According to YouTube statistics, over six million hours of videos are watched each month — or in other words, almost an hour for every person on earth. Video blogging — v-logging — started in the US around the turn of the century, and the number of content creators putting their products online, hoping for a breakout hit, has increased exponentially since then.
In Vietnam, the trend came much later and it wasn’t until 2011 that it became a sensation among teenagers and twenty-somethings here. The number of v-loggers has also increased, and a few have racked up subscribers in the millions. Some of the most popular are JVevermind, An Nguy, Pho Dac Biet, Huyme and the late Toan Shinoda — most of whom are in their early 20s themselves, and gain nice financial benefits from all the attention.
In the beginning, most of the popular blogs were about students’ lives abroad or how to learn English well — because these first v-loggers were Vietnamese students in the US. Today’s v-logs have gotten more varied in format and content, and have better production quality.
“I love watching JV’s [short for JVevermind] videos. I watch his videos again and again,” says Nguyen Huu Dung, a senior college student from Hanoi. He likes the sound effects that JV puts into his videos and the often contentious subjects he addresses.
16-year-old Ho Thi Thu Ha, from Gia Lam District in Hanoi, says her classmates wait every week for a new video from these v-loggers. As soon as a new video is released, it’s downloaded and brought to class, so her 50 classmates can watch it together on a big screen.
In July, the unexpected death of v-logger Toan Shinoda, due to health issues, came as a shock to his fans. Condolences and expressions of mourning flooded Facebook for weeks. Since he’d started v-logging in 2011, the 27-year-old had become one of the most popular YouTube personalities in Vietnam for his humour and wordplay. His series of fake news segments, in which he imitated the scandals of teenagers or world political figures such as President Obama or leader Kim Jong-Il of North Korea, used to crack people up. They now bring a bittersweetness.
The intimacy of v-logging is greater than that generated through most other digital broadcasts, which is why Toan’s death hit many so hard. Someone they had looked at as a friend, who they had seen so many sides of, had gone, and there was no real way to reach closure.
Tran Duc Viet — JVevermind in YouTube-speak — was a third-year student in multimedia with a focus on web design at Cameron University in Oklahoma, USA, when he first posted a v-log online in November 2011. In the beginning his equipment was just one handheld camera on top of a stack of books; the background was a wall with half of the painting nailed to it out of frame.
When putting his first video online — in which he debates another Vietnamese student’s skill in English — Viet never thought that he would become one of the most famous names in Vietnamese v-logging, with nearly 1.5 million subscribers. This led to his post-graduation choice to come back to Vietnam to continue doing v-logs.
“The core here is that you have to be very individualistic and show off your personality,” says Viet, whose signature is a sarcastic voice and humourous word choices. Although never trained in acting, he often pretends to be the people that he talks about in his v-logs. One time it was his parents going to meet his teacher at school; another time it was a well-known ‘hot girl’ who gets into lots of scandals.
“I want to use humour even in some serious issues, to entertain people but at the same time, to show my opinion,” says the 22-year-old v-logger. In his nearly 60 v-logs, his biggest hit was Student Life: Being Bullied, which scored 3.25 million hits.
A unique personality was also key to An Nguy’s rise in Vietnam’s virtual world. With a toneless and somewhat husky voice, always wearing a pair of black, thick-framed glasses, she has rated 300,000 subscribers. Her v-logs have titles like When a Girl Hits on a Guy and Pursuing One’s Dream, and show her opinions through a straight-to-the point speaking style.
Her old high school friend Le Minh Thu says her online persona is the same as that of the girl she went to school with. “She was always like that,” Thu says, “a bit strange and difficult to get along with. But that just makes her videos more full of personality and interest.”
Not all v-loggers are born to feel confortable in front of cameras. It’s a challenge for some to get over their fears and act normally in front of a recording device.
Pham Cong Thanh, known by the YouTube handle Huyme Productions, said he was quite a shy guy who used to think that he wasn’t good looking. “You don’t know how people receive your videos. There are times when you post it and start receiving negative comments or even worse. They share your videos with someone else and talk s___ about it, that’s when you just wanted to hide your videos immediately,” said the 21-year-old blogger, also a student at a fine art university in Ohio, USA.
As their target audience is mostly teenagers and twenty-somethings — the type who often get snarky, judgemental and even hateful — it isn’t easy for any v-logger to get over their first steps of getting online.
“At first, I felt terrible. But now I don’t usually care so much [about negative comments]. I think I’ve heard the nastiest comments already,” Thanh says and laughs.
“But blogging gives me more than I expect,” he continues. “So I’m still happy doing it.”
As popular v-loggers with a huge amount of subscribers, all those mentioned are considered real influences among teenagers and college students. They are invited to do advertising or guest at events for companies whose target audience is young people.
“It [v-logging] brings me many projects that I would never have thought of,” says Thanh. “Like playing in a movie, even music videos. I’m now completely financially independent from my parents.”
This is one of the things that led JV to make a similar choice. “I felt like if I came back to Vietnam at the right time,” he says. “There were a lot more opportunities than in the US to look for a job. So I took those chances when I still could. Perhaps after some time, I’ll go back to America. But for now, I’m happy here.”
But it’s not always easy to earn money. Last year, JV was criticised by some viewers for integrating “too much” product placement into his v-logs. As the culture develops, many v-loggers — JV included — feel they should have better control of their clients’ demands. When possible, this means keeping advertising separate from their personal channels.
Maintaining popularity in this forever-changing virtual world is also a constant concern. Different approaches — not just the traditional sitting and talking in front of the camera in a bedroom — have become common.
V-logger He Always Smiles made his fame by always appearing with a cartoon box with a smiley face inside while blogging. Recently, a new v-logging group called Doodle Dude has started using sketches to tell stories, rather than show their faces on camera. Thanh Huyme aims to create comic books based on v-logs, while JV plans to use short comedy sketches. New equipment — better cameras, separate microphones, tripods, lights and even filming assistants — is also employed to create videos with an edge.
It’s all towards one goal — not to be a flash in the pan. “In the end,” Thanh says, “I want to become like some foreign YouTubers who can maintain their v-logs for a long time. I don’t want to let my channel soar up and then die quickly.”