With two small kids in my own house, I haven’t been navigating this new world as a theoretical challenge. My youngest, who is 2, can rarely sustain her attention to watch the Netflix shows we put on for my 5-year-old son. But when I showed her a ChuChu video, just to see how she’d react, I practically had to wrestle my phone away from her. What was this stuff? Why did it have the effect it did?
Little kids are responsible for billions of views on YouTube—pretending otherwise is irresponsible. In a small study, a team of pediatricians at Einstein Medical Center, in Philadelphia, found that YouTube was popular among device-using children under the age of 2. Oh, and 97 percent of the kids in the study had used a mobile device. By age 4, 75 percent of the children in the study had their own tablet, smartphone, or iPod. And that was in 2015. The sea change in children’s content that ChuChu and other new video makers have effected is, above all, profitable.
Previously, viewing YouTube videos on a personal computer required the Adobe Flash Player plug-in to be installed in the browser. In January 2010, YouTube launched an experimental version of the site that used the built-in multimedia capabilities of web browsers supporting the HTML5 standard. This allowed videos to be viewed without requiring Adobe Flash Player or any other plug-in to be installed. The YouTube site had a page that allowed supported browsers to opt into the HTML5 trial. Only browsers that supported HTML5 Video using the MP4 (with H.264 video) or WebM (with VP8 video) formats could play the videos, and not all videos on the site were available.
It was after Krishnan joined the creative team, Chandar told me, that ChuChu really began to achieve global popularity. What made the difference, in part, was that Krishnan decided to rewrite nursery rhymes that he felt didn’t end well or teach good morals. What if Jack and Jill, after falling down while fetching the pail of water, get back up, learn from the resilience of birds and ants, actually get the damn pail of water, and give it to their mom? “It was ‘Jack and Jill 2.0,’ ” Chandar said. “I thought, This is how a nursery rhyme should be.”
According to ChuChu, its two largest markets are the United States and India, which together generate about one-third of its views. But each month, tens of millions of views also pour in from the U.K., Canada, Mexico, Australia, and all over Asia and Africa. Roughly 20 million times a day, a caretaker somewhere on Earth fires up YouTube and plays a ChuChu video. What began as a lark has grown into something very, very big, inflating the company’s ambitions. “We want to be the next Disney,” Chandar told me.
All eye-rolling at YouTube’s attempts to encourage community aside: When viewed in the context of PewDiePie’s extremely high level of influence over followers who are in turn deeply committed to waging meme war in his name, his alt-right ties become even more concerning. In essence, YouTube’s most influential personality is using his platform in ways that carry the potential to push millions of his already devoted followers toward online extremism. They’re already deploying the same tools of memeified, joking harassment and brigading that the alt-right is known to deploy — tactics rooted in the kinds of online trollishness that can seem purely jovial and harmless right up until it becomes something more.