YouTubers' Reality: Famous And Barely Getting By

A real part of the charm of YouTube and its influencers is that to their fans, they’re just folks. Not only can a young YouTube viewer imagine that the vlogger they follow is just like them, there’s a ton of proof of it. They use the same make-up, they like the same video games.

They’re real and having a real, good time.

A fantastic piece YouTube vlogger Gaby Dunn wrote for  should make all of us rethink that wild piece of fiction. Dunn, like many other (how many other?) vloggers, is living paycheck to paycheck, but to the outside world, she’s a star.

Dunn rips into the bad business model in which a performer swims upstream on a platform that keeps attracting vloggers by the bushel. She writes that  “like many other areas of the economy, YouTube has a basic supply and demand problem. Everybody wants to be there, so fledgling performers put up with a lot because they want to be famous.”



Dunn starts her piece by recounting how Brittany Ashley, a star performer on Buzzfeed sites, found herself serving them at Buzzfeed’s Golden Globes private party at a trendy restaurant. When some diners recognized her, they asked if her serving tray was part of “ a bit.”  It’s not.

“Hers just wasn’t the breezy, glamorous life people expected from her,” Dunn writes. “Customers had approached her at work before, starstruck but confused. Why would someone with 90,000 Instagram followers be serving brunch?”

She writes, “Platforms like YouTube mirror the U.S. economy’s yawning wealth gap, and being a part of YouTube’s ‘middle class’ often means grappling daily with the cognitive dissonance of a full comments section and an empty wallet.”

YouTubers aren’t the only badly compensated media people. I’ve known journalists who’ve catered black tie media events; in smaller markets poorly paid anchormen and women drive miles away to buy their on-air clothes so they’re not recognized. Still, the myth of YouTube is that people just like you are off on spending sprees, with not a care in the world.

Dunn’s piece, “Get rich or die vlogging: The sad economics of Internet fame” is a poignant, and not too whiny account of life on the other side from where PewDiePie and Jenna Marbles live. There are far more vloggers who, in Dunn’s telling of it, are in an economically murky place.

“The disconnect between Internet fame and financial security is hard to comprehend for both creators and fans,” she writes. “But it’s the crux of many mid-level Web personalities’ lives. Take moderately successful YouTubers, for example. Connor Manning, an LGBT vlogger with 70,000 subscribers, was recognized six times selling memberships at the Baltimore Aquarium. Rosianna Halse Rojas, who has her own books and lifestyle channel and is also YouTube king John Green’s producing partner, has had people freak out at her TopMan register. Rachel Whitehurst, whose beauty and sexuality vlog has 160,000 subscribers, was forced to quit her job at Starbucks because fans memorized her schedule.

“In other words: Many famous social media stars are too visible to have ‘real’ jobs, but too broke not to.”

Certainly, most of these people put on a very good act. When you see a vlogger hawking a product, or talk to them about it in person, their enthusiasm seems wholly unstaged, and I’m sure most of the time it is.

But Dunn  says a popular YouTuber’s “business is predicated on ‘hey, I’m just like you.’

“That means fans don’t want to see that you’re explicitly on the hustle. Whether they realize it or not, they dictate our every financial move. Every time Allison [her YouTube partner Allison Raskin] and I post a branded video—a YouTuber’s bread and butter—we make money but lose subscribers. A video we created for a skincare line, for instance, drew ire from fans writing ‘ENOUGH WITH THE PRODUCT PLACEMENT,’ despite this being our third branded video ever. One dismissively chided us, ‘Gotta get that YouTube money, I guess’ with no acknowledgment of the two years of free videos we’d released prior. Another told us they hated ads because they had ‘high expectations of us.’

Dunn touched a nerve, I’m sure, that is going to be revisited by other YouTubers and viewers. It’s a piece marketers should read because the points she raises aren’t going to go away.

8 comments about "YouTubers' Reality: Famous And Barely Getting By".
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  1. Doug Garnett from Protonik, LLC, December 15, 2015 at 1:31 p.m.

    Great read. Thanks, PJ. It's fascinating how much of the internet is driven by very outsized mythology. Yes, all things run on mythology. But online it seems so much bigger.

    Maybe it's the big numbers. Here's a bit I wrote about the difference between big online numbers and meaningful numbers... Perhaps it's the monetization... Kind of like cashing in AmEx points. 100,000 points gets you a few hundred shopping dollars. 4 million followers is equivalent to $1,000 per month in income? Would love it if someone created the math. :-)

  2. Todd Koerner from e-merge Media, December 15, 2015 at 2:15 p.m.

    This is a rather eye-opening (or sobering) piece on the illusion of fame that YouTube grants its creators, and the reality of supply and demand in a friction-less distribution universe.

  3. pj bednarski from replied, December 15, 2015 at 5:15 p.m.

    Thanks, Doug. I'll read it now. 

  4. pj bednarski from, December 15, 2015 at 5:24 p.m.

    Just read it Doug, and your big, mind-boggling numbers observation is something I think about a lot What if TV graded itself on how many minutes each one of its viewers watched? Pretty impressive. B

    But YouTube minutes and comments are relevant to users because every visitor instantly knows if they're seeing something viral or something worthless. No other medium I can think of tells you, upfront, about the value others put on every piece of content.

  5. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited replied, December 15, 2015 at 7:05 p.m.

    Doug, you are spot on. If more vloggers took more math courses, plan B would pay more. On one hand there is a difference between a hobby and a job especially in this case when the fragmentation increases every minute and the high turnover of youthful performers. On the other hand, the odds of fortune coming with that fame are not promising.

  6. Ruth Ayres from Harte-Hanks, December 16, 2015 at 7:50 a.m.

    Paris Hilton. Kim Kardashian.  People who become famous entertainers for showing you how they do their breezy lifestyle used to be rich to begin with.  These kids tried to copy them without the money. End of story.

  7. Doug Garnett from Protonik, LLC, December 16, 2015 at 5:12 p.m.

    PJ... Thanks. BTW, it's not that I think the numbers unimportant - they can tell us quite a bit. As you point out, minutes and comments are quite useful. You may be right about the value... And yet I still find it difficult to know even with comments and views. :-)

  8. larry towers from nyu, December 16, 2015 at 5:30 p.m.

    What the referenced article proves is how much capitalism rips people off. You tube makes millions while the content creators still have to work day jobs.

    In a diffeent article i reads that comcast is stating to meter data consumption. IOmagine that yet another corporation making money from the content produced bypeople that can't feed themselves. There is something fundamentally wrong with this model. The producers of content should be getting the lions share of profits, not the gatekeepers. After all without the content no one wants the data or the ads. Can you imagine if Fed ex or UPS made more on delivery services than the costs of the products being delivered? Yet the deliverers and distributors of media are doing this.

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