“There is one historical misconception that bothers me,” author and sexuality expert Esme James declared in a video she uploaded to TikTok early last year. “It’s that explicit pornography is a recent thing … [the 18th century] was actually a golden era of porn.”
At the time, James was researching her PhD thesis – an exploration of the aesthetics of pornographic works from the 1700s to the early 1900s – at the University of Melbourne. Her efforts yielded a trove of fascinating tidbits, from the origins of common sex toys to the “impotence trials” of pre-revolutionary France, in which dissatisfied wives sought to annul their marriages by proving their husbands were not up to the job.
In 2020, James began sharing her findings on the rapidly growing short-form video service TikTok, branding each instalment a lesson in #kinkyhistory. When her 54-second clip about 18th century erotica racked up 400,000 views almost instantly, she deemed it a stroke of good luck. A fortnight later, she posted another lesson – an abridged history of oral sex – before heading to a doctor’s appointment. By the time she was done, her clip had surpassed 1 million views.
“I didn’t even use a tripod for these videos; I just whipped out my phone and filmed them on the spot,” James, 25, says. “You might spend ages editing a piece of content to make it perfect but the TikTok community will just spit them back out. They really prefer videos that are raw and natural.”
James is now among the top 1 per cent of TikTok creators globally: a metric that reflects high levels of audience engagement (measured by the number of likes, shares and comments) as well as total view counts. It also places her at the forefront of a new wave of Australian creatives who have amassed huge followings by serving their fans directly. Their work is vibrant, funny and fresh, due in no small part to the editorial freedom that comes from bypassing the middlemen.
This DIY business model became popular in the mid-2000s, as the rise of podcasting and the launch of YouTube ushered in a new generation of self-managed creators. Most were quick to expand their reach through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Spotify as well as newer platforms such as TikTok and OnlyFans. Although these early pioneers often drew large audiences, their capacity to earn a full-time living, without a concurrent gig on mainstream television or radio, was limited. But now, a growing number sustain themselves by taking a cut of advertising revenue from the social media platforms that host them, or through financial assistance from funding bodies such as Screen Australia. (Over the past four years, Screen Australia has distributed $20 million to online creators while offering further support in partnership with digital behemoths such as Google and TikTok.)
Not surprisingly, many consider “legacy media” versus “new media” to be a false dichotomy.
“These platforms are not mutually exclusive,” says Lee Naimo, Screen Australia’s head of online content and a former member of the musical comedy trio Axis of Awesome. “A classic example of this is Superwog.”
A decade ago, brothers Nathan and Theo Saidden began posting their sketch comedy videos on YouTube, which quickly went viral. Through the “Skip Ahead” initiative, in which Screen Australia and Google help popular YouTube creators grow their audiences, the pair filmed a Superwog pilot, which they later developed into a two-season series for ABC television. “There’s great merit in having a healthy ecosystem like that,” Naimo says.
‘What I love about YouTube is the fact that someone will make a very specific video about the exact thing I’m interested in.’
Among the recipients of Skip Ahead’s 2022 funding allocation is Dr Mithuna Yoganathan. In a six-part series called Quantum Experiments At Home, the Melbourne physicist attempts to demystify quantum mechanics by guiding viewers through a series of tests; shining a laser beam at a strand of hair, for instance, to illustrate the properties of light.
“Only a small percentage of the world might be interested in quantum physics,” Naimo says, “but when you make that content available across the whole world, you end up reaching a lot of people.”
Case in point: six years ago, Yoganathan uploaded a video that discusses spin in the context of quantum mechanics. It attracted more than 1 million views and her YouTube channel, Looking Glass Universe, now has more than 230,000 subscribers.
“You might assume that if people are searching for content like this, they’re a student,” Yoganathan says. “But a lot of people who are past school or uni age, who maybe never got the chance to study quantum mechanics or who didn’t understand it at the time, are still curious enough to watch. I think that’s delightful.”
Her videos might accumulate a few hundred thousand views in the US and UK, with thousands more across Australia, India, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands and France. If these audiences watched Yoganathan’s content on linear television, they’d be too small to monetise. Combined as a global whole, they attract significant sponsor support on YouTube – enough for Yoganathan to live off her cut of the advertising revenue.
A lot of work goes into each video, with some requiring a fortnight for research and another week for filming and editing. Yet they retain a certain lo-fi charm, free of the excessive gloss of big-budget commercial productions. As a result, Yoganathan’s fans feel comfortable asking questions or posting detailed comments.
“Sometimes I might make a whole video that’s basically a follow-up to some frequently asked questions,” she says. “What I love about YouTube is the fact that someone will make a very specific video about the exact thing I’m interested in, which is why I want to make that kind of content for other people.”
While Yoganathan’s work appeals to science enthusiasts across the globe, actor and producer Rick Cosnett and creative director Adam de Launay found success by targeting a hyper-local audience: the affluent residents of Sydney’s inner east.
In 2020, they began sharing humorous videos on an Instagram account called The Vaucluse Daily. Using special software to feminise their features, they post “news” updates as their alter-egos Jill Meriwether-Worthing (Cosnett) and Susan Von Trovski (de Launay). Their note-perfect parody of South African socialites – fretting about joggers blocking their harbourside views, offering recommendations for divorce lawyers – dates back to the mid-2000s, when the pair began amusing each other with their comedic creations.
“Growing up as a white person in Zimbabwe, I was always aware of my privilege,” Cosnett says. “Our group of friends would always joke about it as a way of bringing that tension to the surface but at the end of the day, it’s an affectionate satire.”
‘Just knowing we’ve made someone laugh keeps us going and we’d never want to lose that connection with our audience.’
Rick Cosnett, The Vaucluse Daily actor and producer
Little preparation goes into The Vaucluse Daily; instead, Cosnett and de Launay simply pull out their phones and start filming whenever inspiration strikes.
“We can access these marvellous characters in seconds by using a face-swap app,” de Launay says. “I might be walking through Centennial Park and I’ll see a horse and then suddenly, I’m doing a video about a new pony acquisition … traditionally, we’d have to spend hours in wardrobe and make-up and then try to recreate something that’s not as organic.”
Adds Cosnett: “I used to worry about technology taking jobs away from actors but it’s actually enhanced our ability to play these characters.”
Viewer comments are a rich source of material and while Cosnett and de Launay approve each other’s videos before posting them, they try not to overthink things. “There have been times where I’ve rehearsed something over and over but when I send it to Rick, he’ll say that the first take was the best,” de Launay says. “When the sparks are flying, you have to run with it.”
It’s not hard to imagine a producer wanting to develop their comedy into a TV series but both say it’s vital to continue making fresh content for Instagram. “As soon as we put a video up, we get immediate feedback,” Cosnett says. “Just knowing we’ve made someone laugh keeps us going and we’d never want to lose that connection with our audience.”
Jimmy Rees agrees. The 34-year-old made his name as a children’s entertainer, hosting the ABC series Giggle and Hoot from 2009 to 2020. Over the past two years, he has reinvented himself with material that appeals to all age groups, satirising everything from ridiculous product packaging designs to the cult-like devotion of Aldi shoppers.
The figures are astonishing: since the pandemic began, Rees’ videos have notched up a cumulative 200 million minutes of viewing on Facebook, almost 16 million likes on TikTok and 23 million views on YouTube.
“I get to be the master of my own destiny online,” Rees says. “With TV, you have professionals involved in writing, producing, filming, lighting and every single aspect, and it might take six months to see your work on screen. But now, I can have an idea in the morning, shoot it exactly the way I dreamed it up and have it online that night.”
Rees has parlayed this success into a stage show called Meanwhile in Australia, which sold out large venues across Australia and will screen as a special on Foxtel and Binge from September 27 – the same day that Affirm Press publishes his new book, The Guy Who Decides.
Making videos for social media, he believes, has as much in common with his live shows as it does with his work on television.
“When you put a video online, you get a bit of adrenaline rush from that instant feedback, which feels a lot like having a live audience,” he says. “I really enjoy reading all the comments and even if someone tells me that I missed something, I’ll file it away in my brain and do it next time.”
This is how Rees ended up making a video about COVID vaccine angst in the well-heeled Melbourne suburb of Brighton.
“There were two ladies who left a comment under another video that said, ‘You had to be over 60 to get AstraZeneca but of course, everyone in Brighton is trying to look younger so no one is admitting which vaccine they had.’ I asked them if I could run with their idea and they said yes, so within a couple of days, I’d written a script and shot a video.”
Being his own boss has allowed Rees to live and work on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula. “It’s amazing how the more stuff I put online, the more TV opportunities come my way,” he says. “It all feeds into each other.”
This is certainly true for Esme James. Since launching Kinky History, she’s secured a deal with a traditional media platform, which she hopes to announce soon, as well as funding from Screen Australia and TikTok’s “Every Voice” initiative. Titled SexTistics, it’s an exploration of gender, identity and sexuality in Australia, available exclusively on TikTok.
Both projects are a joint effort with Dr Susan James, an outreach fellow at the school of mathematics and statistics at the University of Melbourne – and Esme’s mother.
“After Kinky History took off, Mum suggested I do some episodes where I delve into some statistics, except I’m not a statistician,” Esme says. “One night, we had a bottle of champagne and decided to film our chat. The response to that video was overwhelmingly positive and it all developed from there.”
For Susan, it’s a chance to bust a few myths and serve those who are often overlooked in traditional sexuality research.
“Our theme is very much inclusiveness through education,” Susan says. “Previous surveys usually classified people as men, women or maybe ‘other’, whereas we broadened the demographic to include people who are trans women, trans men, non-binary, non-conforming, asexual and more.”
While some people become starstruck after spotting a TV host in public, Kinky History fans tend to greet Esme like an old friend.
“One guy came up and gave me a hug and then said, ‘I’m so sorry, I just forgot that I didn’t know you!’” she says. “But I think that’s lovely. There’s something about being an online creator that builds this special connection with people who are part of these virtual communities.”
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