Escribe: Jakob Straub
Ilustra: Alexandra Sternin
The Prehistoric Channel
Internet sensations come and go at a rate that easily makes us forget they often have real people behind them. Adorable nine-year-old Robert was rocketed out of his everyday world when his YouTube channel hit more than 30,000 subscribers overnight and then kept growing exponentially.
I had no problem pitching the human interest angle to my editor, but Robert's parents took a little more convincing. I assured them it would be a chance for Robert to tell his story in his own words and emailed them countless videos of my column Kids react to old-school tech to prove I had experience working with children, and they finally agreed to an interview under the condition that it would be off camera.
Earlier this year, Robert created The Prehistoric Channel, where he started sharing homemade videos on how dinosaurs and prehistoric life forms survived and fought against each other. At the rate of about one post a day, Robert created stop-motion films using his many toy figurines and a digital camera as well as computer animation spliced together from dinosaur stencils in a freeware paint software.
Courtesy of my expense account, I bring him a Jurassic World action figure as a gift, which he unwraps while I set up my recording equipment in his parents' living room. His mom is hovering within earshot, obviously busying herself in the eat-in kitchen behind us.
"Corythosaurus," he says. "Which means 'helmet lizard.' It lived about 77 to 75 million years ago, here in North America."
I slot a tape and hit record. "So Robert," I say, "what happened to your Prehistoric Channel, when the number of your subscribers exploded?"
He has the action figure in his lap, slowly toying with the movable parts.
"I came home from school, and I simply wanted to check the view count on the video I had uploaded the day before. That's when I noticed the views where in the hundred thousands."
"You were quick to record a video response, or as you called it, a 'mega update.'"
"I thought it was a problem with my account at first, but someone had posted a link to my channel on this social site. Do you know reddit?"
"I'm from the internet, Robert," I smile, "so yes."
"But it was all true," he continues, "people were viewing my videos and subscribing."
"As of now, you have over a hundred thousand subscribers and more than three million collective views. In your very excited update you recorded after your discovery, you said, 'This means I have hit fame level!' How does it feel to be internet famous, Robert?"
Robert's mouth transforms into a contorted grin. He exhales with a sigh and then says, "You met me at a very strange time in my life."
"Why is that, would you say," I nudge him on.
He eyes the tape recorder between us, and his face becomes a pinball game over which a range of emotions flipper in rapid succession.
"At first I thought I had to get to know all my subscribers on a personal level. That was possible when there was only eight of them. Most of them I know from a website, Dino Toy Forum."
"You also review toys, right?"
"Yes," he says, "I rate them for historic accuracy and also playability. But even on that first day, it took so long to read through all the comments on my videos and respond to all the messages."
"What did people write?" I ask.
"A lot of it was basically saying, keep doing what you love. But some had very definite suggestions, use a tripod for the camera, better lighting, more frames. And some were even asking questions about dinosaurs, or requesting specific battles, these fights between dinosaurs I do with a probable outcome."
"Did you enjoy that, the sudden attention on that scale?"
Robert falls back on the couch, placing both his hands over his heart. "I was so grateful. I still couldn't believe it. And I didn't want to let people down, so I started putting even more effort into my videos."
"What happened next?"
"Then it became really confusing, because someone, or some people, started stealing my videos. They just took what I had uploaded and posted it on other channels, and other video websites. It was my voice, my dinosaurs and my animations, but everywhere. I couldn't control it. And I got even more subscribers and views because of that, but also comments. Some of them started to become hateful, so my dad had to help me moderate."
He's at the edge of the couch now, nearly panting. Robert's mother stops moving her hands around in the kitchen, and I can hear her hold her breath in the kitchen sink. His eyes dart around, from the toy box of his models to the hand-drawn story boards he has shown me earlier and back to me.
"It's OK, buddy," I say.
"It's like a gang of Acheroraptors sneaked up on me, and I can't run or hide, they're gonna gore me."
"You know that with as many viewers as you have by now, you can easily monetize your videos. Meaning, YouTube will pay you if people watch them. And I hear there are toy companies who want you to review their dinosaur figures."
"But it's so much work," he says. "I used to have my own ideas on what I wanted to show."
"So the Prehistoric Channel is history?" I ask.
"I think," he says and carefully places the Corythosaurus on the table, "I'm going to take a break, and I have to think about where I want to take it. I love dinosaurs, but The Prehistoric Channel was never about me. So I'll be looking for a way to have my favorite thing back."
"I'm proud of you, hon," his mother calls from the kitchen.
He's looking at me. "Can you make this fame go away? Can you tell people on the internet how difficult it is when no one asks you if you want to be famous?"
"I'll see what I can do," I say.