Who is behind that popular YouTube channel featuring Anna and Elsa dolls?

April 24, 2020

There’s a popular YouTube channel that my Little One will watch every opportunity she can. It’s called Come Play With Me and has more than 7.4 million subscribers. A brief search suggests it’s a wildly profitable channel, with Social Blade giving a low-end estimate of $68,000 monthly income.

For the uninitiated, the channel is essentially a soap opera in the form of imaginative play acted out by two girls controlling dolls mainly from Disney toy lines. The two dolls at the center of almost every episode are the “child” versions of Anna and Elsa from Frozen, though in this universe, the children are named “Anya” and “Elsya” to distinguish them from the adult versions. Other dolls show up here and there, too — the “adult” Anna is Anya’s mother, the “adult” Elsa is Elsya’s mother, and occasionally we see Kristoff, Barbies, LOL figurines, and more.

I’m not the target demographic, but I think the show is attractive to young children because A) it features recognizable characters (the use of which would be an interesting test of fair use) and B) it’s exceptionally well-edited despite the ultra-low-budget production value.

It’s a credit to the show’s producers that I can’t tell how much is scripted and how much is improvised. Though the show’s conceit is that two girls, who we never see, are controlling the dolls with their hands and voicing them, there are multiple edits and reasonably clear story arcs.

The show isn’t “good” in a conventional sense. The stories involve Anya and Elsya mistreating each other and then resolving their conflict in Full House-esque style, and there’s no “meaning” to these stories beyond their surface text. That is, a show like Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood features its young children characters having conflicts and resolving them, too, but it’s obvious that Daniel Tiger is aiming to give children the tools to deal with their feelings, themselves. Comparatively, CPWM is messy drama for drama’s sake.

Perhaps the most interesting element is that, like many other YouTube channels, its creators are virtually anonymous. I say “virtually” because even though they pretty clearly don’t want to publicize themselves, there are a few clues as to who is making this incredibly popular and profitable show.

There are a couple early videos that show the two girls’ faces, from a period when it was making a bid to be an open sponcon channel, like Ryan’s World (24.7 million subscribers). The girls’ voices, even in the newer videos, seem to have a slight accent, and there’s an adult male with a much heavier accent who also voices some characters, but I can’t place where its from. Furthermore, an associated Twitter account has links to several unlisted YouTube videos on the Come Play With Me channel from several years ago that feature an adult woman with a heavy accent unboxing toys and other products. Several of their videos are shot outside, and given the American street signs in the distance, the plants, and the wildlife, there’s reason to believe they’re based in Florida. Finally, they’ve shot some videos on beaches, and at least one shows a concrete pier of a type that I know is common on the Florida Gulf coast.

But without names or a panopticon that could match faces captured from YouTube videos to private photos on Facebook (if they even use Facebook for personal connections), it’s unlikely anyone can identify who these people are.

The source of these videos matters. I would understand if they want to live as comfortable a life as possible, and therefore choose to keep their identities private*, but they’re also making videos that they explicitly say are “kid friendly” and placing their videos in YouTube’s kids section, which means they ought to be accountable for publishing kid-friendly content to a level that isn’t really necessary for content aimed at older people.

You probably wouldn’t recognize Angela Santomero walking down the street, but as co-creator and executive producer of Blue’s Clues and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, she’s had a massive impact on millions of children’s lives. Moreover, while she may not be widely recognizable, her name is on every episode of those shows. If one of those shows messes up — say, O the Owl drops a slur — we know who to hold accountable. In the case of Come Play With Me, we only have YouTube, which doesn’t exactly have a spotless track record of putting young viewers’ best interests first.

Moreover, lest you still think a family stumbled into a million-dollar business just by letting their children be themselves and pointing the camera, understand that there’s evidence of a certain level of sophistication that, again, suggests there’s more to who’s running the channel than that.

Note that, from the beginning, virtually every video still available on the channel uses promotional tactics, with the children asking viewers to like and subscribe. Note that in the older videos, like this one posted in 2015, the video descriptions spammed keywords and links to their other videos (the Frozen Fever short was released in March 2015). Note that they have another channel, called Funny Lion, in which the adults’ disembodied hands play with toys. And note that in addition to the Twitter account, there’s a Facebook page, Instagram, Pinterest, Blogger site, and perhaps even a Flickr account all apparently associated with the YouTube channel and automatically reposting content, some of them starting on Day One.

Looking at the old Facebook page posts is fascinating because, often, when someone starts a new publication or project, the first people they ask to watch and like and subscribe are family and friends. After all, you’d think this family’s social circles might be interested in the channel simply because they’re actual friends! However, almost all of the likes on the early Facebook posts are from Filipino accounts, with no Americans present at all. (I’m half-Filipino, so I feel pretty qualified to say the family’s accents aren’t Filipino, but, to properly hedge, that doesn’t necessarily rule out that the family has Filipino social circles and/or roots.)

There was gradual growth in the number of likes for each video starting in March 2015 until the spring of 2017, with some posts exceeding 100 likes, at which point they posted a link to a video that currently has 42,000 likes on Facebook. The next few videos didn’t crack more than 200 likes, but then another video garnered 39,000 likes. From that point forward, all the Facebook posts had thousands of likes — until, at some point, there must have been a purge because the Facebook page now has 12,000+ followers and starting with the March 30, 2019 video, none of the posts have reached more than 42 likes, despite the videos, themselves, attaining millions of views.

To be sure, now there is an organic audience, but it appears to be some combination of YouTube’s algorithm surfacing Come Play With Me to new users, kids or parents searching for Anna and Elsa and coming across the channel, and more parents and children making it a habit to watch and rewatch YouTube, generally, including the Anya and Elsya soap opera.

Why does YouTube surface this particular channel? Beats me, as I’m no social media expert, but I do know that though it’s better than some random Joe pointing an iPhone at the toys on the floor, the show doesn’t hold a candle to a run-of-the-mill PBS kids show when it comes to thoughtfulness and utility to children’s lives. Where it has an advantage over PBS’s offerings in gaining audience is the creators have piggybacked on Disney’s intellectual property and the stories offer a kid version of Real Housewives or other junk food TV with drama for drama’s sake, none of which PBS or other responsible children’s content producers would intentionally send into the world.

Even though some were predicting major changes to YouTube’s kids channels in 2020, Come Play With Me has maintained steady subscriber growth all year, according to Social Blade. That’s all well and good for them, but I’ve reached my limit, and I’ve blocked it. If we want to watch Frozen, we'll watch Frozen, and if my child wants to watch a show about children dealing with their problems, we can do better than this.

*Because you might be thinking it, my identity is not a secret; it just requires a couple steps to find, and I don’t have my name here or on my Twitter account simply so it’s not obvious.

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(Photo: "Disney Frozen Dolls" by Mike Mozart. Used under CC BY 2.0 license.)