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YouTube tech reviewers are bigger than ever, but who does that benefit?

Marques Brownlee is one of the biggest tech reviewers on YouTube today. (Tanya Sichynsky/The Washington Post)

When Google rolled out its ad campaign for the Pixel 2 phone in 2017, the TV commercial followed a familiar formula.

There were dizzying close-up shots of the phone. A funky tune full of big-band jazz horns. And, of course, there were excerpts from positive reviews, similar to what you’d see on a movie poster or book sleeve.

One name stood out alongside quotes from the New York Times and Wired: Marques Brownlee.

His name may have been unfamiliar to most of the people watching the commercial, but on YouTube, he’s the name when it comes to tech reviews.

With more than 8.5 million subscribers and 1.2 billion views, Brownlee has four times as many YouTube subscribers as the New York Times.

In some ways, Brownlee’s trajectory mirrors YouTube’s. Brownlee started reviewing tech gadgets at 15 when his early videos were lo-fi vlogs of him speaking directly at his laptop camera in his room. Now he has several full-time staffers helping him shoot and edit high-quality video from a dedicated studio. In the past year, he published close to 100 videos, including interviews with Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Tesla CEO Elon Musk.

Brownlee occupies an enviable position within YouTube’s tech review space: He has the independence and autonomy of an outsider, but with insider access.

By sheer numbers, he’s a bigger brand than any mainstream media outlet. But by virtue of having built his platform himself, he fits comfortably within the broader framework of the community. In that sense, he’s the embodiment of the average YouTuber’s most ambitious daydream.

With this reach also comes significant responsibility and, because Brownlee is in many ways his own boss, he ultimately decides where to draw ethical lines.

In a 2018 interview, Recode’s Peter Kafka asked Brownlee if tech companies treat him as press or as an influencer.

“I’d say they treat us as press,” Brownlee said. “Might say because of my place where I was one of the first YouTubers to get invited and just kind of looped in along with the rest of press at a lot of these things, I got to observe how they work with press.”

Kafka then asked if a company has offered to pay him directly, or offered to fly him somewhere. Brownlee said companies will cover his flight and hotel if they need to bring him to a remote place.

When asked if he’s okay with that, Brownlee responded, “I’m cool with that, that’s great, but if it’s some sort of a device review or analysis then that has to stop there.”

In April, Brownlee spoke to The Post’s Teddy Amenabar about the balancing act of providing critical reviews while working with the companies to test the latest products.

“I’m not changing any of my opinions or what I’m saying about a product in a video based on my relationship with the company,” Brownlee said. “When they release a product, my job is to be honest and deliver what people want to see and what people need to hear.”

Brownlee doesn’t call himself a journalist, but he seems to value a similar kind of editorial independence that maintains the trust of his growing audience.

Still, traditional media organizations tend to have stricter rules against accepting travel or lodging from a company — The Post’s policy, for instance, states that employees must pay their own way, and that includes not accepting gifts or free trips.

Brownlee also isn’t shy with his enthusiasm for certain companies, such as Tesla. When he interviewed Musk, the tone was more enthusiastic than journalistic, especially compared to what Musk would face with an average journalist or conference panel. That shouldn’t come as a shock, considering Brownlee was a finalist in a Tesla contest for fan-made ads in 2017 — something you wouldn’t find many journalists entering.

To anyone watching a product review on YouTube, maybe that distinction doesn’t matter, but it’s worth considering the broader implications of that power dynamic, especially when it involves some of the most powerful companies in the world.

Apple, a notoriously challenging company for journalists to cover, highlighted this dynamic in the way it allowed media access to the iPhone X ahead of its 2017 release.

The company decided to change the way it handles reviews of its products by not standardizing the amount of time tech reviewers could spend with the product, or when the reviews could be published.

Not all media organizations were able to test it, and even for those who did, they were mostly beaten to the punch by several YouTubers (along with Popular Science), who were given earlier access and publish dates.

Brownlee, who was not one of those YouTubers, also noticed similarities across those early YouTube reviews.

“[The videos had] all the same talking points, all the same omissions, so you kind of get the idea that this is a genre video, that Apple is curating in a small scale, and it feels like an experiment because it’s so new to them,” Brownlee told Kafka.

That gave Apple more control over the first reviews that would be published on YouTube. For a tech company trying to limit the potential for negative reviews, it makes business sense. And in this case, since the other reviews were eventually published, you could argue that the impact to the average consumer was negligible.

But it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to project a few years into the future and see a scenario in which the access could be far more limited as tech companies attempt to exert more influence on the review process.

For the most part, Brownlee seems to understand the delicate balance between reviewer and multibillion-dollar tech company when it comes to reviewing products.

As tech YouTube continues to grow, and the traditional media shrinks in relative size and influence, it will be up to the next generation of YouTube reviewers to determine the value of editorial independence.

And if the power continues to shift toward the tech giants, consumers will ultimately pay the price.

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