Forget blogs, vlogs are the new online communities of choice for a new generation of parents. But in the parenting space, sharing the daily trials and tribulations of family life on camera is a step further than many feel comfortable with. Alex Manson-Smith talks to some of the UK’s most successful family vloggers to find out why they do it.
Quick pop quiz: Does the name Saccone-Joly mean anything to you? If so, then chances are you’re a parent aged between 18 and 34. If you’re over 35 – well, let us explain. The Saccone-Jolys are a Surrey-based family who document their everyday lives in short video clips on YouTube. A film might show the children watching Frozen, or going for a walk, or playing pranks on their dad. It’s a portrait of typical family life.
So far, so unremarkable, you might think. But what’s interesting is its popularity. The Saccone-Jolys have 1.2 million subscribers to their YouTube channel. No fewer than 19.6 million people watch their videos each month. The family has even made a calendar – and people are buying it to put on their walls.
Parents aged between 18 and 34 probably won’t be surprised to hear this – after all, they’re the Millennials, who are already ditching TV in favour of YouTube. They use it the way that their elders use Google: to find out everything from recipes to how to apply liquid eyeliner. And now that this generation is having children, they’re going to YouTube for parenting advice and information, too.
The result is that blogging – until now a huge Thing among mums – is being steadily replaced by vlogging: pieces to camera from mothers sharing advice, support or a straightforward rant about their day. Essentially it’s reality TV. But there’s no celebrity stardust here – no Kardashian-league glamour or Osborne-style comedy. Vlogs often come with titles like ‘What I bought at Morrison’s’ or ‘How I do my cleaning’. So why the popularity? Why does something that’s essentially mundane attract such massive viewing figures?
‘It’s nosiness,’ says Emma Bailey, a stay-at-home mum from South West London, who vlogs as My Pretty Mummy. ‘Lots of SAHMs really enjoy seeing other people and how they live. It’s really nice to get a glimpse of what someone else is doing and how they parent.’
In many ways, this everyday quality is a key part of the appeal. Most mothers aren’t looking for Goop-style perfection – they want reality.
‘We’re just ordinary people,’ says Bailey. ‘Vlogging is like getting a glimpse into your neighbour’s house and seeing how they live.’ This curiosity is perhaps rooted in the insecurity common to all mothers – that nagging sense of ‘am I doing it right?’
Whatever the reason, mothers want to see other women like themselves, and vlogging is a considered more honest medium than blogging. ‘With a blog it’s easy to hide behind a made-up identity, but when you put yourself on video, it’s you as you really are,’ says Siobhan Freegard, founder of Netmums, who has now put her weight behind the vlogging phenomenon. Recently she set up Channel Mum, the UK’s first YouTube community just for mothers. ‘As everyone knows – a picture speaks a thousand words, so it’s far faster to convey information, which is crucial for time-pressed parents,’ she says.
Though currently taking a break from vlogging to finish her second book, Telegraph columnist Bryony Gordon also has her own popular YouTube channel, One Fat Mother. On it, she offers new mothers guilt-free advice on the essentials, such as how to bath a baby, and survive your child’s first day at nursery. ‘I found that most mummy blogs were really yummy mummy,’ she says. ‘They were offering a very glossy version of motherhood that wasn’t like my own experience. I wanted to take a more realistic, less aspirational look at parenthood.’
Gordon has taken a practical approach to vlogging, offering not so much an insight into her own life as a helping hand through those hazy early days. And this is the other benefit of vlogs: they’re often very useful, giving you vital information, fast, without the need to read a massive great textbook. One of Gordon’s most popular videos shows readers how to put up a travel cot. ‘It gets viewers again and again and again,’ she says.
One vlogger Gordon rates is Mrs Meldrum, whose vlog offers pregnancy, parenting and lifestyle tips. In real life, she is Rebecca Meldrum, a 26-year-old stay-at-home mum with two daughters, whose husband works offshore. Meldrum filmed the birth of her baby Florence, which Gordon describes as ‘vlogging at its best. What I liked about it was its total honesty. I thought that was really useful if you were pregnant and freaking out about labour, you could watch that and feel reassured.’
Meldrum thinks that her vlogs resonate because her life so closely resembles that of her viewers. ‘I think my vlogs represent real families, real lives and the real struggles of parenthood,’ she says. ‘People like to be able to relate to what they are watching.’ And unlike blogging, where you can be selective about what you share, vlogging allows viewers to see how you talk, how you dress, where you buy your furniture. ‘With a video you can’t sugar-coat your life,’ says Meldrum.
The kind of honesty and intimacy vlogging offers has clearly struck a chord with parents. Those vloggers with the biggest followings, like the Saccone-Jolys, have made enough money from advertising and corporate tie-ins to leave their day jobs and make a full-time career of it. Though Meldrum has less of a following than the Saccone-Jolys – she has nearly 5,000 subscribers and half a million views – she’s managed to turn it into a living. ‘It started as a hobby and I’m now lucky enough to call it my job,’ she says. Bailey, too, receives some sponsorship money from Channel Mum, along with drawer-fuls of products and freebies to review.
But for most vloggers, it isn’t about the money. Ask why they do it and they’ll tell you that what they really love is the community. ‘Mums don’t want fans, they want friends,’ says Bailey. ‘It’s good to feel less alone, especially as a stay-at-home mother.’ In much the same way, viewers don’t just want advice – many are also looking for company. ‘Motherhood can be quite lonely,’ says Gordon. ‘Videos give you the sense that someone’s talking to you.’
And though vlogging may seem like a one-way means of communication, it’s a surprisingly social activity. ‘People write comments, we comment back, we follow each other on Twitter – there’s a lot of communication,’ says Bailey. ‘I’ve made loads of online friends through vlogging.’
So is this something that anyone can do? Should we all be switching on our GoPros and making a fortune? Sadly, as always, there’s a downside. ‘A good vlog is harder to get right than people realise,’ says Freegard. ‘It isn’t simply a case of sitting in front of the camera and recounting your day. You have to have your own USP and identity. You need to be a natural on screen.’ Add to that the technical skills and creative ideas required, and you’re looking at a full-on, demanding job.
‘You can’t do it as a side project,’ says Gordon. ‘It has to be your main thing. It’s a full-time job and so is motherhood.’ But, like blogging, it gives many stay-at-home mums an outlet that they’d otherwise never have. ‘It’s a really nice way for mothers to feel like they’re doing something,’ she says. ‘That sense of filming something, editing and uploading it feels quite productive.’
But it isn’t just the effort that may give mothers pause for thought, there are also ethical issues to consider. Is it right to put your children in front of the camera? They have no say in it, after all. And since vlogging and YouTube is all so new, who’s to say what the consequences might be? At the very least, when your children hit 13, they might not want to see their school friends circled around a laptop, watching their toddler tantrums.
And there may be more to worry about than playground ribbing. A recent Guardian article questioned whether it was safe to turn children into YouTube stars. The piece mentions a parent who received a note from someone threatening to ‘gouge out’ the eyes of their baby daughter, while another was told that pictures of her children had cropped up on paedophile sites.
Admittedly, these are far from typical consequences. You only have to scroll through the comments sections on YouTube to realise that the feedback is overwhelmingly positive. ‘I do feature my children, but I’m very careful when I edit the videos. I don’t put tantrums or potty training, or anything that would really embarrass them,’ says Bailey.
Gordon initially planned to feature her daughter Edie, but ‘she wouldn’t play ball. It’s like they say – never work with children or animals.’ But Gordon also has reservations about featuring her too heavily online. ‘Edie is in the Telegraph quite a lot and she’ll probably hate me in 10 years’ time, but I don’t know how I feel about putting her in a video,’ she says. ‘And I don’t think you necessarily need to. One of the most successful videos I posted was the most irritating things people say to you when you’re pregnant.’
Other mum vloggers are more laissez-faire about it. ‘My children are heavily featured. If they are embarrassed when they grow up we can cross that bridge when we get to it,’ says Meldrum. ‘Hopefully they will just love to look back on their lives and be thankful that so much has been captured.’
But children aren’t the only people who need to be considered. What might friends think? Or your mum? Or your partner? Is putting your personal life on screen a fast-track to divorce? Look what it did to Peter and Katie.
On the contrary, most of the mum vloggers have found their friends and family to be incredibly supportive. ‘They all think it’s great. They like to be involved with the videos and think that it’s a wonderful way of recording memories,’ says Meldrum. ‘My husband really likes it and wants to get involved,’ agrees Bailey.
Because this is such new territory, no one can say where it’s going next. Being a mummy vlogger is an entirely new concept, so who’s to know if this is a career with longevity? Certainly there’s more to talk about during the early years. As your children grow up, go to school and gain their independence, there’s going to be less material ripe for picking.
But few vloggers are talking about giving it up just yet. My children are almost four and just turned one,’ says Meldrum. ‘Yes, at the moment I can’t see blogging and vlogging not being part of my life.’ Bailey, too, has no plans to quit. ‘I think I will carry on, but fade my children out,’ she says.
As to where all this is all heading, no one knows. But certainly no one sees any sign of it abating. Video, it seems, is the future. The written word is passé. ‘There’s a big shift away from text-based sites with under-30s now preferring video over any other form or media,’ says Freegard. ‘In a few short years, mobile video will be the way we all communicate and learn – and today’s young vloggers are tomorrow’s big stars.’
It may be that we’ve only just seen the beginning. As more of the world starts to access YouTube, there are potential audiences of not millions, but billions. ‘I think it’s going to really take off,’ says Bailey. ‘More people are going to be watching vlogs than watch TV.’Alex Manson-Smith