Ryan is your average five-year-old. He likes playing with toy cars, riding tricycles, and going down water slides. His mom, like most parents, loves to capture and share these moments. What’s different about Ryan is that these everyday events — opening a new action figure or going to Chuck E. Cheese’s — are watched around the world by hundreds of millions of other kids.
The family’s channel, Ryan ToysReview, was created in March of 2015, and initially, didn’t get many views. But about four months in, the channel published this video, and views started doubling with every passing month. Ryan’s mom, who has so far declined to share her name, left her job as a high school chemistry teacher to work on the YouTube channel full time.
For the last 18 weeks and counting, Ryan ToysReview has been the most popular channel on YouTube in the US, and the second largest in the world, a bigger attraction than household names like PewDiePie and Justin Bieber, and media empires like BuzzFeed, The Tonight Show, and the WWE. That viewership translates to around $1 million a month in advertising revenue alone.
“He is definitely the youngest YouTube star we’ve ever seen,” said Josh Cohen, an industry analyst and founder of TubeFilter. When the channel launched, Ryan was just three years old. “It’s the biggest of this genre of programming that is getting billions of views a week on YouTube. Really nobody is talking about it, but it’s crazy once you start scratching the surface.”
The phenomenon of reviewing toys on YouTube isn’t new. In the fall of 2013, a channel called DisneyCollecterBR made its way into the top 10 most-viewed channels. It was run by an adult woman who never showed her face. She opened toys and played with them, speaking softly, never moving the camera from a single closeup shot. By the summer of 2014, she routinely topped the list of the most-viewed channels in the US.
The genre skyrocketed once kids became the hosts. In March of last year, just as Ryan’s family was launching their channel, media outlets were reporting on another family that struck rich by sharing videos of their children simply playing with toys. According to a reportfrom The Guardian, 20 of the top 100 channels on YouTube are focused on toys, collecting upwards of 4.5 billion views a month. Before Ryan stepped in front of the camera, he was a viewer.
“Ryan was watching a lot of toy review channels — some of his favorites are EvanTubeHD and Hulyan Maya — because they used to make a lot of videos about Thomas The Tank Engine, and Ryan was super into Thomas,” his mother explained in an interview with TubeFilter. “One day, he asked me, ‘How come I’m not on YouTube when all the other kids are?’ So we just decided — yeah, we can do that. Then, we took him to the store to get his very first toy — I think it was a Lego train set — and it all started from there.”
But while Ryan’s channel is part of a broader trend, it has achieved a scale unlike anything that came before it. Less than two years old, Ryan ToysReview already has 5.5 million subscribers, more than the two channels that inspired it combined. Produced by his mother, Ryan’s channel has perfected the art of this strange new genre, a mash-up of personal vlog and “unboxing” video, a blend of innocent childhood antics and relentless, often overwhelming consumerism.
The premise of the channel, as the name implies, is that Ryan reviews toys. And in the first video ever posted to the channel, which you can see above, he does just that, at least to the degree a three-year-old can articulate his thoughts on a set of Lego Duplo blocks. He “unboxes” the pieces, sets them up, and plays. The video is slow and static, a single shot held for nearly 10 minutes. Ryan takes his time building and playing. He signs off with a simple wave and “see you next time.”
But over time, the act of reviewing toys has swelled into something very different. In the second video, Ryan is up to two toys, and over time the videos have grown to feature dozens of toys in a single episode. In the most popular clip the channel has posted, Ryan is given a hundred toys at once. We only see Ryan playing with each toy for a few seconds, and by the end he’s wading through a huge pile of freshly opened and quickly cast off toys, shoveling them on top of one another. The video has 568 million views.
In more recent clips, the pretense of Ryan actually playing with certain toys has been totally cast aside. Listen to Ryan dutifully speak his lines in the video below. He prepares to open a plastic egg. “I wonder what’s inside it. I’m so excited,” he says, his voice devoid of both wonder and excitement.