Youtuber vs Celebrity: What Casey Neistat does next
When Casey Neistat speaks, the world listens.
He has millions of fans, and a global reach comparable to the likes of David Letterman at his peak, or Jimmy Fallon. But unlike the host of a late-night talk show, Neistat doesn’t rely on a team of writers, producers, support staff or a live studio audience. Instead, he entertains an audience of millions almost every day, using nothing more than a handheld camera and a laptop. And what an audience he has.
Neistat’s videos are regularly seen by millions of people. He has a subscriber base of just shy of nine million and has racked up more than two billion video views on YouTube alone. Not counting his other social media accounts (he has a million followers on Facebook and three million on Instagram), Casey Neistat has one of the largest and most engaged audiences on the internet. In the world of cat videos and ‘food porn’, that’s saying something.
Neistat joined YouTube in 2010, initially using the platform as nothing more than a place to host the quirky videos he made on the side of a moderately successful career in filmmaking and advertising. There are shorts dedicated to his first car, a weekend away in California, as well as funny videos of him flying a blow-up shark around the subway. So far, so pedestrian. Then, after picking up a ticket from a police officer for riding his bike outside of a bike lane in New York City, he made another short film.
The video, aptly titled ‘Bike Lanes by Casey Neistat’, features the titular character running into all manner of obstacles, which were either dumped or left in one of the city’s many bike lanes. The video ends with Neistat being unceremoniously flung off his bike, having rammed into a police car (itself parked where it shouldn’t be, in a bike lane).
Casey wears jacket, shirt Topman at namshi.com; Chinos by Corneliani
Part citizen-journalism and part self-injuring comedy, the video was shared by millions, picked up by news organisations like The Guardian and the BBC, and ultimately prompted a statement by then New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. For Neistat, the reaction to the YouTube video was a significant moment, when he first realised the power of the new platform.
“That’s what I love about technology. It has democratised video content. I shoot half of my uploads via smartphone,” says Neistat. “It has a super-high-quality camera; it has a zoom lens and a stereo microphone. To a naïve eye, there is not much difference between what it can do and what a formal production company does. On YouTube, I don’t necessarily know what was made by a big company, or by a single person, the production is not what I’m paying attention to, it’s the story being told.”
Today, Neistat’s videos set the standard that defines how social-media influencers go about creating content (you’ll be hard-pressed to find a vlogger who has not copied or is at least familiar, with Neistat’s video style and recording setup; a DSLR sat atop a large bendy tripod). But while the technology has changed — what used to take an entire production company months now takes minutes using any old point-and-shoot camera or smartphone — so too has the notion of celebrity.
“I am a YouTuber. I like that title because any 11-year-old in the world with a smartphone or a camera can be called a YouTuber” - Casey Neistat
“I had a TV show before I was on YouTube,” says Neistat. In 2008, HBO commissioned an eight-episode series of The Neistat Brothers, which ran for one season. The show was largely autobiographical, made up of short stories about Casey and his brother, Van Neistat. “I had some notoriety from being on HBO, but it’s nothing compared to what it is now, being on YouTube. The content I shared on both outlets was the same. The HBO show was 11 years ago, but it was absolutely a vlog. It was self-produced content that I shared.”
“But when you are on TV, your audience treats you differently. You are not a relatable person. It’s like you’re not a person at all. Just this mythical character. If Scarlett Johansson walks down the street, people will gawk at her. The way they would treat her is very different from the way they would treat a YouTuber like PewDiePie [a vlogger with more than 60 million subscribers] walking down that same street.”
What started as a small group of people making short videos on the internet, has quickly become a dominant form of entertainment, especially for younger audiences. Last year alone, the top 10 social influencers on YouTube brought in over 10 billion views on the platform and made a combined US$127 million dollars.
While those numbers do not surprise Neistat, he will be the first to admit it’s still baffling to some, “I have friends in the professional, mainstream media world, and they are absolutely perplexed by the relationship that I have with my audience.”
Casey Neistat is referred to as the ‘gold standard’ on YouTube.
The key to much of Neistat’s success lies in his authenticity. He takes his audience on a what appears to be an unabridged journey of his day-to-day life. While he is the first to admit that it’s more an enhanced version of reality than a fly-on-the-wall representation of it, it still has a vastly more genuine feel than the scripted and over-produced video content that is popular on television.
“My vlogs are entirely enhanced reality. But I think to preface that you need to define what enhanced reality actually means. Keeping Up with the Kardashians — although, I admit I have never seen the show — is 45 minutes long, but it’s meant to encapsulate a week of their lives. It is sculpted and put together by a set of editors and producers to create the most entertaining 45 minutes possible. They use a real life person, or a set of people, and their authentic real life, to create some interesting entertainment.”
“I posted a video today that is nine minutes long, and it’s certainly a day in my life. But it’s without question the part of my day that was the most interesting. I did leave out the part in the morning where my wife and I met with a psychologist to discuss the best tactics to get our daughter to sleep because that was boring. I don’t think it is something the audience could relate to or understand.”
Casey wears blazer, shirt and chinos all Ermenegildo Zegna
Social media is often accused of warping expectations of reality, allowing the billions of users across the likes of Facebook, Instagram and YouTube to present an inauthentic version of themselves, and of events (there’s no going back from the allegations regarding the 2016 US presidential election, nor the current outbreak of #FakeNews paranoia). But Neistat doesn’t believe this is the same thing as his vlogs.
“There is an important caveat to what I do, and it’s a very important caveat. Everything that I share is the truth. I don’t fabricate anything. I don’t create anything out of thin air. I guess I just curate aspects of my life that I want to share and the parts that I am comfortable with sharing.”
Casey Neistat doesn’t like the word ‘influencer’.
He doesn’t like the term ‘content creator’ either. He sees both as lazy, and unimaginative. “The title that I have attuned,” says Neistat, “and the one
I really like for humility — and myriad other reasons — is simply ‘YouTuber’. I am a YouTuber. I like that title because any 11-year-old in the world with a smartphone or a camera can be called a YouTuber.”
That’s easy for someone like Casey Neistat to say. If his daily vlogs are anything to go by, a regular day can involve anything from taking an UberChopper over New York City, flying to some faraway country for public-speaking engagements (indeed, Neistat is speaking to us on the back of being flown to Dubai for VIDXB, the region’s first online video conference) or hanging out with other equally famous YouTube stars.
Esquire Middle East's March 2018 'Influencer Issue'
“I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that you need to have an exciting life to have an exciting channel,” says Neistat.
“I have an exciting life, and I would never suggest otherwise, but some of the biggest vlogs have very little to do with excitement. Look at family vlogger Roman Atwood, who has almost double the views that I do. Or look at PewDiePie, the biggest YouTube creator in the world. Their lives aren’t particularly exciting, but they are incredibly good at sharing them.”
While Casey will often name-drop his fellow YouTubers, that doesn’t mean he agrees with all of them. PewDiePie, aka Felix Kjellberg, is a Swedish web-based comedian and gamer, who is still the most popular creator on YouTube (60 million subscribers and counting).
Casey wears blazer, shirt and chinos all Ermenegildo Zegna; Sandboard by Above Sandboards
When The New York Times released reports detailing several instances of anti-Semitic and racist content that Kjellberg released on his channel last year, Neistat was one of the first creators to openly comment (via his vlog, naturally). Likewise, when Logan Paul uploaded a video depicting a dead body found in Japan’s Aokigahara Forest (the resulting uproar caused YouTube to remove Paul’s ability to monetise his videos), Neistat quickly took to social media to condemn Paul’s actions.
Neistat puts much of his fellow creator’s misdeeds down to immaturity. “Any other star that has the fame of Logan Paul at the age of 22 will be surrounded by agents, editors, publicists, other people who are there to help them, shake their images, and control how they put themselves out there” admits Neistat, “But YouTube is the very antithesis of that. There is no one between Logan Paul and his audience. It’s just him.”
Logan Paul had a single subscriber in September of 2016, but today has a subscriber base of 16.7 million (by comparison, it took Justin Bieber almost triple the time to grow a similar-sized audience). “I think what we are seeing now is what happens when you combine really, really poor judgement with [the mentality] of a 20-year-old millionaire.”
Last month Neistat sat down with YouTube’s Head of Business to talk about the changes taking place on the platform, in part due to the recent uproar around Logan Paul. The interview, which was recorded and uploaded on Neistat’s channel, was lambasted by the press but welcomed by the broader creative community. It painted Neistat a somewhat of a father-figure on the platform, a role which he now must contend with.
“I think I am a lot like other top creators, but I have the benefit of being an old man. I have been working for 15 years, not fifteen months like Logan Paul. So I have an understanding that comes from experience. But I don’t act on behalf of YouTube. I think there’s a total lack of understanding in our community, and so I thought I would take that to YouTube. When they agreed to the interview, I thought I would do it publicly.”
Casey Neistat wants to go beyond YouTube
In 2015, at the height of his YouTube success, Neistat announced that he was co-founding a startup company called Beme (pronounced: Beam). The company produced a video-sharing app that allowed users to disseminate quick, short clips, but lacked the facility for its users to edit their videos. In the first few days, the app racked up half a million downloads and more than a million video uploads, but things went south soon after, so much so that Neistat posted an explainer video on YouTube a year after the launch, entitled ‘What the hell happened to Beme?’. After months of speculation about if and when the company would shutter, it was acquired by an unlikely saviour.
Casey wears blazer and chinos all Ermenegildo Zegna
Jeff Zucker, president of CNN, first heard of Casey Neistat via his children, and in 2016 it was announced that CNN would be buying Beme for close to US$25 million, in the hope of securing and growing its six million viewership.
Indeed, Neistat isn’t naive to the potential his audience provides, “The largest part of the equation was me. I am not blind to that at all. If you look at the demographics, I capture a sizeable audience in a demographic that CNN just doesn’t reach.”
But CNN’s views on Neistat have probably soured somewhat since the acquisition. On 25 January, 2018, Neistat posted a heartfelt video on his YouTube channel, announcing that he was moving on from Beme. In his first video (which was quickly removed from YouTube) Neistat laments what happened, but admits that his creativity is less geared towards group environments.
In a shorter video which has since been reposted, Neistat says, “We did a lot of interesting things, and I think I might have struggled more in that environment than I had anticipated. But ultimately, I am very proud of the work that we did there.” Neistat is staying on as executive producer of the Beme News media channel on YouTube, but, having closed Beme as a company last month, it’s clear that CNN didn’t get the digital saviour that it presumed Neistat would be.
Casey Neistat isn’t going anywhere
Neistat’s very public exit from CNN was portrayed as somewhat of a personal failure (indeed, the fate of his co-founder Matt Hackett became a footnote in many of the news stories). While he’s keen to point out that CNN was ultimately pleased with what was produced (most members of the BEME technology team were offered a position with CNN), after the teary-eyed video explaining the situation, much of Neistat’s nine-million-strong audience was concerned about what would happen next. They needn’t have worried.
“What I am doing next? I don’t know if I will be announcing anything until after March… F*** it, let’s do this on the record. I don’t want to have to do this twice.”
“My next endeavour will be the most ambitious undertaking of my career,” says Neistat, “and the culmination of 15 years in the media landscape. That includes my time on television with HBO and CNN, making feature films, my understanding of the landscape of YouTube and social media, as well as my experience working in the technology world. What I am doing will be a blend of all those aspects of my career; it will be the biggest swing that I have ever taken.”
“What I am doing next will be the most ambitious undertaking of my career... the biggest swing I have ever taken. It will be built entirely around where I know I can be successful”
Unlike his previous endeavour, Neistat is putting himself front and centre of his new project. “I am not going for outside capital, so everything will be directly funded by me from the onset. No venture, no debt, and I will not be answerable to anyone. This is going to be a company that is built in its entirety around where I know I can be successful in new media. It’s going to be social first. It’s going to be YouTube first.”
Neistat is keen discuss things like building out business verticals, marketing, advertising and the logistics of delivering merchandise. “There are myriad other factors that I need to look at,’ Neistat admits, “including an entirely new video vertical, which is going to be a podcast that my wife and I are launching. That will include an all-new channel, where we’ll be making videos around the podcasts.”
And where better to run an ambitious project such as this than a brand new headquarters. “I will be taking on an entirely new storefront studio space in lower Manhattan.
I will be running the entire operation from that. It’s going to be a collaborative environment where I will be working with other creators to help realise their ambitions. The goal for me is to really define what I understand new media is, and how it’s capable of looking ahead.”
Casey wears blazer, shirt and chinos all Ermenegildo Zegna; Sandboard by Above Sandboards
Neistat is obviously eager to talk about the new project but guarded enough to stay away from specifics. “I wouldn’t call it a vlog, more a daily show,” says Neistat, “which will be at the centre of everything I do. That is the nucleus, and there will be other spheres of content orbiting around that.”
“One thing I can tell you about the new company is that my sole focus will be on creating the best videos on all of the internet. And I am going to approach it with that understanding every single day.” Evidently, the world had better get ready to see a whole lot more of Casey Neistat.
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This article was published in the March 2018 issue of Esquire Middle East.