Almost three years ago I started talking to a camera. It felt uncomfortable and a bit weird, sitting in a spare room with the curtains closed, using a floor lamp for lighting. Explaining the merits of a few well-known jazz records to an audience that didn’t exist. Just me and my camera.
Fast forward a few months, and people online started to take a bit of notice. Comments started turning up on videos, saying ‘found u on 4chan’ or ‘my mate told me about this channel.’ Every step of the way, it’s never not been strange to know people recognise you online. My channel is a minuscule blot in comparison to the YouTube superstars, the pewdiepie’s and the Zoella’s. Which makes me wonder, how on earth do they deal with the crushing weight of fan expectations? I felt it enough when a few hundred people got angry that I didn’t like a certain record, never mind the storm of hate someone like Alfie Deyes has had from the community on an almost weekly basis. Granted, his ‘content’ is about as interesting as watching paint dry, (to me, at least), but the weight of expectation from an audience of over 10 million must be excruciating.
All of this has been documented, of course. Last summer, The Guardian and the Verge published stories about the infamous ‘YouTube burnout’, citing the struggles of demonetisation and an unfair algorithm. The top worry for a YouTuber though, is keeping those subscribers happy.
In my relatively limited experience, the feeling before posting a video is one of nerves. What if they don’t like this one? What if I’ve said something that irks them? What if, heaven forbid, the like ratio is low? In the first year of doing it, I would obsess over subscriber stats, comments, retention percentages. It was probably unhealthy, looking back. Now, imagine doing that for a job.
Back in 2012 I lived in London and worked for one of the biggest financial recruitment companies in the world. And it was hell. No matter how much blood, sweat and tears you put into your work, you’re only as good as your last week of billings. It’s just like being a content creator - you’re only as good as your last video. Subscribers can be incredibly fickle, turning on a creator if their content is all of a sudden deemed lower in quality than expected. If you have bills to pay based on your ability to please an ephemeral audience, you must spend most of your life tearing your hair out.
The new YouTube superstars are a confusing anomaly to our parent’s generation. It doesn’t make sense to them, removed from the structures of the standard mediums like television and radio. Why are you watching this girl talking in her bedroom about philosophy when you can read a book about it? It’s the new entertainment and the new education, and it’s disruptive as hell. It’s almost certainly disruptive to the mental health of the content creators, too.
In the end though, people can cite the platform itself or its questionable advertising strategies, but really its just the consequence of having a wealth of content available any time, anywhere. Some creators have turned to fan funding through companies like Patreon, which allows dedicated fans to pledge and keep the channels going. Just recently, three video games journalists left IGN to build their own channel. They only have 25,000 subscribers to date, which wouldn’t be enough to make a penny on YouTube in 2019. Luckily, their legion of thousands of fans are pledging them around £20,000 a MONTH, which allows them to focus on what their patrons want and think less about subscriber numbers, retention percentages, or even video views.
But, as long as UGC platforms exist, the weight of expectation on creators will probably also exist. I’m just glad I do it for fun.