Creator Confessional: Veteran Internet Personality Steve Zaragoza on Why He’s ‘Afraid of Content’

An image of Steve Zaragoza with abstract background
Steve Zaragoza/YouTube Dedraw Studio/YouTube

Welcome to the first edition of a new feature, “Creator Confessional,” in which we’ll speak to veteran creators about the ups and downs of their careers, the history of working in digital media, and where they see current trends going in the future. Our first guest is comedian, actor, and internet personality Steve Zaragoza. 

In 2012, Steve Zaragoza joined the popular YouTube news commentary and comedy channel “SourceFed,” and quickly became one of its breakout stars, helping the brand to launch a string of spinoff channels and projects devoted to video games, current events, politics, “nerd culture,” and beyond.

By the time it shut down in 2017, the channel – founded by Philip DeFranco, and also including personalities like Trisha Hershberger, Lee Newton, Joe Bereta, and Elliott Morgan – SourceFed had compiled over 1.7 million subscribers and 900 million video views.

In 2018, Steve Zaragoza and a few other “SourceFed” vets founded the comedy troupe and production company The Valleyfolk. He’s also acted in a number of digital media projects and web series, including “Wayward Guide,” “Oscar’s Hotel for Fantastical Creatures,” and PBS Digital’s “Frankenstein MD” (on which I also collaborated!) Today, Zaragoza and fellow comedian Mike Falzone co-host the podcast “Dynamic Banter.” 

Steve, thanks so much for being my first-ever guest on “Creator Confessional.”

I hope I can deliver the experience that you’re hoping for. I feel like you’re the right guy to do this. You’re like “Hot Ones,” but instead of hot sauce, it’s YouTube stuff.

I’m the guy who remembers how we got to “Hot Ones.” Like, Hot Pepper Gaming and other video game channels that would do those kinds of distraction challenges.

The whole “watching people suffer” aspect of all that content… Do you think that this is the same impulse from the olden days, when people would gather to watch a hanging or a beheading?

We used to say a lot that early YouTube had an early days of TV vibe. People just doing radio bits or vaudeville, but in front of a camera. Anything to keep the show going. The early internet was just that, and one of the primal things that entertains people is watching other people suffer or try to do something while struggling.

Why is that?

It’s relatable. We’ve all been in a situation where we’re not up to something and we’re panicking but we push through. Plus, we’re all jerks.

Is that why we’re angry at celebrities and the rich now? We can’t relate to them, and when they try to relate to us, it feels phony and disingenuous…?

Before social media, celebrities were always at a distance. You didn’t hear from them all the time. They’d pop their heads up when they had a new project, and then they’d disappear for months or years at a time. That was good. We hear from everyone way too much now.

Social media ruined everything. It’s YouTube, too. The idea that someone in their home, someone who just made a video, can now be at the same parties as Paris Hilton and the Kardashians. When that first started happening, “Oh, a YouTuber is at this Hollywood event,” we all saw that as a big deal. We learned from those early success stories that this is the way to build an audience, and it was through building parasocial relationships. 

Eventually, celebrities started noticing how large those fan bases were becoming. Instead of hiding behind their security-controlled gates, they realized, “If I build a parasocial relationship with my audience, I’ll be an even bigger celebrity. I’ll capture the movie industry and social media.”

As a creator, did you feel pressure – not necessarily from other people, but just yourself – to try and foster those kinds of parasocial relationships?

When they were teaching us how to become on-camera talent for the “YouTube Generation,” they were teaching us how important it was to make direct eye contact with the camera, and not fight with your co-workers, and when someone new shows up, you laugh at everything they say. There are tricks that create a really happy, perfect environment. Everyone is friends, and the audience are friends, too. 

I’m not good at a lot of sh*t, but what I am good at is interacting with people. I want to know what makes you happy, and I want to make you laugh and entertain you. Just being yourself, you’ll attract some people who like that for what it is. But if you do the little tricks, you’ll encourage more people to want to be your friend. I was never really aware of all that. I just wanted to be myself.

That worked then, in the sort of “glory days” of YouTube when there was so much attention focused on what was happening. YouTube was the center of internet comedy and entertainment at that moment. Do you think you’d have had equivalent success today, say on TikTok, if you were just starting out?

No way. There’s too much now. There are too many places to get content: shows, sketches, and comedy. When YouTube was happening, it felt like the only place beyond TV and movies, or public access television, where you could build an audience with just a camera and a microphone. Now that there are so many options, it’s still possible to find your audience, but it’s nowhere near as easy as it was back in the day. 

People didn’t know how easy it was! It didn’t need to look good. At all. For you to blow up, essentially.

There were a lot of people who were aware of the rules or standard practices, but you could also have success just by posting something funny or outrageous. Today, you have to do things in the exact right way or it doesn’t work at all.

For some reason, I’m thinking of Chewbacca Mom. How long ago was that?

<looking it up>  Eight years ago.

Back when Chewbacca Mom was a thing, you’d go to work the next day and go, “Oh my God, Chewbacca Mom! Did you see Chewbacca Mom!” And everyone would be like, “I SAW CHEWBACCA MOM!” Now it’s like, “Did you see Skateboard Parrot? Did you see Pizza Mouse?” There’s too many. Back when Chewbacca Mom was the most funny, interesting, bizarre thing on the internet, it got her on “Ellen.”

Chewbacca Mom got on TV a bunch.

She made a lot of money on that. I’m sure of it. Now, if you made some video that went as viral as Chewbacca Mom, you wouldn’t get on TV.

I don’t think the Skibidi Toilet guy has been on the “Today” show.

But the Skibidi Toilet guy is probably a millionaire. Business is business and game recognizes game. If you find a thing that captures the audience, guess what? You’re That Guy now.

What impact do you think that has on the culture more widely? That everybody’s watching something different. There used to be this thing called “internet culture.” When Harlem Shake was happening, it wasn’t like some people were doing the Harlem Shake.

Were you in some Harlem Shake videos?

I think I did two or three. 

Me too.

What impact do you think that has, when there is no more monoculture?

It connected us all. It felt like a communal experience. That YouTube Community was a big, fun, important thing at that time for a lot of people. And now it’s like YouTube Community, TikTok Community, Twitter Community, Twitch Community… it has separated us more. The fact that we don’t have something like that, everybody watching your video or participating in the same trend, to motivate us.

Now everything comes, and then it goes as fast as it arrived. It didn’t used to be that way. We used to be able to make a Harlem Shake video months after the first Harlem Shake.

“Gangnam Style” stayed popular for so long, we had time to do multiple parodies

It’s cringe now to post too long after it started. The Oompa Loompa Girl from that Willy Wonka AI Experience, that happened only a few months ago. Just a month later, someone was telling me that she was coming to LA to do an event. You can meet the Oompa Loompa Girl. And I was like, “Oh, that’s pretty cool.” And they were like, “No, it’s not, it’s cringe! That died a week ago.”

It’s impossible to keep up.

Also, that Willy Wonka AI craze happened right around the time of the Willy Wonka movie. The Timothée Chalamet movie.

Yeah, I heard a few people voicing conspiracies that this was all stunt marketing.

With YouTube now, advertisers are being so strategic, I can’t even tell what’s an ad anymore. You can tell sometimes there are ideas out there that they really want people to turn into a meme. The trusted meme makers that you’ve been following for years, they’re commissioned to make memes based on something. It’s an ad. And you can watch people going, “This is a funny meme!” And it’s not, really, it’s an ad. It’s straight-up an ad. It feels manipulative, to a degree that I can’t even keep up with it anymore. I don’t know how I’m being manipulated anymore.

Is this part of the reason you’ve sort of shifted your focus from YouTube over to podcasts?

Coming from that world where anyone could become a million-subscriber YouTuber if they just had the right mix of charisma and business sense, and living through the decline of all of these huge studios, seeing people that I love and care about have their lives change, leaving LA… seeing the destruction of the original YouTube has creatively made me afraid of content now. 

If I were to start suddenly posting on YouTube, I would need to focus on that and nothing else. I’d have to leave the podcast behind, I’d have to leave my personal life behind, and really focus on it. YouTube now is very different. You can’t just make a two minute video anymore, you have to make an hour-long thing. There are so many important things you have to be and to do.

I’ve been doing “Dynamic Banter” for eight years, and we’ve found our audience and we have a Patreon. These people love what we do and it’s such a fun, fulfilling thing. Deviating from that, jumping back into the shark-infested waters of the YouTube world, feels like certain death.

Do you think a lot of people from our generation feel that way who would otherwise still be making stuff on YouTube?

I think that they’re pushed away from YouTube because they see that there are a lot of requirements for making it a fruitful job. Building an audience from scratch now seems like an impossible thing to do for a lot of people. Back in the day, when it wasn’t, I think a lot more people were inspired to give it a shot. 

TikTok is somewhat reminiscent of the old YouTube days in that you can make something that doesn’t need a lot of production value, and it will still blow up and get millions of views. But building a strong audience that you maintain and making it a job isn’t easy anymore. It really looks like, unless you’re MrBeast or Rhett and Link, or some of these other older channels that are still making it happen, it’s hard for me to even imagine doing it.

Have you ever thought of pouring yourself into TikTok?

TikTok is great. I’ve posted stuff on TikTok. Mostly what I post on TikTok now are posts from “Dynamic Banter.” That’s where I’m living. It works, there’s an audience, people who listen to it love it. It’s creatively fulfilling to me. 

When I think about something like TikTok, which I could pour my heart and soul into, it comes back to the same YouTube thing. You can’t stop. If you blow up on TikTok and then you make another video and it consistently stays at the same level of viewership and engagement as the last one, then you have to either decide that you will keep doing that now, and nothing else, from now on, or just enjoy the dopamine rush of getting a few million views and move on with your life. 

I could start making YouTube videos again. I could be a Disney vlogger! I see four doors, in my mind’s eye. When I was 20, there might have been 50 doors. Now I see 4 doors. One door is “Dynamic Banter,” another door is “go back to YouTube,” another door is “put all my effort into voice acting,” and another is “be an actor and start auditioning again.” 

But every time I walk up to one of those doors and open it, it’s just air and nightmare sh*t coming out of it.

Three of my doors just say “Beach Bum.”

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