Millions of people watch them each day around the world. Their audiences are young and tech-savvy and most people over 30 would be forgiven for never even having heard of them.
New research has revealed the names of the ten highest earning independent acts on YouTube. True their earnings may be miniscule compared to Steven Spielberg, James Cameron or Ben Stiller, but they have done something which for a long time nobody in the mainstream media industry believed was possible – turning what was essentially a bedroom hobby into serious money by uploading video or vlogs (video blogs) on the site.
It is estimated that 60,000 new films a week are added to YouTube – the equivalent of 12 hours of footage joins the world's most popular on-line video community each minute. But there among the vast digital landscape of bad lip-synching singers and unfunny TV bloopers are some emerging stars yet to be snapped up by an established media company or brand.
The research by TubeMogul, an analytics and internet advertising company, has revealed that at least 10 performers, writers and producers earned more than $100,000 (£65,000) each over the last 12 months from their short films which have achieved popularity largely through word of mouth.
Under a special partnership deal with the site, which is owned by search engine giant Google, original content creators are able to generate advertising revenues from their work and enjoy the same promotional benefits as more established stars. YouTube splits the revenue from banner ads 50-50 with its partners.
Nine of those that appeared in the top 10 are comics, including Shane Dawson, 22, a committed Christian who eschews sex before marriage, drugs and alcohol who was number one having earned an estimated $315,000 in the last 12 months from his near-the knuckle satirical videos.
Dawson, like many on the list, grew up with vlogging and see it as the natural arena for his talents. But many of the biggest names – such as The Annoying Orange created by Dane Boedigheimer – are already being eyed up by established media companies. In the two years since he has started posting his unique brand of humour, Dawson can lay claim to the fourth and ninth-most subscribed channel in history on YouTube, with total upload views of more than 249 million.
Increasing a website's number of hits is a notoriously dark art. Some on the list have been accused of so-called "tag loading", a process whereby vloggers can increase the number of hits they get by tagging material with search terms such as "Xbox" – which though unrelated to their work can drum up hundreds of thousands of extra views.
While some industry commentators suggested the earnings could be on the conservative side, other sources suggested they were close to the amounts earned. But Greg Benson of Mediocre Films, which came in at number seven in the survey, fiercely dismissed the figures. He said he loved his job and worked extremely hard – between 60-80 hours a week arranging shoots and working in front of his computer. He said: "I get asked this a lot. It's a fair question but it's kind of rude to ask someone how much money they make," he said.
"It's so wrong everything in the article appears to be wrong... I would be thrilled if I actually had any business being on that list or if I actually made that much money or had that many viewers that they say I have. That would be awesome. It would also be awesome if I could shit diamonds. But I can't do that either."
The $100,000-a-year stars
1. Shane Dawson
Estimated earnings from YouTube advertising on his video clips in past 12 months: $315,000 (£200,000). Views in that time: 431,787,450
Describing himself as an "innocent guy with a dirty mouth", the 22-year-old Californian's sketches include one of a vampire drinking menstrual blood and have earned him more than 250 million uploads. Success on YouTube has enabled Dawson to move out of his mother's house.
2. The Annoying Orange
$288,000. Views: 349,753,047
The obnoxious fruit that irritates the pips out of its fellow foodstuffs has proved a huge success for its creator, Dane Boedigheimer (daneboe), who recently celebrated one million subscribers to his own YouTube channel. The Orange is set to go mainstream with talks under way about a TV pilot.
3. Philip DeFranco
$181,000. Views: 248,735,032
Voted the world's sexiest geek by Wired.com readers in 2008, DeFranco created his Sxephil channel for YouTube while studying at East Carolina University. His eponymous video blog focuses on politics and gossip.
4. Ryan Higa
$151,000. Views: 206,979,909
Also known as Nigahiga, the Hawaiian-born Japanese-American evolved from lip-synching to original comedy and has had more than 150 million hits. Videos How to be Gangster and How to be Ninja went viral for him and his Yabo Crew.
$146,000. Views: 200,656,150
Lucas Cruikshank, 16, is the creator of the precocious, helium-voiced six-year-old whose videos shot with a $100 camera are said to have earned him more young fans than Hannah Montana. Soon to appear on Nickelodeon.
6. Shay Carl
$140,000. Views: 192,309,247
Behind the Shaycarl channel is a father-of-three from Idaho who used to be a radio DJ. He first broadcast his comic routines on YouTube in 2008 and has since produced more than 100 films. He now has three channels of his own.
7. Mediocre Films
$116,000. Views: 159,030,703
Comedy channel created by Greg Benson in 2006. Benson dismissed the findings of the survey as wrong, insisting he should not be in the Top 10. His best known work is Gorgeous Tiny Chicken Machine Show, written with his wife, which appeared in 2007.
$113,000. Views: 154,936,876
Described as the Saturday Night Live of YouTube by Time magazine, shaggy-haired comedy duo Anthony Padilla and Ian Hecox uploaded their first video in 2005. They were the No 1 YouTube channel in 2007 and are now the fifth most popular.
9. The Young Turks
$112,000. Views: 153,807,362
Hosted by Cenk Uygur, the longest-running online (liberal) political talkshow in the US was started in 2002 and averages 13 million hits a month. The company believes it can take on the networks at breaking stories.
10. Natalie Tran
$101,000. Views: 138,871,829
The 24-year-old Vietnamese-Australian is the No 1 Down Under. Her most popular video is How to Fake a Six-pack, parodying internet users' apparent obsession with getting a flat stomach. She has had 250 million hits worldwide.