If you’ve ever looked at YouTube and gone, “Oh God, I have no idea who any of these people are,” don't worry, you're not alone.
BBC Three's new comedy series Pls Like, then, is probably right up your street. In it, the reassuringly millennial comedian Liam Williams embarks on a whistle-stop tour of the vlogging community, from beauty to music, comedy to tech, all the while accompanied by a totally fictional YouTube-famous couple called Millipede and Charlie, who are definitely nothing to do with a very well-known IRL YouTube couple.
For wellness enthusiasts, the health and fitness episode of Pls Like will hit home the hardest. In the episode we meet Polly Sprong, a yoga-teaching, green-juice-drinking 'hippy' whose clean-eating book has done incredibly well – which fact is nothing to do with her mum working at a publishers and her dad owning a chain of bookstores.
Polly’s 'thing' is making up incredibly specific yoga poses, like "yoga for when people are being unnecessarily critical of your privilege" – poking fun at the impressive rate at which the most successful fitness vloggers release content.
Take Yoga With Adriene, for instance. Adriene is real life's most successful YouTube yoga sensation, by a long way. She has over 300 yoga videos on her channel. These range from the expected "40 minute vinyasa sequence" to more niche things like "yoga for airplanes", "yoga for a rainy day" and even "yoga for the service industry".
Each of Adriene's videos averages at least half a million views, thanks not only to her affable personality and easy-to-master yoga sequences but also to her unbroken output of one video a week, no matter how tenuous the subject matter may seem. "When it comes to yoga," Liam says, "you'd think there’s only so many times you can do 'yoga for anxiety' but these people keep coming up with more.” This consistency bleeds into other areas of the YouTube fitness community, too – keep an eye out for bloggers with 20 different variations on ab exercises, from ab-blaster to ab-destroyer to ab-killer.
YouTubers, and their videos, are aimed at teenagers and young people. So why, when our teenage years were spent smoking cheap cigarettes and downing cut-price cider in the park, have fitness channels thrived? “Something’s happened in the last decade,” says Liam, attributing it to our new obsession with health and fitness. "Rates of alcohol have gone down, and drug use and smoking, while healthy eating has gone up. Maybe the messaging of the importance of being healthy is just getting through?"
Olly Cambridge, who created the show with Liam (and plays Olly Wicks in this episode), is more cynical. “The reason there’s so much 'wellness' is because people want to make money and they found a niche – YouTube really is the only platform where you can have an incredibly specific audience and then manipulate them and make money from them.”
YouTube also makes fitness accessible to everyone – not just those who have a gym membership and oodles of spare time. “The '15-minute workout' thing is a relatively new phenomenon,” says Olly, who reckons it came from Jamie Oliver’s now infamous 15-minute meals. “Like, I didn’t realise I didn’t have the time before he told me I didn't.”
Now that time has become such a precious commodity, we’re conditioned to think that every minute of every day must count. YouTube fitness videos feed off this idea. Only have 10 minutes? No worries, there are at least 30 HIIT workouts for you to choose from to do in that short space of time. And when working out is this easy, the guilt you feel if you don't crushes even harder.
That’s not to say that Olly and Liam haven't been taken in by the fitness YouTubers. In fact, they're fully on board. "To be honest, I think I dismissed a lot of it before I’d ever seen it – like the Joe Wicks stuff” says Olly, begrudgingly.
Liam, too, has fallen down the YouTube fitness rabbit hole. “I started doing them and I was like, 'Yeah, this is great'. At first it was just out of curiosity and then it became a great level of commitment.”
There is still some stuff on YouTube that’s too ridiculous even for them. “There is this guy who just stands in his kitchen and tells you what he’s going to eat,” says Olly. “But he’s topless. For literally no reason. His girlfriend is with him and she’s in a bikini and all they do is talk about how great vegetables are while he’s topless and she's in a bikini.”
Overall, though, they reckon it's time to stop thinking of YouTube as a young person's game. "Ask any 29-year-old what they think of blogger 'X' and they’ll say, ‘Oh I think they’re shit’ and they won’t even have watched one of their blogs," says Olly. "Actually, though, I think a lot of them are pretty decent.”