The vloggers of McGill University

Since the dawn of YouTube in 2006, viewers have seen mankind at its best and its worst; our most epic moments and our cringiest compilations archived indefinitely for all to see. The medium of the vlog—a portmanteau of ‘video blog’—is relatively new, but has had a large influence on internet culture. Within the category exists the college vlog subgenre, and within that subgenre is the McGill vlog. Current upper-year students might remember searching for dorm tour videos as a rising freshman and, instead, finding residence hall lip-sync challenges from 2012. Today, a similar YouTube search yields hundreds of results from current students covering campus tours, residence reviews, personal vlogs, and Q&As for new students. Vlogs are proving to be one of the most useful resources for prospective students looking for realistic, up-to-date advice about the university experience. Although the niche is small, McGill’s vloggers demonstrate the importance of authenticity and connectivity in the age of online videos.

Alena Russell, U1 Arts, started her channel under the pseudonym Alena McKenzie in her last year of high school, initially as a makeup channel and later transitioning to more of a lifestyle channel after she saw a lack of quality content available for prospective McGill students.

“Around the time I started to get accepted into universities, I was trying to find YouTube videos [about life at McGill] and there’s like, three outdated videos,” Russell said. “I’m from a really small town on the west coast […] [I didn’t know anyone] from my state going here. So I [wanted to] record my whole university process […] for fun but also for people from places and situations similar to mine.”

Russell noted that videos made by McGill’s official YouTube were often outdated and lacked warmth and authenticity. These videos often do not seem credible because the viewer knows that they are viewing an advertisement framing McGill’s campus in its best light. McGill vloggers offer their personal experience and perspective as a guideline for prospective students. While they are still helping to sell a product, intentionally or not, these videos democratize the campus tour. Particularly, such videos help prospective international students decide on where to commit their time and money for the next four years. The success of college vlogs demonstrates why influencer culture remains prevalent on sites like YouTube—it’s much easier to believe a person than an institution.

Connections between the creator and the viewer is an important element of any YouTube channel. Inara Qamar, U1 Arts, has been vlogging for over a year now on two channels, inara.q and Inara & Jaydon, and her link with her audience makes her feel as if she were talking to friends rather than a camera on a tripod. In addition to her visually informative McGill vlogs, she also engages directly with her audience in the comment section.

“I do receive a lot of questions about McGill in general,” Qamar said. “I know that university websites can often be daunting, so I reply [to viewers’ comments] with useful links that take people directly to the information they’re searching for.”

As a current first-year student, Audrey Rhéaume, U0 Arts, recently went through the  university admissions process, relying on these vlogs to give her a sense of what life was really like on campus. She toured McGill before, but had planned to commute daily to campus until she saw Russell’s Upper Residence vlogs. 

“I knew that I wanted my first year to look like what I saw in her vlogs,” Rhéaume said. “I chose to live in Upper [Residence] because of her videos.”

In general, YouTube viewers often look for authenticity in video content, particularly in  vlogs made by-and-for the average person. If vloggers fail to establish a sense of realness—for example, James Charles’s infamous apology video in which he struggled to convey a convincingly sad performance—viewers lose respect and interest. Vloggers can establish authenticity through stylistic elements as well as content matter. Qamar’s vlogging style uses mostly unedited footage to give an unscripted, realistic feel. Russell, on the other hand, tends to incorporate footage of her friends and surroundings, using voiceover when necessary. These videos often depict their subject matter, be it McGill-related or otherwise, at its best, most exciting moments. There also exists, however, an ample amount of vlogs from students detailing their negative experiences at McGill. 

“As much as I remember watching videos where people seemed happy here, I also remember seeing a few videos of people who decided to transfer or were simply finding it difficult to keep up [with] this environment,” Rhéaume said. “I think that those [videos] are the most beneficial for incoming students because they can get a look into what it’s really like to be a student at McGill.”

Vlogging, as a medium, is difficult to adapt to; there is an inherent discomfort in talking into a camera, as Qamar and Russell both noticed at first. With practice comes comfort, but making videos requires a basic knowledge of video production. Thankfully, YouTube provides all the tools to learn how to effectively produce videos, from starting a channel to editing and camera tutorials. In the long-standing tradition of how-to guides from strangers on YouTube, the McGill vloggers show that the platform can provide you with practical information on anything—from producing a video to experiencing a campus online. 

While Russsell and Qamar started their channels to record their university experience, they both plan to continue their channel after graduation, branching out to more diverse topics to satisfy their growing followings. While the ‘McGill vlogger’ niche can only be occupied for so long, the ever-changing landscape of campus, residences, and atmosphere indicates that these vlogs might be in demand for a while. Furthermore, the administration finally seems to be catching on to the vlogging trend, too: Recently, Russell was approached to produce a video in collaboration with the McGill Alumni Association. Although the McGill vlogs have a limited audience, they represent a larger culture of vlogging that is changing the way that we narrate our stories and inform ourselves in the age of the Internet.

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