It was about a month ago, and my younger sister and I were returning from a trip to Duluth we had taken together. As it was getting to be early evening, we swung off the highway to grab a quick bite at a fast food joint. While we were waiting for our orders, we caught a snippet of conversation on the other side of the room. A young boy, perhaps in his mid-elementary school years, exclaimed to an older relative, “When I grow up, I want to work here and be a YouTuber.”

If you attended the Little Miss Isle and Commodore pageant in Isle last week, this youngster’s aspiration may ring familiar. Under the Isle City Park bandshell that evening, several young boys also announced the same dream career: “When I grow up, I want to be a YouTuber.” Much like my sister and I at the restaurant that evening, the audience shared a laugh. But both the claim itself and the laughter that followed has since given me pause. Of course, it makes sense that kids would dream after the minor celebrity of being a YouTube star, and I suspect it’s a desire far more endemic than just these handful of young people.

It’s hard for me to imagine what it must be like to have grown up in the post-YouTube world. I wasn’t quite a teenager when the site first arose from the depths of the internet. It was that nascent era before the grim birth of Facebook, that apex predator that has annihilated the biodiversity of the online ecosystem. Early YouTube was a novelty, ripe with video memes and amateur animation and sketch comedy. Many of YouTube’s primary texts (i.e., the “Caramelldansen” trend, Weebl’s Stuff, Neil Cicierega, FilmCow) have already fallen out of public consciousness.

Of course, the seeds of what YouTube would become were there in those early years. In junior high, two of my closest friends were obsessed with the channel Smosh, a sketch comedy series by Ian Hecox and Anthony Padilla. The landscape of YouTube is fickle and ever changing, and there are probably other personalities of that era that have slipped my memory. Hecox and Padilla, however, are just two examples of the minor celebrity that YouTube proved capable of creating.

Nearly fourteen years later, YouTube is a different beast. “Influencers,” as they are now called, have become dominant, perhaps inescapable. While there are a handful of channels I still follow, I doubt I’m youthful enough anymore to know who’s truly in vogue with kids these days. For awhile, I believe PewDiePie (pseudonym of Felix Kjellberg) held the top spot among the cults of personality. It’s a status I’d be more willing to forgive Kjellberg for if he also hadn’t already repeatedly proven his penchant for ironic racism. It raises an important question though: are parents any more knowledgeable than me about who their kids are idolizing?

Some time ago, I wrote an optimistic piece on internet celebrity, focusing on my enjoyment of the podcast “My Brother, My Brother and Me.” Part of me stands by my belief that there’s something valuable in celebrating down-to-earth, everyday sort of people. However, I’ve since become more aware of the concept of “parasocial relationships.” These are idealized relationships in which one person latches onto the idea of another, but that other person cannot reciprocate because no interpersonal relationship actually exists. YouTuber StrucciMovies has produced an excellent feature length, two-part documentary on how such relationships form and the ways they are unhealthy, viewable here:

I don’t begrudge these young kids who have declared their dream job of being a YouTuber. Perhaps they’ll look back on that declaration in 20 years with some chagrin. It’s also likely that they’ll take a stab at the dream far sooner than that. They may even succeed, as there were some bright, young kids on the city park stage last Thursday. Whether or not the status of YouTuber proves a real career or a pipe dream, I hope it’s an aspiration these young kids can find a healthy relationship with.

Evan Orbeck is a Messenger staff writer.

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