Outstripping JK Rowling to become the fastest-selling debut novel of all time, Girl Online – by Zoella, aka Zoe Sugg – sold 78,000 copies in its first week. “The book was absolutely chock-full of cliches,” wrote one reviewer on Amazon. “If you want an original literary masterpiece, this book isn’t for you. That isn’t a criticism, however – I really enjoyed it.”
If you haven’t got teenage daughters, you probably want to know who Zoella is. She’s a blogger but, more saliently, a vlogger: I guess you want to know what that means too, old timer.
Zoella films herself in her bedroom giving beauty tips. Her target YouTube audience is girls aged 13 or 14, though she herself is in her 20s. Sometimes she does stunts with her brother, who has also found fame through impressions and pranks. He’s called Joe Sugg, and travels by the handle ThatcherJoe, because he’s an apprentice roof thatcher. I have no idea whether that’s true or not – it turns out that irony is generation-specific: I could tell if you were making an ironic face from 50 paces; I can’t tell if he really builds roofs, even after an eight-minute vlog about it.
Zoella’s persona is that of sensible, clean-thinking older sister. She babbles away, incredibly kind to herself in the edit – or unkind, depending on your perspective. It wouldn’t be so vapid if it were cut a little bit tighter. As it is, there’s a lot of “I would say these were my favourite for July, but it’s the middle of August now, so these are August favourites”. The more you watch, the less irritating these meanderings become; she turns into one of those relatives you tune out but are fond of. I imagine, if you watched enough, the inanity would be part of the attraction. However, I don’t want to go overboard. An obvious element of the appeal is that the mums aren’t watching. I would hate to ruin it for her when it’s going so well: two million Twitter followers; three and a half million on Instagram; an invitation from Bob Geldof to join Band Aid.
From observations on the time of year, she moves into beauty products: “I burned the side of my face with my curling wand. So be very careful, because they get very hot and if you turn it towards your face, you will burn it.” (Again, I have no idea whether this is a joke. On paper, it looks as though it must be, but the delivery is so matter of fact.) “If you have a really big spot, or maybe a really sore one that sits underneath your skin, this works wonders.”
Now, there is one thing specific to the beauty industry that makes these indie guerrilla reviewers so popular. In the mainstream, it is total PR stitch-up. Never mind negative reviews, you can be fired from a women’s magazine just for using the wrong adjectives to say how great a product is.
This, incidentally, is why good old media beauty journalists (of whom there are only two – Sali Hughes and Hannah Betts) are so intelligent. The tightrope you would walk to say an honest, meaningful, credible thing yet remain employed is so taut and risky, only a sophisticated, agile mind can do it. No offence to foreign correspondents, but I would love to see them try. The normal run of the business is lickspittle running dogs rotating the same 17 words to persuade you to buy something for 50 quid that Boots does for five.
Naturally, then, when new media came along to break down the battlements of the old, beauty was the one that fell first, because its foundations were corrupt.
Plainly, though, there is more to this than a new take on beauty. All celebrities claim to have been created by their fans, but of Zoella that is accepted fact – the young followers in their millions came first, the plaudits when the world caught up.
The question this raises is who the classic media are actually serving these days: classic media don’t catch the age bracket that their own executives are part of – let’s call it, for brevity, the middle-aged – because that age bracket is transfixed by youth. People like me have to find out about the podcast Serial through word of mouth, in a bizarre return to cultural life before the telephone, sometime in the 18th century.
But they don’t catch the young either, because they are aiming their guns at a chimera of youth, a vague part-memory, part-focus-grouped notion of what young people like. Then, every now and then, something universal pops up like Gogglebox, which just about keeps the whole show on the road. Otherwise, we exist in cultural silos, and can remain perfectly unaware of what people, even five years younger than us, are into.
In a court case this week, a barrister had to translate for the judge what the salient text message evidence actually meant, when four young men were accused of air rifle attacks. “Hurry up I’ve got bare [sic] haters around me now.” “It means: ‘Hurry up, I’ve got a lot of people who don’t particularly like me here.’” Another read: “Hurry up I’ve got a strap on me, this is bare bait.” The barrister told the jury, “We believe this means: ‘Hurry up, I’ve got a gun on me, and this is really risky.’” The judge not understanding the defendants is a timeless problem – but I would be lying if I said I’d have got any of that either.
It is strange to consider that new media, specifically new social platforms, have made us less comprehensible to one another across generations, rather than more.
Polari has always existed, in phrases and fun jargon, but previously we would always return to the mothership ‑ the broadcaster – for our shared culture: so maybe some people watched Monty Python or The Young Ones and some didn’t, but its private languages were never exactly private.
Zoella’s novel itself isn’t about makeup at all; the link between persona and author is that Zoella’s protagonist has a very vibrant online life which blows up in her face (hilarious consequences, chaos ensues, yikyak, yikyak). And the response to it, broadly (there are a few haterz, which I believe now ends in a z), is: “We love you, Zoella. In incarnations real or fictional, in pyjamas or regular clothes, we love you.”
In that, it reminded me of Neighbours, the passion when I was a teenager. It started off as a knowing appreciation of its blandness, and it ended with a massive Kylie Minogue love affair that has persisted to this day. The difference, then, was that we had no agency, except to consume or not to consume. We never decided to find Neighbours. Neighbours was put before us like an improbable titbit.
Generation gaps used to be tied to the social concept of maturity: in eras when growing up was seen as a desirable thing to do, nobody tried to understand the young and natural chasms opened up between the way each age bracket would express itself. Pretty well from the 60s onwards, as ageing became more and more anathema and youth more ardently prized, the elders attempted to collapse the gaps, while the young made more concerted efforts to cling on to them. Teenage slang and mores at the start of the 90s felt manufactured: bad meant good. Wicked meant good. It was all a bit obvious, and most things meant “good”. Then the internet came along, giving us discrete cultural spaces that weren’t homogenised by generations trying to guess one another’s perspective, and blew us poles apart. But there was never great dignity in having your generation put through a BBC or Channel 4 filter to have its cultural moments given meaning or form. There was no great boon to having your identity mediated through an authoritative centre.
When we can express ourselves in an unfiltered way, we can see each other better. And it seems to me that we like each other more, will take more blathering, for the sake of that sense of being in the presence of unvarnished human.
Not that Zoella is unvarnished, of course; she knows a ton about varnish.