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In my recent post about algorithms, I noted how they’ve helped create new genres of content, from the Let’s Play videos that turn gaming into a spectator sport to the beauty blogs that transform makeup enthusiasts into trendsetters. In this blog post, I’ll delve into the evolution of these genres and look at how they’ve redefined creativity and community in the digital age.

Let’s plays

The basic premise of a Let’s Play is deceptively simple: a creator records themselves playing a video game and provides commentary on the experience. Like many aspects of Internet culture, its precise origins aren’t entirely clear. The generally accepted view is that the genre emerged from Something Awful c. 2005. The first Let’s Plays weren’t videos–they were forum posts that incorporated a mix of screenshots and commentary. While it was written from 2019-2020, TheGreatEvilKing’s playthrough of Torment: Tides of Numenera captures the spirit of these earlier Let’s Plays.  

Michael ‘slowbeef’ Sawyer may have been the first to transform it into video content. With the advent of YouTube, video-based Let’s Plays grew in popularity. This in turn led to the rise of professional Let’s Players since the platform allowed them to monetize their passion. It can be an incredibly lucrative business: a top-tier Let’s Player like Markiplier can make as much as $38 million dollars a year.

As the genre grew more popular, the format shifted. The most popular creators went beyond simple commentary in favor of something far more elaborate. PewDiePie made a name for himself by leavening his gameplay with frenetic (and sometimes controversial) humor, though he eventually pivoted away from gaming content in favor of cultural commentary, challenges, and collaborations with other YouTubers. Whatever you think of the quality of his content, it’s undeniable that he knows how to work the algorithm. 

If it weren’t for YouTube and its algorithms, it’s debatable whether Let’s Plays would ever have become so popular. Of course, what YouTube giveth, YouTube can also taketh away. It definitely seems to favor videos about highly memeable games like Five Nights at Freddies, Baldi’s Basics in Education, and Granny. There’s also anecdotal evidence that it favors shorter content as YouTube pushes Shorts in a bid to compete with TikTok. 

This can make life difficult for creators who cover genres like cRPGs. They often have deep, intricate stories that can keep the player occupied for dozens, or even hundreds, of hours. Given the algorithmic realities, it can be difficult for creators to justify all that work if their viewership is going to fall off after the first few episodes. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible–there are still plenty of YouTubers who dedicate themselves to long-running, episodic content–but they’re unlikely to see PewDiePie or Markiplier levels of engagement. 

Beauty blogs

Like Let’s Plays, beauty blogging began as text-based content, but given the nature of the subject matter, it’s little surprise that it had a strong visual component from the start. Michelle Phan’s channel illustrates how far the space has evolved. She was one of the first creators to make a living from posting makeup tutorials on YouTube. Her 2007 video “Natural Looking Makeup Tutorial” is a good example of the early days of the genre. It’s a simple, practical piece, and she doesn’t recommend any products. But while her 2024 video  “90s Supermodel Makeup + Chitchat #GRWM (ft. Mixsoon)” follows the same basic format, it boasts higher production values, and Phan recommends products from the Korean brand Mixsoon. In another video, “My Summer Favorites” from 2013, Paper calculated that she recommended 54 different products, with the makeup alone costing $400.

This kind of brand integration has become de rigueur in the genre. As early as 2008, the New York Times noted that brands were increasingly aware that beauty bloggers could be a marketing bonanza, courting them with free samples and other goodies. It’s not hard to see why their marketing folks have dollar signs in their eyes. Companies have always been eager to sell to the 18-34 crowd, and now that social media is a part of everyday life for this demographic, they’ve become even more attractive. After all, every selfie uploaded to Instagram is a potential marketing opportunity for savvy beauty brands. 

Today, beauty bloggers aren’t just following trends. The days when beauty content revolved around teaching people how to emulate the looks of celebrities such as Taylor Swift are over. Now, beauty influencers can be the ones setting the trends, with some even selling their own cosmetics. 

AI fosters creativity

Let’s Plays and beauty blogs evolved from humble beginnings to become cultural powerhouses, and their success has been shaped by the algorithms that determine what we see on platforms like YouTube. As we look to the future, it’s clear that the intersection of technology, creativity, and community will continue to evolve and surprise us. The digital age has democratized content creation. It offers platforms for new voices and allows them to take charge of their own narratives. These genres remind us that at the heart of every innovation lies the human desire to connect, share, and inspire.