provided a unique avenue for broadcasting different presentations of self to audiences. One prominent group has pulled back the curtain of their high quality production and buttoned-up presentation to reveal a more authentic self: YouTubers. With the push toward authenticity and self-disclosure online, certain YouTubers have turned to their channels as a vehicle to display emotional vulnerability. The internet has become a safe space where content creators feel comfortable enough to let their guard down and talk candidly to their audiences. Authenticity has become a key component in the branding of any given content creator. The raw moments of a creator’s daily life have become valuable commodities in the online world, garnering a devoted viewership that consistently watches the content they publish.

Twenty-four-year-old British YouTuber, Dodie Clark (doddleoddle), generates conversations about heavily stigmatized topics on her YouTube channels, engaging with the humanity of her viewership by presenting herself as vulnerable and flawed. In the video titled, “I am depressed today,” posted on her second channel (doddlevloggle), Dodie records herself in the midst of a depressive episode, rambling about her unique relationship with depression, anxiety and derealization: a chronic state of dissociation. Dodie is shaping the culture that exists on YouTube by acknowledging that perfection is not her reality. She decides that a rant about mental health is viable content that deserves to be shared because bad days are an inevitable part of the human experience. Dodie’s ability to be vulnerable instantly makes her more accessible to her audience, showing how the portrayal of a flawless persona online is just that: a persona. Her openness normalizes invisible illnesses like depression, in turn becoming part of a larger discourse of what it means to be authentic online. 

Dodie willingly discusses aspects of her personal life online, using her YouTube channels as a public diary, opening herself up to personal criticism as the result of posting vulnerable content. However, through the simple act of online transparency, YouTubers like Dodie are destigmatizing the weakness associated with speaking candidly about issues such as mental health and personal trauma, sustaining conversations that have otherwise been viewed as unsavory or unspeakable in the context of the internet. When a content creator acknowledges personal imperfections, audiences respond to this authenticity because suddenly that YouTuber is no longer an intangible character on a screen, but a human.  


My work also deals intimately with vlogging culture, and I'm always interested in the ways in which YouTubers navigate working under the umbrella of capitalism and self-branding while also maintaining a performance of authenticity and relatability. Indivifuals like Dodie or Zoe Sugg who have spoken openly and often about their mental health (in Zoe's case, anxiety and panic attacks) certainly strengthen their already established following by doing so. Over the years, YouTube has been a fruitful space to engage with content that genuinely speaks back to the normative standards of identity and experience, allowing people to construct their own narratives around traditionally stigmatized topics like mental illness, sexual health, non-normative sexualities and gender identities, and even things like trauma and abuse. That said, it also unavoidably allows for individuals to contribute ostebsibly "authentic" content that is wholly insensitive and potentially triggering (for example, Logan Paul's infamous trip to Aokigahara). It seems that there will always be this underlying tension for YouTubers between posting for views and posting for self-expression (though the two are certainly not necessarily in opposition). In this competitive digital world of self-branding and neoliberal entrepreneurialism, we seem to always return to this question of "authenticity." Is authenticity constrained by monetization? How do we determine who is "truly" authentic? Does it matter? Although destigmatization and community-building are real, tangible outcomes of sharing one's mental health/illness online, what are the risks of revealing so much to such massive audiences? (And why does it feel like this burden of vulnerability is once again disproportionately put on women?)

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