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Why are early beauty videos on YouTube so calming?

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The proliferation of old beauty vlogs on TikTok has led to collective mourning for simpler times… but were they really? so good?

Arguably the Big Bang of the Age of Influence, YouTube's early beauty gurus were notable for their commitment to extremely long-form content, DIY beauty tips, and excessive morning vlogs. Although the algorithmic overlords have since seen themselves sacrificed to a landslide of short-form content, clips from that era began recirculating on TikTok in recent months, and old viewers joined in mourning a long-gone era of internet history. “It's like a warm hug from the past,” says 21-year-old Alex, who has gained thousands of followers by reposting videos to his account “Forever Nostalgia”. “It’s refreshing to watch videos created before social media was saturated with product placements.”

In the context of TikTok's short and fast content wheel, these clips highlight the drastic evolution of digital beauty influence over the last decade. People who comment on Alex's videos celebrate and are often surprised by the level of simplicity they didn't realize at the time. While much of today's beauty content recommends new cosmetic procedures or expensive anti-aging products, early YouTube videos offered simple, accessible instructions. Michelle Phan catapulted herself to internet fame with a series of DIY face mask videos featuring pore-clogging ingredients that would make 2024's TikTok beauticians shudder, while Blair Fowler (under the apt '00s screen name Juicystar07) regularly does 15-minute haircuts -Tutorials uploaded in webcam quality while giving a monologue about her life.

Nowadays, that innocence often seems to be missing from beauty content. In these early videos, the creators popularized girl's room culture, which had previously been private, and viewers were seduced by the concept of seeing someone like them give lived advice in real time. “The typically domestic bedroom environments in which these tutorials were filmed and viewed, as well as the use of filming techniques such as close-ups, encouraged the development of strong intimate bonds between viewers and creators,” explains Rachel Berryman, digital influencer researcher at Curtin University, Perth. “What used to be a solitary experience – applying makeup in the bedroom – felt more like a social activity.”

This emphasis on the social aspect of beauty content before introducing brand partnerships is key to her newfound cult following. “I think beauty content back then wasn't as closely tied to capitalism and consumerism as it obviously is today,” says 20-year-old Grace, an avid beauty YouTube viewer from the early 2010s. “The conversation around beauty trends, feminism and the harmful effects of social media is huge now, and while it's important and something I engage with on a regular basis, I watch Zoella videos at 12 It was just a matter of putting up fairy lights and doing the five-minute makeup challenge.” Jonny, 25, who was also a fan of the beauty community at the time, agrees. “It's reminiscent of a time when content wasn't so much about views. “Videos felt more authentic before the connections between makeup content creation and advertising became clear,” they say.


So what has changed? According to Brooke Erin Duffy, an associate professor in Cornell University's Department of Communication, the game changed forever when advertisers realized they could capitalize on the communities surrounding these YouTubers. “The apparent professionalization of this sector is due in large part to the astonishing growth of influencer marketing. Beauty brands want a more “authentic” sales team, and people are increasingly turning to online personalities for advice, recommendations and lived expertise, she says.

This means that many YouTubers are now looking to target older audiences with disposable income rather than creating relevant content for young girls. “In the 2010s it seemed like most videos were aimed at the teenage demographic, whereas today there seems to be a growing gap in content for this age group,” says Alex. However, the result is not that young people are being discouraged from consuming beauty content, but rather that they are following advice that is not intended for them. In recent months, there have been reports of teenage boys coveting expensive skin care products instead of the drugstore lip balms prevalent in the early YouTube era. “Zoella would use a three-pound collection concealer. We could go to the high street and buy these Rimmel lipsticks and recreate her look,” Grace says. “Now you need a Dyson Airwrap for £500, the Clinique Black Honey for £25 and a Drunk Elephant moisturizer for £60 and these products will be thrown away for the next trend tomorrow.”

Then it's easy to get drawn back into the utopian world those older videos seemed to create. But perhaps it is a mistake to adopt such a rose-tinted view. The repurposed content is also a reminder of how whitewashed the beauty industry was just a few years ago, when the majority of YouTubers fit a very specific mold. “The image of beauty circulating at the time tended to reinforce traditional representations of beauty and femininity – young, white, thin and conventionally attractive,” says Duffy. This has been exacerbated by the introduction of brand partnerships. “There were exceptions, of course, but advertisers tended to work with beauty vloggers who weren’t all that different from those in legacy media industries.”

So perhaps the widespread nostalgia is misplaced, even though some are desperate for a return of crackle nail polish. Still, it seems to point to a collective yearning for a more community-focused internet. While algorithms have worked to curate feeds that show us exactly what we want to see, these videos suggest it could be the exact opposite of what we really want. “Looking back, the experience of YouTube in the early 2010s seems much more consistent than that of the social media platforms we use today. There was a sense of shared experience and community: the homepage promoted videos that other viewers interacted with, not just those that related to your personal viewing habits,” emphasizes Berryman. “The nostalgia we see on TikTok today may not just be due to a particular style of content or group of creators, but rather a missing sense of community.”