It was a normal Wednesday hanging out at a Los Angeles mall for 12-year-old Joey until his friend spotted something interesting in the distance: two people, one with a camera, the other carrying a dog like it was a baby.
Joey, who suspected the couple were video bloggers, also known as “vloggers,” decided to investigate. As he approached them, he was totally unaware that we has walking right into the viral age’s version of a deus ex machina.
The couple were Jenna Marbles and Julien Solomita. They were there with Kermit, one of their three dogs, shooting a video for Marbles’s 17 million YouTube subscribers. Joey also had a YouTube channel, Joey Vlogz, which he runs with his friend Celene, who edits all of their videos. At that moment in time, Joey Vlogz had a total of 185 subscribers.
Joey walked up to Jenna and Julien, holding a tennis ball in one hand and the cup of sprinkles — yes, just sprinkles — he was eating in the other. He asked the massive YouTube celebrities: “Do you have a vlog channel?”
Joey’s two conversations with them — one before he recognized them, and the other, out of breath, after he figured it out and chased them down through the mall — ended up in one of Marbles’s videos, uploaded in the middle of the night after their encounter. In the video, Marbles gives a shout out to Joey’s channel, Joey Vlogz with a “Z.”
By the next morning, Joey Vlogz had 14,000 subscribers. His older sister, staying in Europe at the time, noticed the subscriber spike first; she alerted Joey’s mom and dad.
“He was asleep,” Joey’s dad Yuri said in an interview. “It was late at night. The rest of the night my daughter and I were just watching the numbers.” Joey was at his mom Cary’s house, and the sister suggested that Cary film her son when he woke up to capture the moment he found out what happened to his channel.
“My new video I posted 17 hours ago has 16,000 views!” Joey says in the footage. He’s pacing around the living room in his pajamas, checking his YouTube channel on a laptop.
That was about three weeks ago. Joey now has more than 90,000 subscribers.
Going viral happens in an instant. Sometimes it’s the work of sly engineering. Other times, as it was with Joey, virality comes down to chance. Regardless of how it happened, however, the consequences of going viral often outlast that initial burst of activity. A 12-year-old whose biggest responsibilities had once been baseball and math homework now has tens of thousands of viewers, eager to see what Joey would do next.
“It’s just crazy,” Joey told me in a recent interview. “I still haven’t processed it. Thinking about 90,000 people, wanting to subscribe to me.” At the request of Joey and his parents, we aren’t publishing his last name.
When we spoke, Joey was about to leave for the holidays, and he was anxious about making sure he got his next video up soon. He’d already uploaded a thank-you video to Marbles’s fans — full of savvy in-jokes for regular viewers of her channel. But what comes next?
“My goal is to upload as much as possible,” Joey told me. He wanted to get one or two videos up a week. That’s a lot to take on. Marbles herself, who makes a living as a YouTuber, uploads only weekly. And in Joey’s words, he’s still “a kid who is in school” above everything else. In fact, Joey said, he hasn’t told most people at school that he has a YouTube channel.
“I didn’t want people to make a big thing about it,” he said. “If they find it on their own, that would be hilarious.”
Joey’s mother, Cary, sat with Joey as we spoke. In a separate interview, Cary summed up her excitement for her son, having this opportunity — along with the worries she also felt.
“I want him to see that I’m celebrating this,” she said, “but at the same time I’m parenting it.”
“I’ve watched him,” she added, “because he does take it seriously. There comes with this some adult-sized pressures. Ninety thousand pressures that weren’t there a week ago.”
Since we spoke, Joey has followed through on an aggressive upload schedule. He posted four videos, each of which has a few thousand views, over the holiday break.
Joey is a redhead, just like his favorite YouTuber, Shane Dawson. Up until three weeks ago, Joey would probably tell you he was going to be a Major League Baseball player when he grew up.
But the vlog, too, was serious, even when it was a month old with a handful of subscribers. Like any good YouTube personality, Joey starts each of his videos with the same phrase: “Yo, what’s going on you guys. It is Joey here,” addressed directly into the camera, as if Joey is talking to each viewer individually.
If you watch YouTube a lot, you can see right away that Joey knows what he’s doing. His on-camera personality is happy, fearless and professional. His video thumbnails are eye-catching; his titles are in the correct vernacular of the online content creator: “KID RAGES ABOUT DODGERS LOSING WORLD SERIES!!”; “I TRIED TO WORK OUT FOR THE FIRST TIME!! *kinda failed*”
In other words, Joey is a natural. He got interested in being on camera when he was 6 — although, he says, he didn’t know what a “vlog” was until he was 7.
“I just loved being on camera,” Joey told me. “I felt like every single time I had the camera, it felt like we were a match.” By the time he was 12, his parents felt Joey was old enough to start his own YouTube channel.
Although Joey has always taken the channel seriously, “it was just for fun,” Yuri said. “Nobody knew that it was going to turn into something this big, this fast.”
The first wave of viral YouTube stars — people such as Marbles, or Philip DeFranco, or PewDiePie — are now in or approaching their 30s. Behind them is a second generation of viral celebrities who learned how to weaponize the Internet into an unstoppable eyeball factory. Jake and Logan Paul, two brothers with separate channels, primarily run vlogs about, well, having a successful vlog. They each have more than 10 million subscribers, and armies of young fans who, often, are even younger than Joey.
Like Joey, the kids growing up watching YouTube and following personalities on Instagram and Snapchat increasingly see social media stardom as a career path. For them, virality isn’t just something that gets you on Ellen DeGeneres’s show; it’s a tool.
The particular way in which Joey gained his audience may be unusual, but the conversations he and his parents have with each other about how to handle the channel day-to-day are less so. Joey is not allowed to use bad language in his videos, no matter what the other viral 12-year-olds are up to. There are rules about the content he can make, too.
“I have to continue to parent,” Cary said. “I have to say, We are not going to stay up all night to worry about your channel.”