Very Fine Day #41: Amelia Tait
Real “Truman Show” areas on this one, folks. AMELIA TAIT is on VERY FINE DAY this week. She writes about internet culture and, quite often, the ethics surrounding how we monetise and create content for social media.
Amelia has been writing about family vloggers – those parents who set about documenting their young child’s every life achievement online - for years. It’s a fascinating and at times troubling thing to think about. But that’s like a lot of the stuff that happens online these days.
Ultimately, the issue is regulation. Which I know is not a sexy word. But it is truly remarkable that there is so much money involved in influencers, content creation, YouTubers, and the entire "creator economy” and yet we have so few guidelines around what is, and isn’t, OK.
VFD: I apologise if I'm scattered. I was just walking my dog. Have you been to Australia? I don't know why I assume people have. But the rain here… it just happens. And then it stops happening. All in 20-30 minute bursts. So I just got absolutely drenched, hence the wet hair. Where in London are you?
Amelia Tait: I'm southeast.
VFD: What's that like?
Amelia Tait: This little bit is kind of suburban, weirdly. But I really like Southeast London. I like being south of the river. There's a lot of debates, South versus North, but I’m south of the river.
VFD: What's the difference?
Amelia Tait: You know what, there probably isn't really that much of a difference. The North feels posher to me. I don't like the posh vibes of the North. But then, also, the North is easier to get around. They actually have two lines that go across, whereas in the South, if you're visiting your friend and they're technically 10 minutes away in a car, it's like an hour on public transport to go back in and then go back down again.
VFD: Oh my God. I've got family in the UK and I'm always amazed at London being as big as it is. Well, I actually can't tell if it's big or if it's just shit to move around.
Did you grow up there?
Amelia Tait: No, I grew up in North Yorkshire, in a tiny little town. Weather's a bit shit, nothing to do, and then when I turned 18 I was like: I am going to London. I’d never even been to London. I’d never even visited. So I'd never even used the tube or knew anything, but I just moved there for university. I've been back home a few times, when I was jobless or whatever, but I have pretty much been here for 10 years now.
VFD: What's growing up with nothing to do in Yorkshire like? Is it just rolling hills and poetry and grass?
Amelia Tait: Sheep.
VFD: Sheep, yeah.
Amelia Tait: Yeah, obviously it's technically beautiful and many people love it…
VFD: You sound very political, like: Uh, some people are big fans.
Amelia Tait: I wrote a piece for a VICE UK series which was writing about the town you grew up in. So, naively, I thought a few people in my year group would read it because they’d see it on my Instagram. But I didn’t realise that because nobody ever writes about this town the entire town’s Facebook page was obsessed with it for three days, saying the most horrific things about me. And some of the messages I got…
I've written about incels and Neo-Nazis and gotten less abuse than writing about things that I didn't enjoy growing up in my hometown. So yeah, now I'm quite political about it. It’s a lovely place for some people.
VFD: Right, yeah, I get it. But for you, you were just ready to go?
Amelia Tait: Yeah, there just wasn't enough going on. And I think my favourite thing about the city is anonymity. I really like that I can wear sweatpants and go to the shop and I'm not going to see everyone I've ever known since I was four. That’s not the kind of life I like. I like just skulking around in my sweatpants.
VFD: Yeah, I agree. I live, essentially, in the city here and it's only 20 minutes to get to where I grew up. But you still have that sense of: I can do what I want, and no one I know is gonna see me, even though I've been here for, similar to you, almost 10 years. People know me more here than they do back where I grew up.
When you got to London, you said that was for university?
Amelia Tait: I was doing History at Kings. For three years.
VFD: Were you into history or you were just like: this is something to do.
Amelia Tait: I always wanted to be an author, I think. But I was into history at school more than I was into English. I just find it fascinating. But there was always that thing where it's like: what is the job after that? That was a big question mark over my head.
But no, it was good. It was a very strange experience because Kings is not a campus university, It's just dotted across the city. So it wasn’t a very collegiate feeling - but I actually studied abroad in America for a bit which was great. So best of both worlds.
Amelia Tait: In North Carolina. UNC.
VFD: You went to UNC? No way - so did I.
Amelia Tait: Did you?
VFD: Yeah, that’s nuts. All of my family is from Chapel Hill.
Amelia Tait: When were you there?
Amelia Tait: I’m 2012. I only did the one year obviously.
VFD: That is nuts. Alright, well, Tar Heel nation I guess. Basketball and football and shit.
Amelia Tait: Yeah, I think I went to the one basketball game and I was like: I dunno what’s going on!
VFD: The year I went they were just shit and they lost all time, and I remember there was the big game against Duke and we lost. And I was so excited because I was like: Oh, what we do is we storm the high street and we set fire to couches! But none of that happened, obviously.
Amelia Tait: Everyone just cried.
VFD: Yeah, yeah. How did you find the South?
Amelia Tait: I loved it. Again, I hadn't been to America before I moved there, so it was a fully immersive, really fun experience. I just really, really loved it. Some of my fondest memories.
VFD: This could be projecting, but what did you think of the education the standard of it? Not to get you in trouble yet another location-based Facebook group.
Amelia Tait: I was going to say, this is a recipe for cancelation. But it was so much easier. I was doing my second year - it wasn’t even my first year - and it was like I was in high school. Do you know what I mean?
Like, I remember having multiple choice tests. You’d get your exam and there’ll be ten different questions and then an essay, whereas at uni here it would just be essays, essays, essays. And it would be 5000 words - whereas there it's pages with double spaced margins. It was so much so much easier. Which was great for me and my grades.
VFD: Yeah. I mean, when I was there I was pass/fail. Even without pass/fail, I wasn't exactly an exemplary student. But I pushed it in the US, and still did quite well. And I was always surprised by that.
I remember a teacher once saying to me - we did a test, probably multiple choice - and I got a C - I passed. And after the class he pulled me aside and said: Y’know, you can do it again. And I was like: what??? He’s like: Come back tomorrow, do it again, have another crack at it. And I'm like: that is both the nicest and most depressing thing.
Amelai Tait: I think, when I was there, there was some kind of scandal about some made-up course that they'd made for basketball players.
But having said that, the best thing is the system where you have your majors and minors and you can do courses on different things. I just had to do history here, and the only other thing I could do was French which I did not want to do. Whereas when I was at UNC I did a couple courses like anthropology. And you can just do that. You can pick and choose. Which is surely a better way to educate young adults than just being like, You've picked your one thing, do it forever.
VFD: Yeah. This is your life, have fun.
Amelia Tait: And the dropout rate at Kings was so huge. You get all that debt and there's no room to change your mind or to explore other stuff. That was the good thing about America.
VFD: And I should say, UNC is a great school and I'm sure if I applied myself very hard I would have gotten more from it educationally…
OK, so you went and you did history - but I notice now you are not a historian. Unless you are on the side? So what happened there? How did you start writing?
Amelia Tait: Yeah, as I said, I always wanted to be an author. That was just the thing I wanted. And then I think when I was a teenager I was like: Oh, that's not really a job that you just have - unless you're incredibly rich. So I started thinking about journalism when I did the school newspaper. I ran that. That wasn’t journalism, obviously…
VFD: It's journalism. It's more journalism than some of the things that get called journalism now.
Amelia Tait: True, but it was mostly just funny stories.
But it was just really invigorating to see people reading it and buying it and actually paying money for it.
And so after I did history, I did an NCTJ down in London, which is like a short course of basic journalism skills like shorthand - which I don't use now - media law, a bit of the production side of things, laying out a magazine, all that kind of stuff which was fun. So that was just six months. I had to work a lot of jobs to be able to afford that, and I lived in the shittest little house with a landlady who wouldn't put the heating on and who turned the internet off at midnight. So that was a fine time in my life.
So I did the NCTJ, graduated from that, and couldn't find a job, obviously, because that's media. And so I started freelancing - or trying to freelance - and I tried pitching. I think VICE was my first byline, which was nice. They're really good at giving a chance to new writers.
VFD: Do you remember what it was about?
Amelia Tait: It was about YouTube vloggers charging their fans £50 for meet and greets. There's always been meet and greets, obviously, but they were either free or you would pay for the event and then actually meeting someone would be free. But this was a new kind of system. And I was just talking to people like: Is that a scam? Basically, I had to wait in a queue for five hours.
That's how I got onto this beat, anyway. I didn't have any connections, I didn't have anything under my belt internship-wise, really. And so the only way I'm going to get an editor to accept my pitch is if it's about something that nobody else is writing about. And back then it was 2014 and the digital culture beat was really ignored in England.
VFD: Everywhere, right?
Amelia Tait: Yeah, legitimate YouTube scandals of sex abuse scandals would just be completely ignored. So I think that's how I got into it, because I was like: Well, I need to write about interesting things that nobody else is writing about. Because otherwise, these editors aren’t going to take a chance on me because they've got a million other Oxford-educated, related-to-somebody-on-the-team’s kids. So yeah, I kind of fell into that.
And then once I had a few freelance bylines under my belt I was able to get a job at this kind of BuzzFeed ripoff listicle website called Student Beans, which was specifically for listicles.
VFD: Student Beans. That’s good, I like that.
Amelia Tait: Yeah, it was actually really fun. At the time, I was very much like: Oh, I’m in the content mines. This is shit. But now I'm kind of like: Oh, I would love to be paid to write “11 Reasons I Love Chicken Nuggets”.
VFD: Yeah, the pay’s not as great, and there’s a heavy output, but you have a bit of autonomy that you don't realise, I think.
Amelia Tait: Exactly. Yeah, totally.
VFD: Was “YouTube culture” something that you noticed and then went after because you're like: There's an opportunity to write about this. Or were you just really into YouTube and internet culture and it just naturally followed through?
Amelia Tait: I was obviously a teenager when it was all kicking off and people were getting big. I guess they were my contemporaries in that they were the same age as me, so you would be watching people with reasonably similar lives to you suddenly blowing up online and going to VidCon. Going to Disneyland or whatever.
I think that pretty early on I cottoned on that some weird things were happening here that nobody else is noticing, because it's just me and other kids watching it. And nobody else is paying attention to the fact that some of this stuff is dodgy. A lot of my earliest stories were about family vlogging and the ethics of family vlogging, which actually, to be honest, I probably still re-touch at least once a year, because I'm very passionate about it.
VFD: Yeah. I mean, it's still a thing, right?
Amelia Tait: It's insane, but it's just this completely unregulated industry. I guess it's a sub industry of its own.
The idea that you could just film your child - literally every day of their life - telling their secrets to the internet, putting up thumbnails and titles that are click-baity and not in the child's best interest, making all that money off them, and then not save any of the money for them. It just really troubled me.
And then there’s the even more egregious exploitation which is filming them in the bath, or potty training, or whatever. So it has always troubled me. And yeah, it’s because I watched family vloggers and I enjoyed them. I was a teenager in my tiny town and these family vloggers would be like: We're taking our kids to Disneyland! Just having these incredibly exciting lives. And I remember one day my brother was like: Don't you think that's fundamentally a bit weird: to film your children and make money from them? And I was like, No, no, you're wrong! And then I think a few years later it started to sink in, and I was like: you’re completely right. So I have my brother to thank for my career.
VFD: I’m sure he’s happy about that.
Amelia Tait: The other thing, which actually really came up around the same time, was the first time the Advertising Standards Agency here in the UK called out an influencer for not disclosing that they were paid to promote a product. It was cereal or something - so it was a mini-scandal of its own. And so that was something I was quite into those first few years because it was, again, something that you could see because you were watching them. And you were like: Huh. I'm pretty sure that's not your favourite makeup or lipstick, because last week your favourite lipstick was something else.
VFD: People change!
Amelia Tait: Between their weekly uploads! So those were the two things I think launched my career.
VFD: On that, and the ethics of it and also the regulation of it, do you think there has really been much progress?
Amelia Tait: No. I wrote something - 2017, so four years ago - it was just a big long read. I spoke to every single possible agency or charity or government body that I could think that would regulate family vlogging. And I ended every section of the piece being like: Blah blah blah currently has no regulations in place that would protect child YouTubers - and they have no plans to in the future. And every section ended like that because nobody wanted to touch it. Everybody thought it was someone else's responsibility.
I just thought it was absolutely insane, because you have these bodies for child actors and children in adverts. If a child is making an advert for TV there's all sorts of rules and regulations about the money, about the time, about the schooling. If they're making an advert for YouTube, literally nobody cares. And I don't know, it just doesn't feel like it should be that hard to regulate.
But actually - I only saw this yesterday, I didn't even realise - I think at a select committee on influencer culture that they're currently doing, earlier this week, they did talk about child YouTubers. So it was somebody explaining to MPs that parents will film their children and charge people to buy pictures of their children or whatever. And all the MPs were obviously like: Oh my God what?
VFD: Turn off the internet!
Amelia Tait: I think the problem with regulation is that you start getting really ham-fisted responses, because these people have no idea what is happening, have come in so late, and then it's like: Let's just make everyone not anonymous to solve online abuse.
And there's tonnes of studies about online anonymity abuse and it doesn't work like that. But you get these quite draconian responses. So I know that begging for more regulation is not always the solution - but at the same time, I just think it's a complete Wild West when it comes to family vlogging right now.
VFD: I mean, it’s the influencers too, right? I don't know, how are they ever going to really stop them from being like: Oh, this watch, big fan. Then it’s just: here’s 300 bucks.
It's also because in a lot of cases it's not a huge amount of money. I think the micro influencer side of things, where it’s a couple hundred dollars, that’s interesting. The return for the company is so huge. And it's almost like the thing that will stop it isn't so much regulation as it is people educating these kids online. Being like: This should actually be worth, like, $10,000.
Amelia Tait: Right. I mean, I think that's another thing that I'm hugely passionate about: there just needs to be digital literacy courses in school teaching you how to tell what misinformation is, and how to tell whether someone is advertising to you, and here's what a parasocial relationship is, and why you might feel like you might know this person who has no idea who you are.
The tech companies aren't going to self-regulate, evidently. The influencers aren't going to self-regulate. The only hope that we have is educating kids.
VFD: Another component of that I've found - which is really weird to me - and it makes me feel incredibly old to talk about as well… But they all have agents now. So many teenagers, who are just in school, they're not influencers and they're not vloggers - they just have a couple thousand followers on Instagram because they have a cool aesthetic. And then it's like: Signed to Hustle Management or whatever. And you're just like: What??? How?
Amelia Tait: Again, it's just pure exploitation and there needs to be a regulatory body or even a union - which people laugh at, the idea of influencer unions - but there needs to be a way you can go and get advice and understand what the contract is, and understand what you're getting into, and negotiate that work. And then there should also probably be rules around just signing these kids anyway. I don't know what that would look like.
But it's a really interesting one, because I think it really did start happening early on. These management companies understanding that this will make them money and they’ll take X percentage of the advertising. So it's not new, but again, everything I'm talking about… that just makes it madder. It’s not new and yet we're still dealing with this problem. We’re a decade on. Why haven't we figured out how to fix this?
VFD: It is remarkable that it's been a decade or more but the old internet and new internet is only now merging. You have - I can never remember which one it is, is it Logan or Jake Paul - Doing the boxing stuff. And that’s flashing over into normie culture. That is what's gonna kick people off. They’ll be like: Oh, what's all this going on over here?
Amelia Tait: I feel really discouraged because I started my career being scandalised that someone would advertise a mascara that they never used. Like: How shocking.
VFD: Like: Oh, you mean there are actors in this?
Amelia Tait: Yeah, right. And then two or three years later Logan Paul is filming a dead body and nothing happens. He gets a slap on the wrist. I'm shocked at the way that there's ambiguity around whether someone's advertising, and then Jake Paul literally says, Go tell your mom to buy merch now or she doesn't love you and shit like that. I’d have to find the video with those exact words, but y’know what I mean? Or singing about Gucci! The consumerism element has just gone insane. It is more normal, it’s more in everybody's life, and yet it still feels…
Maybe it's just the difference between adults and kids, and adults not paying attention to kids’ stuff. I don't know. But I just don't think it has gotten any better and if anything it’s gotten more troubling. I actually feel quite bad about how harsh I was on those early YouTubers, who were probably just figuring it out themselves as they went along. Like: Oh, should I charge for this meet and greet? Should I advertise this product? And now you have these bad faith actors who don't care about ethics at all.
VFD: Yeah. And it's so immediately actionable as well, because of the internet. If you think about youth culture in the past, the parents would be like: Oh, I hate that you listen to Nirvana. But your outlet was that you'd buy the record when it comes out once every two years, and that was it. And now it's like: well, you can just interact with them every day, buy their merch - and there is probably a whole university thesis in the way that YouTuber merch is just faces on hypercolour shirts. I spend too much time thinking about it but then not getting anywhere.
Amelia Tait: I suppose the one thing that has improved, as I kind of said at the beginning, you couldn't really get people to pay attention to these kinds of abuse scandals where it's people exploiting the parasocial relationships and preying on their fans. Whereas now it's almost a beat in itself. People are tirelessly reporting and exposing this stuff and letting people have their voices heard, which I think is incredible.
So it has been nice to watch digital culture coverage take off in that way, because l think that’s really encouraging. But the merch and all that kind of stuff, less so.
VFD: What do you think about it being called “digital culture” and being a “digital culture” writer? I saw that this week, I think it was Taylor Lorenz made a point that it’s always women who are called that, whereas men are “tech reporters”.
Amelia Tait: Yeah I saw that last night. I think it's a great point, and I really sympathise with her and other people's experiences. I think I've obviously just been quite lucky.
After I worked for that listicle website, I got a job at New Statesman and my job title was ‘Technology and Digital Culture Reporter’. But 99% of everything I did was digital culture and 1% was, Here’s the new iPhone. And I was never in trouble for that. So I think, for whatever reason, my boss at the time obviously understood that digital culture was technology reporting, so I think I've been very lucky. But I maybe have the opposite problem, actually - Taylor's piece, it said, ‘I want to be considered a technology reporter and I’m getting disparaged for that’.
I think now I'm more of a cultural reporter in general. A general culture reporter. The window I'm trying to squeeze through is like: No, this is culture, rather than this is tech, if that makes sense. But I've never really minded the title, it just seems like an accurate way to describe what it is.
VFD: It gives you a zone. It's better than being like, I write about the internet.
Amelia Tait: Exactly. It sounds a little bit fancier.
VFD: Like: You write about how the internet works?
But you’re freelance at the moment, right?
Amelia Tait: I am. Yes.
VFD: How long has that been the case?
Amelia Tait: Three years. So after New Statesman, I was a Features Editor at a place that then shut down - as things do in the media. I actually left right before it shut down, but that's the abbreviated version. It gave me the courage to go freelance because I saw the mistakes other people were making, which is not a nice way of putting it, but it's like: Oh, I wouldn't do that.
VFD: You gotta tell me the mistakes.
Amelia Tait: It’s so mean though!
VFD: You don’t have to name them. But I’m sure it would be helpful for a lot of people.
Amelia Tait: Well, at the same time, they were such obvious mistakes and I think that's what gave me the courage. People would just be like: Hi, my name is Luke and I like “Bojack Horseman”, can I write about “Bojack Horseman”? And that'd be the entire email. And you’re like: But what do you mean Luke, what about Bojack Horseman?
A good pitch is obviously everything, which we always know, but I think once you see the standard of other stuff you're like: Hmm, I think I could do this. Also, one person I commissioned to write 900 words, and they filed 3000 words. And you’re just like: What makes you think that this is a good thing, that I'm going to use you again? So I'm very strict about final word counts. I mean, that is the job, you can’t just be like: Oh, I wanted to do more, so I did more. Like if you were building a house.
VFD: Right. So it seems like you're in a rhythm now, then. And how long did that take?
Amelia Tait: I think early on every opportunity excited me, so I was like: yeah I’ll do that and that and that! And then later on I set myself a minimum word rate, or a way of thinking about things to see if it would work within that, and the money added up faster that way. And then when COVID happened my work got cut in half for a few months, and then I was like: Oh, I kind of love that. So I've kind of just kept doing half the work, which I enjoy personally, as long as it's enough to live on then I have no complaints. Pretty much everything I do is like a long-tail feature. I don't do anything newsy anymore. Everything I do takes a couple of weeks.
VFD: In the digital news cycle, that’s like years, right?
Amelia Tait: I always read about people in the ‘90s who spent a year on a piece and I’m like: Oh that would be nice, but no. Two weeks is a long time.
VFD: I don’t know if it would be nice to be honest. I think two months into that year, I'd be like: Y’know, I'm sick of calling this person's friends from high school. Right?
Amelia Tait: You’d know everything there is to know, surely, after a certain point. But somewhere in between is really the sweet spot.
VFD: Do you ever get anxious about not having ideas? I know that seems basic, but I'm like: I don't know if I could keep working.
Amelia Tait: Yeah, but I think I was more anxious about that in a staff job. Because regardless of what was happening, you'd have to go to that morning meeting. And be like: There’s this thing and I’m gonna have to come up with something about it.
Even if it’s boring as hell, even if it was going to get no clicks, you'd still have to do it. I did one piece a day, so you needed that byline every day. Whereas here, it's like: yeah, you might not have an idea but I don’t find it stressful, because you're not clutching at straws, you're just kind of waiting for them to come, which is obviously a luxury.
Literally every week on my staff job, I would text my friend and be like: This is it. The well has run dry and I've run out of ideas, I'm never gonna have an idea again, I’m finished in this town. Whereas I don’t find that exists in freelance. And then also, obviously, I'm quite fortunate in that probably even more than 50% of my own work is people coming to me and being like: Do you want to write about this? On that side of things it’s like: Oh I don't even need to have an idea. Here’s an idea, you can have it, I will just execute it.
VFD: Right. And other times you can tweet something and that will also turn into an idea if you have the right people.
Amelia Tait: Right. Exactly.
VFD: Which is your recent piece - which I have not been able to stop thinking about - which is the Muppets Lord of the Rings. How badly I need that to happen. And how definitely it's never going to happen. So thank you for putting that into my brain as a thing I'll never have.
Amelia Tait: I know, I feel a genuine longing. It genuinely feels like my heart is breaking like: How can this never be? I need this!
VFD: You’ve got Oscar the Grouch as Boromir. It just all works so well.
Amelia Tait: It’s all so ready for the taking. And yet, it's not here. It’s shocking.
VFD: Do you ever have moments where you think having a full time job would be good again?
Amelia Tait: No. I hate to work. No, I don’t. I love to write, I love to write. But I hate to be in the office. I hate to be responsible and to have to answer to one person. The concept of getting in trouble doesn't really exist as a freelancer. One, because you can get away with more but two, because even if you do burn that bridge that's like one bridge that you’ve burnt and that would suck, obviously, but there are other bosses. There are endless bosses. And there's no one that's breathing down your neck. I hate meetings. I love lying in my sweaty pit eating Doritos and watching TV for the majority of the day and then doing some words at the end of it.
VFD: Well, that sounds like you’ve got what you needed then.
Amelia Tait: Yeah, I think I probably need a bit more structure now. After three years, I'm like: Okay, you should impose some boundaries on yourself. But I do love it. As I said, I started this beat because nobody was writing about it and I'm not precious about people being on my turf. I'm like: Please take my job. Take it. Go for it.
VFD: But then what are you gonna do?
Amelia Tait: Well, yeah, OK. There is that side of things. But what I mean is I'm more than happy to have aged out of my beat. And yeah, I'm not gatekeeping.
VFD: That sounds horrifying. I'm just thinking about “ageing out of your beat”. Does that mean you then write about, like…
Amelia Tait: “Lord of the Rings”, every day. I think I probably live in a fantasy world where it's like: Oh, tomorrow, Disney will call me up and be like, ‘Do you wanna write the script for Muppet Lord of the Ring’s? And then I'll be rich and it will be fine.
And that’s probably a bad mentality, because my family is in no way rich. I have no money to fall back on apart from my own personal savings. So I'm not saying this from some kind of beautiful cloud in the sky where I can do what I want. I just think that I don't really think about the future. And I just wait for things to happen. And I'm like: it’ll be fine.
VFD: That’s very zen.
Amelia Tait: It is quite zen. Because I think that's the one thing people ask about being freelance: But what do you do when no work comes in? And I'm like: as long as I can pay my rent, if that bit’s sorted, then if no work comes in, I'm not working. So there’s the upside, do you know what I mean?
VFD: Well, it sounds like you’ve got it all under control, which is good.
Amelia Tait: It kind of sounds like an out of control version of being in control. But I’ll take it.
VFD: Yeah, like a contained chaos is what you want. Alright. Well, thanks for talking to me, I appreciate it.
Amelia Tait: No worries. Thank you so much for inviting me on.