Tyler Oakley figured out social media’s power to launch a brand – in this case, his own – long before most corporations even created Twitter accounts. Oakley uploaded his first public YouTube video in 2007, then only three years later was offered a national marketing campaign with YouTube. He’s obsessed with pop culture – at one point a self-proclaimed "professional fangirl" for One Direction – and charmingly honest, especially about his life as a young gay person. The 26-year-old, who describes himself as “a twink from the Internet,” currently counts 7.5 million YouTube subscribers and 4.6 million Twitter followers.
There are some people who don’t want to acknowledge the power of the Internet, but in 2015 social media is a powerful machine. Oakely’s Internet presence – a majority of his followers are teens – even caught the attention of the White House, who reached out to him to interview first lady Michelle Obama. When Oakley posted the trailer for his upcoming documentary "Snervous," it soon (#SnervousTrailer) trended on Facebook. He’ll soon be in homes across America as he’s slated to appear on the upcoming season of CBS’s "Amazing Race." Oakley's rise to Internet prominence, though, didn’t happen overnight, and his recently released collection of humor essays "Binge" discusses his Internet journey.
It seems like a wave of YouTubers have been dropping books lately, but Oakley’s stands out, because his topics range from the silly “20 Things I’d Do If I Were Beyoncé for the Day” to the very serious such as his struggle with an eating disorder. To some, 26 might seem young to write a memoir or personal essay collection, but Oakley uses his unique perspective on YouTube to write a touching and timely book. In "Binge," already a New York Times bestseller, readers finds Oakley at his realest.
In "Binge," you discuss how much work you’ve put into YouTube and social media accounts over the years. You’ve kind of created your own lane.
I have been doing it for eight years now, but the first five years were just kind of a hobby that I loved. I’d come home from work or from class, and it was everything that I loved to do. When I graduated from college, I got a 9-to-5 traditional job doing social media for a company, and I’d spend all day long fighting with the system of getting things approved and the fact that social media has such a quick turnaround. Things had to be very reactive and instant. There had to be a level of trust between the company and social media manager. But back then it was still progressive to even have a social media manager in the first place. It was a battle every single day. Then, I’d come home and work on my own stuff, and I absolutely loved it because I was in charge of my own stuff. I was able to do what I wanted.
When I first thought about leaving the traditional route of a 9-to-5 career to pursue full-time YouTube it was terrifying – not many people were doing it. The thought was I have to have money saved up, because this very likely might fail. From the start, I had to give it my all for it to work. If I didn’t, then I would be the only one to blame that it wouldn’t work as a full-time job. Since day one of trying to go full-time it’s been go, go, go, go, go. I think that mentality has just stuck with me, and even though things are going really well, I still haven’t let up the concept of who knows how long it could last. But it’s one of those things where who knows how any job could last? In my mind, it’s kind of just been an unprecedented type of career where who knows how this will go or what the next step is. I’ve always thought if I’m not full-throttle, 100 percent all the time, then it’s on me if it doesn’t work out.
There’s this idea in the media that millenials are slackers, but you’re constantly producing stuff and putting it out there for a huge audience on the internet.
Half of the perception is the millenial thing and half the perception of a YouTube star being a simple, lazy type of situation might be that people just don’t get it, which is fine. I know what I do. I feel what I do, so if they don’t want to see it, then that’s on them. Since my first experience with the Internet, I’ve been obsessed with it. There was the One Direction incident and that was a moment when I was like I don’t know if I still want to be on the Internet or if I should be doing what I do to the extent that I do. But my inclination is to always go back to the Internet, even if things are rough on the Internet.
The Internet has changed so quickly in such a short time. When I was a teen, I was low-key in the Yahoo! chatrooms, because it was the only space I could find.
Oh my God, same. I was talking to people when I was way too young to be doing that.
The Internet offers a younger generation of LGBTQ+ people a resource or a place to learn more about LGBTQ+ culture. They can also find a community that might not exist where they live. I think of my coming out experience – I was really fortunate and privileged to have a lot of supportive community. There were openly gay teachers and students at my school, and so many kids don’t have that. I think the Internet lends itself to a place where LGBTQ+ people can succeed, because they’re being sought out. They’re a disenfranchised voice in traditional media. I think it exists for not just LGBTQ+ people, but for all disenfranchised voices that maybe media is ignoring or not giving a platform to. I think those voices are good at it, because it’s fueled by the fact some people feel like they finally have a platform for their voice to exist. It is a phenomenon for sure – gay voices finding platforms on the Internet.
How different was the process of writing YouTube videos for the internet and writing a physical book?
The YouTube process has kind of been the most organic for me. I’ve just treated it like a diary, and I’ve never really written out a video – I’ll have bullet points like "don’t forget to talk about this" or "say this." But I’ve never scripted it, really. That’s kind of lent itself to the podcast [Psychobabble] which is very free and open and minimal edited. The first time I’ve been kind of more structured has been writing the book. That was a huge challenge for me. When I was first offered the book deal I was like I am not a writer. I haven’t practiced this. My approach has been completely stream-of-consciousness, and then edit down, because that’s been YouTube for me forever. When I first got the book deal – I didn’t know how I write – so I said no to it. I didn’t want to do it if I didn’t feel like it would be the correct way to go about it. After I said no, I started trying to write and figuring out what my voice was written. It kind of followed the same path of YouTube. I tried to write as much as I could and knew that nobody had to see it but me, then edit it down from there.
It seems like you work so much and go after opportunities, so I’m surprised you waited to write the book.
With everything that I’ve done with YouTube and podcasts for so many years it’s been: you can record it, edit, and then upload that day. With the book and documentary, it’s been such a longer process. YouTube has a more reactive nature to it. It’s been productive to be more reflective and take my time with things and not do things as quickly as possible just because that’s the nature of my job. There were so many topics I was nervous to share in YouTube videos or podcasts, but I started to feel more comfortable sharing them, because I had taken a chance to write them down in the first place.
Do any of those things happen to be the "Binge" essays about Grindr hookups? You made a point in "Binge" that straight people talk about Tinder in everyday conversations.
Oh my God [laughs]. Tinder is so common – it’s in movies and in sitcoms. Grindr is usually the butt of the joke or it’s some type of naughty thing that you can’t discuss. But it’s the same thing. That was easier for me to write. I think everyone else was more nervous about those things. The things I was more nervous about were relationships or coming out, body image issues, or about anxiety or feeling pressures or sadness. The more serious things were what I had a challenge with writing. The sex stuff, I was like whatever, who cares. I’ve been talking about hookups on YouTube for a while, so I’m like who cares. It was fun for me. There were some things that didn’t make the book, because everyone was like this is too far. But now having seen the response to it, I’m so ready to write more.
How has your family and other people you wrote about responded to seeing it in print as opposed to your YouTube life?
I don’t think anyone in my life has gone about their relationship with me and thought oh, someday he might write about this. But I guess that’s a thing that will be on their mind in the future. Almost 99 percent of people in the book have responded to it saying, "you know what that’s a pretty fair assessment of what happened." For example, the boyfriend of mine that is in the chapter “The One That Got Away” and I had dinner after the book was out. He had been hearing some things from friends who read it. We got to really talk through everything. It was nice. He was like we both look like idiots at times, we both look fine at times, but it was really honest. Regardless if they are happy or not, if the response is, "Well, it’s pretty accurate," that’s all I could ever ask for.
I love a good breakup essay, and I think that essay “The One That Got Away” is really relatable. When you’re in love for the first time you don’t know how to act.
I’m so happy I took a lot of time to write that. It’s the same with a lot of chapters. Had I taken the initial book deal, I would have still been in the middle of things in the chapters. Now that I waited a long time, and I took a long time to write it and wasn’t really on someone else’s deadline, it was like I actually got to find conclusions that didn’t exist yet. I wrote something really similar to “The One That Got Away” in college – I think a year or two after the relationship ended. And I was still going through it. I needed to give myself time to actually process it.
With Facebook, YouTube or Instagram, people curate their personas. Your documentary "Snervous" is about to come out and people will see you going through it all.
This is the first time I’ve really given up control of my own edit. As a YouTuber, you’re very lucky to be in charge of how you’re perceived. You get to put out what you want. The documentary was the first time when I was not at all a part of the process – I wasn’t filming. The camera was around and along for the ride for the better part of this entire year. A lot of the times I would forget it was even on or I would be very conscious that it was on and be like can we please turn this off, because it was a less flattering or uncomfortable moment. Luckily, the director, Amy [Rice], was so incredible, and I was so comfortable with her that I was just happy to give up the control. The documentary was the first time I gave up control, and when I saw the first cut of it I was like there is so much in this that I would literally never put out there. To have somebody else’s eyes on my life or situation to give a very different angle of what it’s really like was exciting and terrifying. Even now there are parts of the movie I can’t watch, because I would never want to have this out there. But it’s about to be out there.
Yeah you tweeted the first trailer like right before this interview.
I just changed my Twitter picture, and I just changed my banner. An era is changing over. I’m going from "Born This Way" to "Cheek to Cheek." I hope people like the trailer. I hope certain people aren’t pissed about the book in the trailer. I hope people like the book. So much of these bigger projects are driven by numbers and charting and this and that – things that as a YouTuber I haven’t really been perceptive of. It’s always been more about I hope people like it, and now it’s about I hope the numbers do well or whatever. I’m still so much about I hope people see me for what we’re putting out there, and it’s not misinterpreted. I just hope people get me.