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 Fusion.com 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.