Dr. Felicia Chong on YouTube Beauty Tutorials

[Intro Music]

[Ryan Weber] Welcome to 10-Minute Tech Comm, I’m Ryan Weber at the University of Alabama at Huntsville. Today I’m excited to welcome Dr. Felicia Chong from Oakland University to tell us bit about her research into YouTube beauty tutorials and how they function as technical communication. This interview was recorded live at the recent Council for Programs of Scientific and Technical Communication Conference held in Logan, Utah.

[Begin Interview]

[Weber] Welcome to the podcast Felicia, we’re really glad to have you here today to talk a little bit about your research into YouTube beauty tutorials, and if we could start out, you know I don’t know anything about YouTube beauty tutorials, can you kind of just describe the tutorials that you’re looking at?

[Felicia Chong] Sure, they are actually three types of beauty videos I focus my research on. The first type are makeup tutorials…

[Weber] Okay

[Chong] Where they show you how to put makeup on, such as eyeliner, eyeshadow, how to create even looking brows, how to properly contour your face, and add highlight. The second type of tutorials that I look are hair tutorials…

[Weber] Okay

[Chong] Where they teach you how to create different braids, how to use a curling iron, or a straightener. And then the third type of tutorials that I look at are called beauty hacks…

[Weber] Okay

[Chong] So they show you how to do all of the things that I mentioned earlier in unconventional ways. So, for example instead of using a straightening iron to straighten your hair, you use it to curl your hair. Or they show you how to re-appropriate different products, for example how to use Vaseline to prolong the scent of your perfume instead of just using it for moisturization.

[Weber] Okay great so these are similar to the life hacks that a lot of us are familiar with a variety of arraignments, great.

[Chong] Yeah

[Weber] So I think this is really interesting because you know you’re classing these tutorials within technical communication and I’m just wondering kind of how you would see them as fitting into the definition of technical communication?

[Chong] Okay, that’s a good question. I think the definition for technical communication varies depending on who you ask.

[Weber] Sure, sure.

[Chong] Which is I think is actually the strength of the field. For most people outside of technical communication, instructions are probably the most dominant genre that they associate technical communication with. So, I personally define technical communication as user-centered communication where the goal is to help users use or interact with technology. In this case, beauty tutorials are providing specific instructions on how to use or interact with beauty tools and technology.

[Weber] Okay, great, great, and you know when I thought about your topic, you know I was reminded for one about the article from the 90s about whether a cookbook fits in technical communication. There was that big debate in one of the STC chapters about whether they should accept a cookbook, and then more recently the STC’s on definition on tech comm, which it seems you fit two of, which is communicating with technology and then explaining how to do something. You know giving users step-by-step instructions. So, I thought you’d have any sort of reaction to that or?

[Chong] Yeah and I totally agree what you were talking in terms of cookbooks because historically, because we usually in the past, we associate women with cooking.

[Weber] Right.

[Chong] And historically in the history of tech comm, there are very few things that women do that could be considered technical communication, but in recent years, right we’re starting to go back and say well sewing is a technology right.

[Weber] Right, right.

[Chong] Or baking or designing, those are the things that women do in the present realm that were private until now we kind of think of them being in the public domain of technical communication.

[Weber] Yeah, that’s really interesting and you know that there’s, again not knowing a lot about these tutorials, there’s a real sophistication that goes into these hacks and a lot of again user knowledge and technical knowledge that goes into this that I think we neglect when we think of technical communication as here’s how you use Microsoft Word or how to run a nuclear power plant or whatever it is.

[Chong] Exactly.

[Weber] Yeah cool. So, what qualities do you see make for effective YouTube beauty tutorials, if we can sort of isolate you know what, if they’re technical communication, what constitutes good technical communication within this realm?

[Chong] I am actually still in the early process of figuring that out.

[Weber] Sure, sure.

[Chong] But my initial thoughts are that effective beauty tutorials have these three main qualities.

[Weber] Okay.

[Chong] One, they are clear, both in instructions and in video quality. Two, they are entertaining, they are funny and visually interesting to watch. For example, the music that they use or the special effects that they use, and then three, they are engaging. These women use stories, narratives, and honesty as a way of establishing their ethos or credibility. They’re viewers want real people with real experiences.

[Weber] And I imagine you know the beauty of these beauty tutorials is that it’s not from the company, just in the same way that you know user help is generated by just users of Adobe or whatever you know you get a more honest assessment of the product, than if it’s Maybelline telling you how to use it. Does that seem to be part of it, is that it’s this authenticity and sort of this ethos that you’re talking about?

[Chong] Yes for sure and I actually found an article that talks about how Google did a research, they found 50% of beauty shoppers watch a YouTube tutorial while they are shopping for beauty products.

[Weber] Oh wow, so in the store you’re pulling it up or online you’re pulling it up.

[Chong] Exactly.

[Weber] And you’re using it so there’s almost like a marketing dimension too.

[Chong] For sure, for sure.

[Weber] Yeah.

[Chong] So now those people are obviously bypassing the major companies that you’re talking about. They’re not following the instructions on the back of the packaging.

[Weber] Right.

[Chong] They’re really looking at real people doing real stuff and then trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t work for them.

[Weber] Great, good. So, what is the-what do these types of tutorials show us about how technical communication is changing? You know what do we need to do to incorporate these kinds of tutorials into the broader field?

[Chong] Good question. Personally, I think the field needs to understand that the impact of online participatory culture where users are becoming experts and the lines between users and experts are blurred is basically happening. Now everyone on the internet has the potential to be a technical communicator and as I said before with the Google research, online tutorials are really gaining popularity and credibility, not to mention that these women are actually celebrities now with millions of subscribers. So, we need to acknowledge that that user knowledge is really being privileged over what we consider to be expert knowledge. And the other thing that-again in terms of the qualities that we look at, we need to remember that the design, style, and presentation of instructions are changing in this medium. Major companies are using the qualities that I mentioned earlier in recognition that the traditional way of presenting information is no longer effective. For example, I think of IKEA instructions and the airline tutorials, the safety tutorials-.

[Weber] Right.

[Chong] -where they’re incorporating humor and entertainment while meeting the legal requirements at the same time.

[Weber] Sure, yeah.

[Chong] Because they don’t want to get into trouble, and so I feel like in light of this, students need to be able to identify the rhetorical strategies that are used in these tutorials. For example, in beauty tutorials, specifically the use of narratives are very useful for the viewers and of course students need to be able to develop the necessary competencies to produce these types of instructions.

[Weber] Great, great, I like that. So, the narrative is part of it. It also seems like persona is part of it in that these people who become very well known or become celebrities, you go to it because you want this person’s take on this product, right, or this person’s take on this technique. Is that the case?

[Chong] Yes for sure, and you can actually see this in the video comments where the users will actually say, “I prefer your, you know, story over again what I hear from these major companies.”

[Weber] Right.

[Chong] So, they’re almost becoming like a cult that people follow because they value their persona, personality, or their experience so much.

[Weber] Is there a tension between the companies and these sort of freelance tutorial producers? Or do you think they have more a symbiotic relationship?

[Chong] Yeah.

[Weber] Or do you-yeah.

[Chong] I think companies are getting very smart. They realize that these teenagers or young women are listening to these user’s way more than them and so they’re actually partnering with these people.

[Weber] Okay.

[Chong] So, they partner with these successful YouTubers and they say, “We’ll give you the products and then you can do a review, again whether or not you like it.”

[Weber] Okay.

[Chong] And so a lot of these women that I follow, they don’t have a real job anymore okay. Well what we consider a real job.

[Weber] Sure they don’t have an 8-to-5 job in an office. Yeah.

[Chong] Exactly, exactly. They can become employees of YouTube where all they do is to post these beauty tutorials, or they become collaborators with like Maybelline or Covergirl, or they are actually producing their own lines of makeup.

[Weber] Oh wow.

[Chong] Their own products, again in partnership with these major companies.

[Weber] Okay, great. Well this is really interesting so I will put up a few samples on the website, so the people can kind of see what you’re talking about and you know I imagine what you’re talking about here applies to tutorials for YouTube on you know fixing your car, digging a fencepost, you know any kind of cooking, you know any kind of thing that’s you know the users are now demonstrating to other users how to do stuff.

[Chong] Sure.

[Weber] Yeah really interesting. Alright thanks so much Felicia, we really appreciate it.

[Chong] Thank you.

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Episode 16