Birth of a Billion-Dollar Boy Band

The Beach Boys. The Beatles. N’Sync. The Backstreet Boys. What follows this suit of world-famous boy bands? Whether you’re an fan or not, the answer is universally known: it’s One Direction. In just three years since their debut on The UK X-Factor’s 7th season, 1D has broken hundreds of records, won countless awards, collected millions of fans worldwide, and become the first billion-dollar boy band. The hysteria they have created has been compared to the craze of Beatlemania from five decades past and shocked everyone including the band members themselves.

In case you haven’t already seen their faces on every teenie-bopper magazine or printed on your younger sister’s newest stationary…

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So what has warranted so much success for these five British-Irish boys? I’ve read through a number of articles that offer plenty of reasons – their good looks, the perfect timing, catchy tunes, the charming accents, their start on television. While those are indeed significant factors – I’ve come to the conclusion that the tool that set them apart from previous popular boy bands is none other than the Internet. You wouldn’t have to be a die-hard fan to admit that One Direction has a good grip on social media and has used it wisely to their advantage. Currently on Twitter, they’ve accumulated more than 16 million followers on their band’s page and at least 10 million followers each on their five individual profiles; it is the social networking platform they use more than any other to reach out and communicate to fans now. But what I believe truly launched their fame is not Twitter, but in fact YouTube. Since their start in 2010, the band’s presence on YouTube has decreased because their schedule has become more packed with tour dates, movie premieres and album releases, but it truly is YouTube to which they owe their billion-dollar fame and busy celebrity lives.

It started with the video diaries. During their time as contestants on The X-Factor, the five boys – Harry, Zayn, Niall, Louis, and Liam – took a break from the competition once a week to post on YouTube. “Hi we’re One Direction, and this is our video diary. You can come back every week to find out what we’re up to, how we’re feeling, and everything that’s going on.” This was how they started their very first video, and this established that their purpose was to reach out to the public, to the television viewers, and to their initial fans to give them a glimpse into their lives on the show. One look at the videos and it’s clear why so many fans were hooked: they were entertaining in the most down-to-earth manner – the ideal, genuine identity performance that not many celebrities achieve. The video diaries were stripped of typical television set extravagance – no makeup, no special lights or effects, no live audience. They sat in the same spot each week – in a plain, cramped stairwell and spoke to the camera without a script. Their intention, as explained by Marwick & boyd in their article “To See and Be Seen: Celebrity Practice on Twitter” was “to create a sense of intimacy between participant and follower.”

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Screenshot by author. Click to view video (original video source no longer available)

As the competition progressed, they continued to give updates on their improvement and also took the time to thank their fans and interact with them by answering their posted questions. The nonchalance with which they produced these short weekly videos was evidence that the boys themselves were not yet accustomed to their own new fame, nor were they yet aware of how many fans these video diaries would reach. This was an advantage because then there was no motivation to “perform” or act. Michael Wesch‘s Anthropological Introduction to YouTube gives insight into why YouTube is such a perfect platform to deliver such a simple, raw, and real identity. He discusses first the empowerment of reach – by posting online, these boys were providing anyone in the world (not just the show audience) to get to know them on a more personal basis. Wesch also mentions community and the audience’s ability to participate by commenting with responses – something which the boys acknowledged and replied to.

The boys eventually lost and left the competition in the semi-final round. While most reality TV singing-competitors tend to be forgotten soon after their time on the show ends, One Direction gained momentum.  To the glee of their loyal fans, the boys continued the tradition of video diaries, though on a less frequent basis, to communicate that they were continuing as a band and working on original music. The videos started to show a little more production (background music, editing, and pre-planned practical jokes), but they still answered questions, thanked their followers, and gave updates so the audience felt in touch with the boys as their fame started to grow. It was unlike following a celebrity like Justin Bieber on Twitter, because more effort and more personality show through in a video than in a 140-character Tweet. Hugo Liu, author of “Social Network Profiles as Taste Performance,” discusses how taste performance can affect cultural capital on social media. 1D’s choice to portray authenticity via their videos rather than through SNSs with reduced social cues was what grabbed people’s attention more than other new musical celebrities and motivated fans to pass on the videos to their friends.

Since their time on the X-Factor, success has transformed 1D in numerous ways, which has stirred the question: are they a band or a brand? On YouTube now, it is rare for the band to post casual, diary-type videos. Their channel has become more a collection of advertisements – for their new fragrance, for the premiere of their movie, for the release of their latest music videos, even for their endorsers like Pepsi and Office Depot. Of course, once these videos are posted, they do not only reach their 2 million YouTube subscribers. Links are tweeted out by the boys to their Twitter followers, screenshots are posted to their Instagram, etcetera. While their YouTube presence has now been overshadowed by their more frequent participation on other social networking sites, those video diaries on YouTube should be commended as the viral sensation responsible for the birth of the billion-dollar boy band.

So to YouTube, from the boys:


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