YouTube is now the most used smartphone app in Korea, surpassing names like Naver, Kakao Talk, and Facebook. The statistics are impressive: in October of this year, Korean users spent a total of 33.3 billion minutes on YouTube, while the record for September was 23.4 billion minutes. And there’s more: research done by local pollster Embrain revealed that 4 out of 10 South Koreans who use YouTube spend more than an hour watching videos in the platform every day. The study, conducted in September, also disclosed that 55.9% of the interviewees primarily watch user-generated content.

While the platform is a staple to the industry and one of its main distribution channels, these blooming statistics seem to reflect yet another recent trend in the K-pop scene: the YouTuber idol. Even though some foreign names like Ailee and Eric Nam were discovered first through the platform, and others like f(x)’s Amber have been vlogging for a few years, 2018 saw an unprecedented surge in personal channels run by idols or ex-idols. Former Rainbow member Hyunyoung, former Miss A member Fei, Black Pink’s Lisa, Girls’ Generation’s Yuri and VIXX’s N all launched their channels in the past few months, just to name a few. There’s even a Reddit topic attempting to keep up with the ever growing list.

Idols who speak English seem to have taken the lead on this trend, since the longest-running accounts are theirs. As mentioned before, f(x)’s Amber is part of this group, as well as Day6’s Jae, BtoB’s Peniel and CLC’s Sorn. YouTube also offers a chance for fans to see these idols interacting freely with each other—a rare thing in the industry—like in the videos of Amber and Jae, Sorn and Jae, and Peniel and Amber. Perhaps because of their versatility with languages, they took advantage of YouTube’s global audience earlier than their peers.

But language barriers are hardly a problem nowadays, as even those who only record videos in Korean, like f(x)’s Luna and AkMu’s Suhyun, usually offer English subtitles. On the same note, this new generation of YouTubers explores a vast amount of topics, way beyond their K-pop personas. They create their own content, ranging from makeup tutorials to ASMR to Q&A’s, and take it as a chance to reveal hobbies, hidden talents, or interesting information that wouldn’t normally reach the public.

Sorn’s Produsorn is a great example of this. Although her videos are uploaded inside of Cube’s official channel, she seems to have decision power on what is shared, as well as a willingness to openly talk about controversial topics. Her episodes on the difficulties of being a trainee and life as part of a girl group were particularly enlightening. Unpretty Rapstar 3 contestant Grace, much like Sorn, has also used her personal channel to reveal more about the backstages of the industry, as well as her career as an independent artist and what it entails. In her own words: YouTube is a “must” these days, and its importance in her branding is evident.

More recently, the trend seems to have taken off for older generation idols as well, bearing names like 2NE1’s Dara in DaraTV, Choa and Way from Crayon Pop, and MBLAQ’s G.O (who shares the channel with his girlfriend, actress Choi Ye-seul). After a disbandment and other dark prospects that former idols have to face, the platform shines a hopeful light at the end of the tunnel. Taking advantage of the popularity and accessibility of YouTube is a chance to build on new audiences and explore potential sources of income, without depending on company restraints and other obstacles.

Even with the existence of V Live—Naver Corporation’s live stream service aimed to reach international audiences— YouTube still stands as the most reliable option for idols who want to create personal (and often solo) videos. V Live is great for amping up fandom engagement, but it’s mostly used by companies to promote group content, not to mention that its users are primarily Hallyu fans. YouTube, on the other hand, offers a diverse audience that cannot be reached elsewhere—fans of mukbang and fans of A Pink aren’t necessarily related, but both can arguably enjoy Bomi’s channel, for example.

It’s surprising how the idol-turned-YouTuber trend didn’t bubble up earlier, given how much it benefits both makers and viewers alike. User-created content has the power of building intimate experiences, and fans rejoice getting to know their favorite celebrities in a more personal way. Idols who pursue this path open themselves to possibilities that generations before did not have, develop new skills, and can even carve out a sustainable, rewarding career on their own. In an industry that heavily relies on bonding between stars and fans, personal channels are the perfect gateway to new standards of connection. As long as YouTube is still a thing, at least.

(The Korea Herald, The Korea Times, Business Korea, Youtube [1][2][3][4]. Images via Cube Entertainment, YG Entertainment, JYP Entertainment, Plan A Entertainment)