The British monarchy wants to modernise and humanise itself. We have heard this promise for at least three decades, since late Princess Diana tore through the stillness of England’s stuffy palaces. Now, after Prince Harry and Meghan Markle exposed the innards of the British royal family chats in an interview to Oprah Winfrey, there is a competition in the propaganda wars. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, William and Kate, have started a YouTube channel of their own to tell their story. But looking at what they have posted so far, you will wonder if YouTube is changing the royals or the royals are changing YouTube.
Forget any real change. This is just one more propaganda tool in the hands of the world’s most powerful monarchy.
The days of YouTube merely being an internet museum of funny videos of dogs and babies are long over — and nothing says this louder than Prince William and Kate Middleton’s snappy 25-second-long video announcing that they have officially joined the world of vloggers, social media influencers, and other celebrities who have their own personal content streams on YouTube.
We’re now on @YouTube!
— The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (@KensingtonRoyal) May 5, 2021
The move seems like an obvious self-branding exercise for the royal pair, and one that’s hard to see in isolation from Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s own bid to control their image (the explosive interview with Oprah, Netflix deals, their new production company, Markle’s new children’s book, etc, etc). But how much will the Duke and Duchess strip bare to let people see them in a new unfiltered light, and how much of what they show will still be tethered to their official image is yet to be seen.
On the British monarchy’s own YouTube channel, ‘The Royal Family’, the couple was already front and centre. This included videos of them taking royal tours and visiting former colonies — picture Kate Middleton playing cricket in a salwar kameez in Pakistan, giggling while climbing into a Tuk Tuk, William warmly shaking hands with soldiers, and both going on guided tours that are more fit for regular White tourists, than heirs of a family that once colonised these very countries.
Back when William and Harry were little boys, Princess Diana took them to McDonald’s and even let them order their Big Mac and fries! That was said to raise them as regular mortals. So, yes, the desire to be and be seen as common folk is an old trope.
But in the social media era, regularity must be enacted by the royals in a whole new manner. As scholar Mingyi Hou points out, “Social media celebrity is characterised by staged authenticity, managed connectedness with audience”. On a platform like YouTube, celebrities are bound to represent this in ways that show “ordinariness, intimacy, and equality”.
The British royal family for long has had both a direct and indirect relationship with the press, but the advent of internet and social media has disrupted traditional media as we know it. The royals migrating to YouTube, therefore, doesn’t seem that eyebrow-raising. But is launching a new, separate channel a way for the young royals to establish their own identity, or is it simply an attempt by the monarchy to contemporise itself to stay relevant and in control of their optics? The world wants the royals and their place in society to change. But are they going to change the medium, or their actual message?
Will the couple ditch the royal handbook?
From the content uploaded on the ‘The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’ channel so far, it seems the young royal couple want to give the audience further insight into their philanthropic ventures. The first video shows Kate conversing with one of the participants from the ‘Hold Still’, a community project she spearheaded with the National Portrait Gallery, UK, seeking to capture images of the UK during lockdown. This seems like a direct extension of their earlier presence on YouTube, which included speeches by the Duke and Duchess, videos on mental health awareness, a vague but stiff sounding playlist called ‘Engagements’ (videos of them Zoom-ing with immunocompromised families during the Covid lockdown).
This is also not very different from what the royals have been seen doing on TV, in the papers, for decades — philanthropic meet and greets with their citizens.
One small difference, however, is that while the royal family’s YouTube page had tersely disabled the comments section, the Duke and Duchess have left it open. This may seem like a banal thing, but in the YouTube ecosystem it says a lot — provided it stays that way. For starters, it allows for more engagement and more critique. Comment sections are, after all, where trolls reside. But it also allows the couple to appear instantly more accessible, like they are part of a virtual community now. It establishes an audience of peer users as their fan base, rather than British subjects who are born with reverence for the monarchy.
Comments include everything from ‘Welcome to YouTube’, to jokes and suggestions about future content — “Next video “Reacting to the OPRAH interview”, “Next video be like “I SPEND THE NIGHT IN GRANDMAS ROOM AND SHE DIDINT EVEN KNOW”. Then there are suggestions about what kind of video series they should start, or how naming the channel just ‘Will & Kate’ could have helped the pair appear more like YouTube-ers.
If the royal couple is smart, and actually cares, it will be looking through the comments section and furiously taking notes. Now that they have entered the pit of the internet’s best content creators, they will have to shed the monarchy’s stiff PR handbook, and find ways to showcase their most raw, charismatic, and authentic selves.
Story lies beyond the celebrity quotient
But what does the royals joining YouTube channel say about YouTube itself? The platform first launched in 2005 as a hub for ‘home videos’ has now become a space to manufacture celebrity — whether it is homegrown YouTube stars becoming professional content creators (like Lily Singh aka Superwoman graduating from making funny sketches based on her South Asian parents to becoming a Late Night host), or every top model, actor, and now royal, carving their own space to further their existing celebrity.
In the paper ‘Social media celebrity and the institutionalisation of YouTube’, researcher Mingyi Hou writes how, from being a ‘virtual village’ for amateurs to share user-generated content with their online community, YouTube has morphed into an institutionalised space for professionally generated content.
But even the most professional content machines need to have a face with a compelling story to tell. Voyeuristic audiences flock to those who can show the most of their lives — which explains why “24 hours in the life of” and “What’s in my bag”-type series are so popular, especially for already existing celebrities.
Hence, authenticity, however produced or staged, is the currency Will and Kate will have to strive for. This could entail shedding a bit of their Duke and Duchess image and showing audiences something they have not seen before, apart from them just fulfilling their royal duties. If not, this will just be another failed royal experiment.
Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)
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