LadBaby and the wild rise of the Facebook Famous


ONLY THREE ACTS in the UK have ever achieved a hat-trick of consecutive Christmas number ones. Two of them – The Beatles and the Spice Girls – are generation-defining artists who permanently altered the musical landscape and became global household names. The third is LadBaby, a 6ft 8in father from Nottingham with a penchant for sausage rolls.

In December 2020, LadBaby – real name Mark Hoyle – beat Mariah Carey and Justin Bieber to the festive top spot with “Don’t Stop Me Eatin’”, the third of the 34-year-old’s pastry-themed parody songs (after “We Built This City… On Sausage Rolls” and “I Love Sausage Rolls”). A month earlier, Hoyle partnered with Walkers to release limited-edition festive sausage roll-flavoured crisps and starred in an online-only advert with Gary Lineker.

Three Christmas hits, your own crisps: these are hallmarks of celebrity. There’s just one problem – neatly summarised by East 17 star Tony Mortimer around a minute and three seconds into Hoyle’s Walkers ad. Cocking his head towards LadBaby, Mortimer asks casually: “Who are you again, mate?”

LadBaby is Facebook Famous – in the last five years, he has accumulated over 5.3 million followers on the social network, where he posts pranks, hacks, and challenge videos with his wife Roxanne. Though Facebook remains the world’s largest social media site (with over 2.6 billion monthly active users), its creators don’t amass bigger followings as a result. The most-watched creator on Facebook, Supercar Blondie, has 37m followers, while both YouTube and TikTok’s top creators have over 100m.

And yet, LadBaby is more popular on Facebook than he is on any another platform – on YouTube he has just a fifth of his Facebook following, while he has 1.5m Instagram followers and 2.6m on TikTok (combined, this total is still smaller than his Facebook fandom). The content favoured on Facebook is fundamentally different to that favoured on other platforms: alongside family content like the Hoyle’s, magic and motivational speaking abound, as do candid camera shots. While there are some teen creators on the site, four of the five top creators featured in Facebook for Creators’ 2020 year in review are over 30.

The Facebook Famous occupy a strange place in popular culture, rarely cutting through to the mainstream. Over the last few years, YouTubers have earned spots on Britain’s biggest TV shows such as The Great British Bake Off and Strictly Come Dancing; meanwhile teen TikTokers are regularly featured in America’s paper of record, The New York Times. Hoyle rarely appears on prime-time television and has only done a handful of newspaper interviews.

And yet Facebook creators have loyal followings – the kind that can propel them to number one three years in a row. For £3.49 a month, anyone can become a LadBaby “Turbo” and get access to weekly exclusive content from the Hoyles.

“To us they are famous regardless, they’re always going to be famous, but why they’re not in the famous spotlight? I have no idea,” says Mandy, a 45-year-old LadBaby fan from Suffolk. “I think it’s a question many Turbos have asked.” Despite her fear of needles, Mandy has two LadBaby tattoos: “LadBaby Turbo 4 Life. Living my best life” with the logo and Hoyle’s catchphrase (“Yes mate!”) on her upper arm, and the limited-edition Walkers crisp packet on her wrist. “I like them. I love them. I adore them,” she says of Hoyle and Roxanne.

What does it mean to be Facebook Famous? A few years ago, you couldn’t click on an article about mega-YouTuber Zoella without reading the words “You’ve probably never heard of her…”. Although global coverage of internet stars has now rendered that cliche laughable, Facebook’s creators often remain contained in their corner of the internet. After Hoyle’s third number one, a flurry of headlines asked, “Who is LadBaby?”.

How did this strange, alternate type of fame come about? And what does it reveal about the strange stratification of the online world? Some of the answers may lie within LadBaby’s empire of sausage rolls.

“I DON’T THINK we’re famous, just popular,” Hoyle says over Zoom in early April, wearing a black Nike hoodie, fiddling with a blue plastic pen, and intermittently sipping from a “In my defence I was left unsupervised” novelty mug. “You can go somewhere like Asda and there’ll be one person who notices us and asks for a selfie and then twenty others watching like, ‘Who is that?’. It’s very funny, it’s odd.”

In 2017, Hoyle was at a three-year-old’s birthday party eating a “plateful of jelly” when he found out he’d gone viral. A year and a half earlier, he’d first set up a parenting blog and accompanying Facebook page. “There were lots of mum bloggers doing funny things but I didn’t feel like there were normal working class dads who had three kids and were plumbers or had two kids and worked in a chippy,” he says. In June 2017, he made his first video, filming himself replacing his son’s lost lunchbox with a toolbox; his wife Roxanne’s exasperated reaction has since become a signature of the brand.r

After posting and forgetting about the video, Hoyle was approached by another dad at the birthday party the next day. “He said to me, ‘Your Facebook video is doing well, it has 500,000 views.’ I thought he meant 500 views because I only had 1,000 followers.” A day later, Hoyle hit a million views and social publisher LADbible asked if it could reupload the clip. Hoyle gained 25,000 followers. “I figured I should probably do more videos,” he says.

LADbible’s reupload now has over 67m views, but the early days of Facebook fame were not necessarily lucrative for creators. In the mid-2010s, Facebook favoured publishers over personalities – when the site first introduced video monetisation in 2015, it invited traditional media producers such as Hearst and Fox to profit from the scheme. Facebook enticed old media onto its platform by overstating its video metrics, while new publishers simultaneously sprung up to capitalise on the apparent boom. Pages such as UNILAD, LADbible, Tastemade, and BuzzFeed’s Tasty quickly dominated the social network.

Alex Hobern, a 28-year-old from London, is uniquely placed to explain how the platform differed for publishers and personalities at the time. Between 2015 and 2017, Hobern worked for UNILAD – after learning the tricks of the viral trade, he decided to make his own comedy page. “That was the glory days of Facebook, where you could cough and get a billion views a month,” Hobern says of UNILAD, which grew by republishing viral videos. Though Hobern’s personal page was successful – it now has nearly 300,000 followers and his most popular video has 7.1m views – the structure of the platform meant that Facebook creators ended up faceless.

“The consumption of media on Facebook was so passive,” Hobern says – since 2013, videos have autoplayed on the site; with one flowing into the other, there was little time to consider whose hands were cooking a cheese-stuffed pizza pretzel, who it was cutting hair with swords, or who owned the dog in a food coma. The trend of big publishers reuploading random videos anonymised creatives. Content theft was rampant. Facebook’s “Share” button also confused people into associating videos with the friends who shared them rather than their actual creators. While other platforms paved the way for global superstardom, Facebook presented its creators with an uphill struggle.

“I had maybe 200 million views from my time on there, and not one person stopped me in the street,” says Hobern, who is now creative director at Wildfire Social, a marketing agency. In 2018 he created a TikTok account and now has over 450,000 followers. “As soon as I got big on TikTok, it was a completely different thing,” he says. For one, fans now excitedly gather round him at conventions. “I was making content on Facebook that was performing extremely well, without any real financial benefit or any real kind of fame.”

In 2017, Facebook first began testing in-stream video ads that allowed creators to monetise their content – LadBaby managed to hit one million followers by the end of the year, but the platform’s focus on publishers remained frustrating. “It was really hard to penetrate the mainframe, to get someone over there who we could talk to,” Hoyle says, explaining he was only allocated a representative at Facebook around two years ago, while YouTube offered him a partner manager “very early on”. “I wanted to talk to them to hear about ways in which we could improve our videos or grow quicker, and it was really hard to find anyone.”

Facebook’s complicated history with its creators explains why they struggled on the sidelines while YouTubers went mainstream. Without a direct line to Facebook, creatives were left blindsided by changes to its algorithm: in 2018, it updated its News Feed to prioritise friends and family over brands and media. To compensate for a loss of organic reach, many media companies began to pay to boost their content, something individual creators often felt unable to do (neither Hoyle nor Hobern have ever put money behind their videos).

Brooke Erin Duffy, a communications professor at Cornell University, says Facebook earned a “pay-to-play” reputation. “Creators I’ve interviewed find it especially difficult to garner visibility on the platform without relying on paid mechanisms,” she says. As a result, few use Facebook as their primary platform.

And then there’s LadBaby. Last year Hoyle was able to quit his job as a graphic designer and become a full-time content creator. Every Sunday at around 9pm he and his wife release a new video between three to ten minutes long: at the time of writing, their latest, with 2.7m views, features Hoyle giving Roxanne a “new car” which turns out to be Little Tikes Cozy Coupe.

“We have a family, mortgage to pay, kids to look after, we couldn’t afford for it not to work,” Hoyle says. “It’s quite a risk to leave a job you went to uni for and have spent ten years working at. Luckily things are going well.” Part of that is down to LadBaby gradually building an engaged community of fans – but part if it is also down to a dramatic shift at Facebook.

BETWEEN 2019 AND 2020, the number of content creators earning $10,000 (£7,200) a month on Facebook grew by 88 per cent. It’s a striking statistic – both the earnings, and the growth – but Marne Levine, head of global partnerships, business and corporate development for Facebook, is coy about whether it reveals a change in Facebook’s attitudes to creators. “It’s a continuation of what we’ve been doing,” she says.. “Facebook is uniquely positioned for creators to turn their passions into their professions.”

In the last two years, Facebook has launched a number of monetisation tools. In 2019, the launch of “Facebook Stars” let fans directly show their appreciation for creators, who earn a penny for every Star sent. Facebook also expanded access to “fan subscriptions” in June 2020: audiences can now pay a monthly recurring fee to creators for exclusive content (hence LadBaby’s “Turbos”). This March, Facebook also widened the eligibility criteria for in-stream ads, meaning more creators can directly make money from their content. Creators can also make money on Facebook through paid live events and by finding sponsorships through its “Brand Collabs Manager”.

In practice, this means that in-stream ad pay-outs have grown by over 55 per cent since 2019, while in the last six months people have sent Facebook creators an average of one billion Stars a month, equal to $10m (£7m). It’s too simple to say creators have struck gold – just one million people currently pay subscriptions to creators across the whole platform – but it’s clear Facebook fame is more lucrative than ever.

“I think these things take time,” Levine says when pressed on whether these tools mean Facebook’s attitude to creators has shifted. “It’s not just about how the creator wants to engage with the community, but also how a community wants to engage with the creator.” (In recent years, the web has undoubtedly gone through a subscription boom.)

LadBaby has benefited greatly from Facebook’s monetisation tools; he says that after quitting his job he values being able to spend time at home with his sons. Another person whose life has changed is Sophie McCartney, a 36-year-old from Cheshire, known as Tired ‘N Tested to her one million Facebook fans.

“I’ve been able to out-earn whatever I earned when I was a senior account manager at a top PR agency in Manchester,” she says. The mother of two says her life has been “completely changed” by Facebook – while she doesn’t use Stars or subscriptions, she makes a sizable income from advertising revenue and sponsorships and now performs stand-up comedy and writes books. “It might not be as cool as TikTok, but for me – in terms of my career, my earning potential, my life ambitions – they’ve all come from just taking a punt and putting that first video out on Facebook.”

That first video was a parody parenting song set to the tune of Ed Sheeran’s “Shape Of You”. “I popped it up on Facebook and by about eight o’clock in the evening it had a million views,” McCartney says of the 2017 clip. Like Hoyle, McCartney has far more followers on Facebook than any other platform (on Instagram she has 240,000 while on YouTube she has just 8,400).

The kind of content that went viral on Facebook a few years ago wasn’t too different to the kind you see elsewhere on the web: cats, pizza, cats eating pizza. Today, however, Facebook content has its own distinct style. Parody songs are popular (as anyone in a family WhatsApp group can attest). Holding up handwritten signs to the camera is still very much in vogue. You don’t have to look far to find sad clips with life lessons, but it’s equally easy to stumble upon sordid, sexualised videos (sometimes these two genres are found on the same page). It all adds up to make Facebook’s viral hits remarkably distinct.

“FACEBOOK LOVES RAW content,” says Julius Dein, a 26-year-old creator with over 34 million followers on the platform. Dein – who first went viral filming himself performing magic tricks on the streets of London – now lives with his team of 20 creators in Mexico and claims to currently have the number one most viewed page on Facebook (Facebook doesn’t compile rankings internally so Dein monitors his success via Tubular Labs, an analytics tool.) “YouTube videos can be highly produced, whereas on Facebook it’s filmed on a phone, it’s filmed in portrait mode, it doesn’t have cuts and zooms and pop-ups.”

McCartney agrees that raw content performs best – she quickly abandoned “a big fancy Canon camera” she purchased as it made her videos “too professional”. The Hoyles also film everything on their phones: in lieu of a tripod, LadBaby likes to prop his phone on a big Sports Direct mug, and he uses free apps to edit his content. While aspirational content dominates most social networks, Facebook content seems altogether more down-to-earth.

“They’re just normal people,” says Mandy, the LadBaby fan. “I’ve never followed anyone in my whole entire life and, literally, I couldn’t think of anybody else I want to follow.” The Hoyles have opened up about their past financial difficulties, and proceeds from their Christmas singles (and 5p from every pack of their sausage roll crisps sold) were donated to food bank charity the Trussell Trust. Mandy, who has used food banks in the past, bought LadBaby’s first charity single twice and streamed it on a loop 24/7 to help it reach number one. “I turned the volume down and played it all night,” she says.

There are a few reasons Facebook users, in particular, might favour rawer, less ostentatious content. The first is that the structure of the News Feed means viral videos are mixed up with updates from friends and family, weakening the creator-audience divide and making influencers seem like old friends. “On Facebook it feels like people want to have a conversation,” Hoyle says. Then, of course, there’s Facebook’s shifting demographics: in recent years, there has been an exodus of young people and a surge in older people using the platform. “It maybe takes it back to basics of how social media first was: less flashy,” says McCartney, whose core viewers are aged 24 to 45. “I wonder whether it’s because the audience is a little bit older.”

Audiences are also surprisingly global – Hobern’s fans are largely from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, so “modern Mr. Bean” behaviour “which you don’t actually have to speak our language to understand” resonated well. Dein, whose 34 million viewers are also very international (just two million are from America and less than a million are from the UK) reiterates this: “The best type of content is the content that can be understandable without sound.”

In a video entitled “AN ANGEL SAVED HIM…” uploaded to the Julius Dein Facebook page in May 2020, a man massages a woman while a subtitle warns, “SOMETHING TERRIBLE IS ABOUT TO HAPPEN…”. In the video – mocked up to look like CCTV footage – the masseuse has an asthma attack before his client rescues him with her inhaler. Despite the simplicity of this synopsis, the video actually lasts for over three minutes and is backed by pulsing, dramatic music. Like many similar videos on Dein’s page – fake CCTV footage of wives cheating, perverts peeping, thieves thieving – the clip is captioned with a disclaimer. “Please be aware that this page features Magic Effects/Illusions as well as scripted dramas and parodies. These short films are for entertainment purposes only!”

These clearly fake candid camera clips are a popular and bizarre format on Facebook. “People love drama, and people love stories,” Dein says. “My team are filmmakers, so we saw real life scenarios and wanted to bring light to these scenarios and send a positive message.” (The asthma video ends with the words, “More than 3,500 people die of asthma each year… Don’t forget to carry your inhaler.”)

Some people may have a less generous interpretation: big red circles and bigger yellow letters can give this format a clickbait-y feel. Dein admits that remaining popular on Facebook is “a fight against the algorithm every single day”. Though his life has been changed by his videos (“I have a huge villa. We have a chef, we have a personal trainer”) he doesn’t necessarily believe Facebook is an easy option for creatives. “It is difficult. It’s challenging. Every single day I sit with my team and we talk about what will work on Facebook. It’s all we think about. We’re creating original content specifically tailored to be liked.”

This fight against the algorithm is undoubtedly a by-product of Facebook’s approach to creators: Hobern points out that while TikTok sends its creators a weekly newsletter of hashtags to use in order to boost their chances of trending. Hobern says he has received “one or two emails from Facebook” during his time on the platform. Hoyle, for what it’s worth, says he doesn’t allow metrics to dictate his content: “We have a rule that if it makes me and Rox laugh, that’s okay.”

FACEBOOK HAS NEVER been a medium solely for creators – it’s a place where you follow friends, family and news alike, where you plan birthday parties, join hobbyist (or conspiracy) groups and sell your old mugs. The Facebook Famous exist because of Facebook’s remarkable scale, but this is also why their fame can easily go ignored. Mainstream coverage of Hoyle often refers to him as a “YouTuber”. Nobody ever talks of “Facebookers”. And yet, for Facebookers, life isn’t remotely bad. “It’s mental that I’m in the same conversation as The Beatles and the Spice Girls,” Hoyle says, “Obviously we aren’t as well-known as them, but we’re alongside them in the history books.”

TikTok isn’t for teenagers and Facebook isn’t for the middle-aged – both platforms are so massive that it’s reductive to sum them up in that way. But two distinct worlds do exist: in the words of journalist Julia Alexander, “there’s a reason your mum sends you a Facebook video, but your cousin sends a YouTube link.” This reputation may explain Facebookers’ relative lack of exposure: older audiences are less appealing to the online advertisers and reality TV shows who use content creators to attract younger audiences. At the same time, Facebook’s effect on modern democracy has understandably dominated coverage of the platform.

But, if you stop and pay attention to the Facebook Famous, you can learn a lot: about how fragmented the internet is; about how platforms influence creativity; about how trends don’t develop in tandem across the web. By now, you’ve heard of Zoella. You know who Charli D’Amelio is. LadBaby’s name is worth learning too.

About the author

Adeline Darrow
By Adeline Darrow


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