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Does Great YouTube Power Come With Great Responsibility?

09/04/2015 22:24 BST | Updated 09/06/2015 10:59 BST

There's no doubt that the way we consume information has changed beyond recognition over the past 10 years. Chances are, that if you're a member of generations Y or Z, it's been long time since you've sat down in front of the telly (yes, it's still a thing...) for the six o'clock news. Ok, you might still absorb the odd newspaper opinion column, but only if you're scrolling through your smartphone or are suddenly feeling a bit nostalgic over Sunday brunch.

These days, the way we learn about issues and develop our opinions about them happens largely online, whether it's a comment section debate or signing up to an online petition. We tailor our YouTube and Twitter feeds to follow the people whose opinions and personas we love (or love to hate). But while there's certainly discussion about the big issues happening online, if you're just following make-up vloggers and gaming aficionados, it's unlikely you'll come across much to do with these issues in your online world. So while those with a wider interest in current affairs can incorporate this into their feed, those who haven't been exposed to bigger debates won't encounter as much discussion around them.

On YouTube in particular, it seems that most of the young voices are focusing more on light entertainment than trying to raise awareness about the world around them. While it takes all of two seconds to find out how to do the perfect eyeliner flick, it's not so easy to find a vlogger talking about the UK general election in a way that's relevant and engaging to a mass audience. So while the sites most popular bloggers wield influence over their millions of subscribers, at the moment, well... they're not using it for much.

For some, this has raised the question as to whether YouTubers with mass youth followings have an obligation to talk about important issues. Should great YouTube power come with great responsibility to educate the young masses?

Speaking at Transmission, a panel debate on the subject hosted by London creative agency Holler, TV persona and youth advocate Rick Edwards highlighted, "In 2010, only 44% of 18-24 year olds voted, and there wasn't a direct line of communication to which you could speak to that demographic. Now, through YouTube, we do know that they are watching content from people they really like. It raises the question, should those people be getting involved in things like that? There's an opportunity there to speak to those people who feel disenfranchised."

It would certainly provide a huge platform to speak to the 18-24 demographic, but there's also the issue of credibility. A savvy YouTube audience who are constantly differentiating between promoted material and authentic content are likely to smell a rat if an influencer who'd previously only vlogged about shoes suddenly started critiquing the finer points of the Labour party manifesto. Edwards added, "People like particular people on YouTube because of their authenticity and honesty. What wouldn't work is if someone just approached them about something they weren't into. That would compromise their individual brand and the message itself. You need to find people who have the platform and also care about what the issue is".

It's an idea that's supported by many YouTubers themselves, who maintain that they're only willing to promote causes that resonate with them as an individual. Also speaking at Holler's Transmission, YouTube influencer Jim Chapman said, "I was approached by a campaign recently and turned it down because, quite frankly, I didn't know anything about it...you need someone who has an interest in it. Although I could potentially reach millions of people, it would mean nothing because I wouldn't have any interest in it...you have to find the right person".

On the one hand, saying that YouTubers should talk about the big issues just because of their influence seems unreasonable. Why should they have to talk about something they don't care about just because millions of people are listening? Especially when the sudden change is content is likely to spark a backlash. But on the other hand, that's not to say it isn't something they should start considering. Perhaps it's time for influencers to start thinking harder about issues of social responsibility, particularly when it comes to issues close to their heart. If YouTubers were willing to engage more with more serious topics that tie-in with their persona, the impact on the younger generation could be huge. Just imagine a world in which comments sections were full of political discourse alongside a heated argument about the best way to hold a curling iron.

It's not for us to say how famous individuals choose to use their influence, and it seems unreasonable to suggest that YouTube stars are obliged to speak to their followers about the big issues. But just think about how different things could be if they did...