Episode 8: Half the Story
Is being a YouTuber or influencer a viable career?
At the beginning of 2018, the UK charity “Education and Employers” released the results of a survey of British school children. They asked 13,000 kids to draw what they wanted to be when they grew up. The top three professions were unsurprising: kids pictured themselves as athletes, teachers, and veterinarians. But the fourth was perhaps a sign of the times: 6 percent wanted to work in social media or online gaming. In fact, the survey found that a career as a professional YouTuber or livestreamer was now more popular than a career as professional musician or actor. Those jobs had fallen to #13 in popularity.
In this episode we ask whether being a YouTuber or influencer is a viable career, and hear the stories of three people who were forced to make big life changes when the pressure of feeding a social algorithm became too much. We hear from a fashion influencer who grew tired of only telling half the story. We talk to a mother whose young daughter felt pressured to maintain a YouTube channel by her record label. And we speak to a videogames YouTuber who struggled to cope with the constant flow of comments.
Quotes From the Episode
“There’s also the fact that you have a fickle audience who generally follow you on the upward path and have a particular vision of what they feel you should be like and how you should present yourself. So if you change in any way at all, then suddenly they kind of wonder why you have. So you’re kind of held in suspended animation, because what brought you to success is what will keep you there, so you have to keep doing the same thing over and over again.” — Chris Stokel-Walker
“You can put her in front of a mic and a piano and she can play to a room full of strangers, but she’s actually an introvert and this idea of having to sell herself and put up pictures of what she was eating for dinner and her cat and her new shoes felt hugely invasive. And yet that’s what the expectation was. That’s what she kept being told.”— Sara Perkins
“I had this lightbulb moment when I was at Fashion Week and I had a total anxiety attack that I was really only showing half the story and I wasn’t the only one. It was me, it was peers in the industry, it was also students on the Vanderbilt campus.” — Larissa May
“And now success for me is success for all and… it’s about changing the conversation for everyone on social media, creating a more connected space, bringing awareness about mental health and actually delivering these resources to individuals around the world.”— Larissa May
“The human brain cannot deal with reading hundreds of comments which are about you, by people you don’t know openly saying what they think about you. We’ve invented all these incredible tools for communication, but I think that when you have these hub networks like this, they just give people such access directly to people. I feel like there’s something fundamentally that we’re just not built for that.” — Matt Lees
“I think that it leads to a culture of burnout in the fact that the expectation is that you will constantly keep putting stuff out and keep working hard and keep doing what you’ve asked to do. And when you don’t, when you can’t do it anymore, you’ll be forgotten, and new people will come and take your place.” — Matt Lees
Sara Perkins, Senior Manager, Digital & Social Media at Pearson, and mother of two musicians.
Journalist Chris Stokel-Walker has written about social media influencers for publications like Wired, The Guardian, and Bloomberg.
Matt Lees runs a couple of YouTube channels — “Shut Up & Sit Down” about boardgames and “Cool Ghosts” about videogames.
This week’s unsung hero is Sophie Deen, author of Detective Dot — a book to encourage girls to be curious and code. Sophie is also the founder of Bright Little Labs.
LARISSA: Yeah so when I was at Vanderbilt University, I started a fashion blog. I literally just started taking photos outside of my dorm room. I would do everything from going to rent clothes from brands that I liked, to interviewing and just emailing everyone in the fashion industry to try to build some sort of following.
HOST: That’s Larissa May, a former Instagram fashion influencer and, now, founder of non-profit #HalfTheStory.
LARISSA: I started a fashion blog because I had a goal… it also was a really big part of building my career.
HOST: Even during college, Larissa hustled hard to get fashion-world experience. She interned and lived in LA, New York, and Paris. She covered both New York Fashion Week and, as an exchange student, Paris Fashion Week too. She even spent one of her birthdays behind the scenes of a photo shoot with Sophia Bush. And, of course, she captured it all for her social media accounts.
LARISSA: I went back to Vanderbilt and started consulting with a number of brands and sort of built my own social media business when I was in school. I really just had my hands in a lot of different things.
HOST: But even as she was experiencing the glitz and glamour, just beyond the frame of her Instagram-perfect life, things were beginning to fall apart.
LARISSA: I started struggling with mental health, specifically depression and anxiety and a lot of that was related to social media and although I couldn’t get up and go to class and was having suicidal thoughts, I would still get up to take photos for my fashion blog.
HOST: At the beginning of 2018, the UK charity “Education and Employers” released the results of a survey of British school children. They asked 13,000 kids to draw what they wanted to be when they grew up. The top three professions were unsurprising: kids pictured themselves as athletes, teachers, and veterinarians. But the fourth was perhaps a sign of the times: 6 percent wanted to work in social media or online gaming. In fact, the survey found that a career as a professional YouTuber or livestreamer was now more popular than a career as professional musician or actor. Those jobs had fallen to #13 in popularity.
As a career choice, the appeal of becoming a YouTuber or influencer is understandable. Just glance at the profiles of some of the world’s most successful social media stars and the story they tell is one of adventure, fun and glamour.
But, as Larrissa found out, that is not the full picture. In this episode we’ve going to look at what the other half of that story looks like and ask: is social media a viable career? We’ll hear three stories of creators who achieved some level of social media “success” and what they did, or didn’t do, with it.
This is Nevertheless, a podcast about learning in the modern age, and I’m your host Leigh Alexander.
Larissa’s career as a fashion blogger and Instagram influencer lasted four years. By the time she realized that being an influencer wasn’t for her, she had already garnered 15,000 followers and was working with brands like Coach, Rebecca Minkoff, and Teen Vogue.
LARISSA: I had this lightbulb moment when I was at Fashion Week and I had a total anxiety attack that I was really only showing half the story and I wasn’t the only one. It was me, it was peers in the industry, it was also students on the Vanderbilt campus.
HOST: In May this year one of Larrissa’s peers, Elle Mills, posted a video to YouTube.
The video was titled ‘Burnout at 19’.
Other prominent YouTubers such as PewDiePie and Jake Paul have joined Larissa and Elle Mills in discussing their their mental health issues.
LARISSA: I felt that as a result of my own personal struggles, I wanted to find a solution and change the way that we used social media.
HOST: So she shifted her own dreams of working in fashion. She started an Instagram-based movement to tell the side of the story that doesn’t usually make it into the perfect lives portrayed on the platform. She called #HalfTheStory.
LARISSA: #HalfTheStory is a non-profit media platform that encourages you to share a piece of your life that doesn’t normally exist on social media.
HOST: #HalfTheStory’s Instagram feed is full of black-and-white photos of Instagram stars, often holding a phone with the words “#HalfTheStory” on its screen. The idea is that, in the captions, they tell more of their struggles than they would typically reveal.
LARISSA: Success for myself when I was an influencer truly meant success for myself, which means I was getting brand partnerships and I was making money, a lot of money on collaborations and that was something I was manning every week and reaching out to people. And now success for me is success for all and… it’s about changing the conversation for everyone on social media, creating a more connected space, bringing awareness about mental health and actually delivering these resources to individuals around the world.
HOST: Many influencers hope to use their social media followings as a launchpad for bigger pursuits. And that’s kind of what Larissa did, though rather than staying in fashion, she pivoted towards something more personally meaningful.
But what if you wanted to take a more drastic approach and get rid of your platform entirely?
That’s the choice that one musician that had built a following on YouTube made. Her mother, Sara Perkins, tells us the story.
SARA: I’m Sara and I work across digital to project literacy, which is Pearson’s social impact campaign around the global literacy crisis.
HOST: Sara has two daughters, a 12-year-old and a 22-year-old. Both are musicians — and both are navigating their relationships to their careers on social media.
SARA: They’re both active on social media, but in very different ways actually.
What’s really interesting to me is that the 12-year-old is a complete kind of generation Z… digital native, you know, she was born post-smartphones, post- the addictive scrolling interfaces, and the 22-year-old still remembers an analog world, she didn’t have digital in her life until she was much, much older. She’d had a childhood of walking in the park, and watching telly.
HOST: It’s the 22-year-old who decided to get rid of her social media platform. (By the way, we’re purposefully not saying her name, at Sara’s request.)
SARA: The older one has now been working in music for four years since she left school, in fact a little bit before she left school. She started very young and was making or having videos made for her… YouTube was the only format, I suppose. At the time it was pre-Spotify and Soundcloud… so that was a way of her getting her music out there.
HOST And she was successful. She had millions of views on her videos, a record deal with an independent label, and just every sign of continuing to develop her career. But she was also under a lot of pressure.
SARA: She very quickly got the impression that there was an expectation that marketing needed to come from her first, audience building needed to come from her first and foremost, and that record companies needed a huge amount of reassurance that an audience existed before they would invest further. And just instinctively, she’s actually an introvert. You can put her in front of a mic and a piano and she can play to a room full of strangers, but she’s actually an introvert and this idea of having to sell herself and put up pictures of what she was eating for dinner and her cat and her new shoes felt hugely invasive. And yet that’s what the expectation was. That’s what she kept being told.
HOST: Journalist Chris Stokel-Walker has written about social media influencers for publications like Wired, The Guardian, and Bloomberg, and from his reporting, the experience of Sara’s daughter is, unfortunately, common.
Creators are under a lot of pressure, and rather than get easier with success, it gets harder.
CHRIS: Essentially they’ve gained fame and recognition, but with that comes an awful lot of emotional baggage. You have suddenly to feed this algorithm, this black box that nobody really knows how it works. There are a few people who make their living to analyze how it works. They say basically that you need to post at least three videos every week that are 10 or 12 minutes long in order to just stand still on YouTube…the algorithm is kind of a fickle beast that you have to keep feeding.
HOST: But it’s not just the algorithm that needs constant content.
CHRIS: There’s also the fact that you have a fickle audience who generally follow you on the upward path and have a particular vision of what they feel you should be like and how you should present yourself. So if you change in any way at all, then suddenly they kind of wonder why you have. So you’re kind of held in suspended animation, because what brought you to success is what will keep you there, so you have to keep doing the same thing over and over again.
HOST: And that’s hard if you’re essentially growing up on the platform, as Sara’s daughter was doing. She was a teenager when she started putting up videos.
SARA: You can imagine the difference between being a 15-year-old and being a 22-year-old, I guess she suddenly felt, just really uncomfortable with her as a 15-year-old. With where she was at in her musical development and that stuff still being available for public access.
So she suddenly felt very paranoid, wanting to take back that control. It was that whole digital footprint thing we’re always trying to say to kids. About what you put out there is forever and always out there, that’s your public history. And she is a brilliant example of someone deciding that they wanted to eliminate that, which she did overnight.
HOST: So with millions of views and a growing fanbase on YouTube, Sara’s daughter deleted everything. All the videos, all the comments, all the view counts, gone. Sara, of course, understands and empathizes with her daughter’s decision, but is also worried about how the choice will affect her career.
SARA: How is she going to have the same reach and the same outlets for her material? I think that’s something she’s still absolutely struggling with. I think she doesn’t know what the alternative is, other than getting in the back of a transit van, like the good old days, and you know — playing every pub toilet in between here and Land’s End.
HOST: And there isn’t a lot of support.
SARA: She hasn’t come across anyone in the music industry that seems to be considering the mental wellbeing of artists who are quadrupally — just exposed in a way that artists were in the past. I think generally, in the industry across the board, there’s not that understanding of the link, that deep understanding of the link between mental health, wellbeing, feelings, of personal boundaries and stuff. And that link just isn’t really made. There’s just a focus on the commercial viability and a better return on investment, because you have a fanbase prepared to already buy whatever you do, you know? Yeah. I don’t think there is that understanding or that appreciation.
HOST: Meanwhile, as Sara’s older daughter has left YouTube and is trying to forge a new path forward for herself, her youngest wants nothing more than to be allowed onto the platform.
SARA: Meanwhile her little sister, who is obviously in the very early stages of her ambition, is desperate to have a YouTube account. We haven’t given her permission to have one, so she posts regularly on a music profile that she has on Instagram. She has a highly monitored Instagram account where she posts little snippets of songs, but she’s desperate for YouTube account.
HOST: And she’s not alone. But as more and more young people start their own YouTube channels or livestream accounts, it just gets harder. Stokel-Walker explains:
CHRIS: I did a story for Bloomberg earlier this year, which looked at the rise in the number of YouTubers and the number of videos that are posted, because you have to remember the system like linear TV, there’s no, you know, starting at 6:00 AM and finishing at 6:00 AM the next day. This is a massive box of content that keeps getting
bigger and bigger. And so every time you post something, there is a diminishing chance of returns. It’s like playing the lottery, but having more and more people join the game constantly. The odds of success get smaller and smaller as you go through it.
HOST: Earlier this year, a study from a German researcher found that the vast majority of aspiring Youtubers — 96.5 percent — wouldn’t even crack the U.S. poverty line based on their YouTube advertising earnings alone. Even the top three percent of most-viewed channels only brought in about $16,800 per year.
But, then again, it’s important to note that making money is only part of the motivation for many social media creators.
SARA: You know I work in social media, have done for 15 years, so it’s very, very difficult for me to preach, right? and as, as someone that loves the creative arts and who appreciates the idea of, you know, the free distribution direct to consumer, everyone has a chance. Everyone has a voice, you know, it’s not so much mediation by agents, record companies, all the people that can stand in the way of someone getting their art, whatever the form is, out there.
HOST: Sara’s daughters may be navigating their way through the world of Youtube, and both of them were very young when they started. But what if that’s not the case, and you move into social media after an actual career?
That’s the experience of Matt Lees.
MATT: My name is Matt Lees and I run a couple of YouTube channels. “Shut Up & Sit Down” about boardgames and “Cool Ghosts” about videogames. When I approached making videos on YouTube, it was effectively my fourth career. I used to work as a magazine journalist and we had some very basic capture equipment so we could get videos made about videogames, and we started dabbling with that and putting them online, and a couple of them really took off and people really liked the videos I was making. After that I got offered a job to specifically just run a YouTube channel for a videogame outlet and they had about a thousand subscribers on Youtube, and in the space of a year I took them up to about 80,000 but just kind of really dove into it headfirst and had a fantastic time building up an audience and making a lot of fun videos.
HOST: While it was a fun job, Matt quickly began noticing things about his new field that made him more than a little uncomfortable.
MATT: The human brain cannot deal with reading hundreds of comments which are about you, about people you don’t know openly saying what they think about you. We’ve invented all these incredible tools for communication, but I think that when you have these hub networks like this, they just give people such access directly to people. I feel like there’s something fundamentally that we’re just not built for that.
I think the point where I realized something really weird was going on was I remember reading this one comment and then thinking, “Oh I’m really bummed out by that comment, I’m really sad, that’s really got to me.” I felt like it had got under my skin. I had to take myself to one side, and I looked at this guy’s avatar, and his name. And I’m like: “Matt, no, this guy is a literal Nazi.” You know, we’re talking like this guy has got some right wing leanings, he was a Nazi. it was basically Nazi insignia on all of his comments. He was… an actual Nazi. And the fact that my brain was still overriding that and going, yeah, but somebody doesn’t like you, it’s like something here in the way my brain is interacting with this information is fundamentally out of my control to a weird, frightening degree, but also not correct. You know?
HOST But it wasn’t just the personal attacks that bothered Matt.
MATT: This platform is encouraging people to just make videos that get lots of views and the way you do that is basically by being loud and controversial and gaudy.
HOST: But the worst thing? The constant churn of aspiring YouTubers.
MATT: There’s always hundreds of fresh new people wanting to make it on the platform and there’s enough of an appetite that you can have hundreds and thousands of people across the world who are arguably in their own circles, incredibly famous all at once. But I think that it leads to a culture of burnout in the fact that the expectation is that you will constantly keep putting stuff out and keep working hard and keep doing what you’ve asked to do. And when you don’t, when you can’t do it anymore, you’ll be forgotten, and new people will come and take your place.
HOST Matt decided that, to survive on the platform, he needed to make a change.
MATT: I spent a lot of time switching off comments for example, or removing advertising in terms of just being like, it doesn’t matter now whether or not videos are getting lots of views and it doesn’t matter if people are getting a lot of interaction. A lot of that engagement. All this stuff that everybody loves.
HOST Instead of depending on clicks — and on constantly producing content — Matt has found a way to find financial success by producing slowly and for a small, niche audience.
MATT: I was one of the first people to really jump onto a platform called Patreon which has now become much much more widespread, and take a different approach of not trying to produce work that got huge amounts of traffic, but just trying to produce work that a small amount of people liked. And that’s the kind of ethos I’ve tried to continue really. And I try to avoid chasing after numbers and avoid looking at numbers really.
HOST But again, Matt Lees hasn’t had a conventional career. He’s had a lot of life experience.
MATT: I’d already worked in market research, PR, journalism and then video. So I had a much better understanding of the world and a much better understanding of when your work relationship, when your work-life balance was wrong. And I think with lots of people getting into this, when they’re aged 16, 17, it’s just hugely damaging because A) You’re working on your own, and B) Your role models are not good role models and then they might burn out and you might replace them. Then you’ll burn out and be replaced.
HOST: The way that Matt describes the world of social media content sounds like an assembly line of factory workers — except the factory is digital. And when something breaks down on that assembly line, there aren’t really structures in place to deal with it.
CHRIS: When you get very big, you have some support networks, but even then, nothing like TV or films. You’re doing things on a shoestring budget, and you’re required to do all sorts. It’s kind of like five or six jobs in one.
HOST: That was Chris Stokel-Walker, the journalist, again. Larissa, of #HalfTheStory, adds this:
LARISSA: I do think every influencer agency should have some sort of wellness committee that’s really working and checking in on the wellbeing of their talent in the same way that a manager of a model is hopefully checking in on their well-being as well. Because when your social media presence is paying your electricity bill, it’s a lot harder to create boundaries.
HOST: But most of these content creators never get to the point where they are big enough to have agencies or other support. That’s why Matt Lees believes that the problem is bigger.
MATT: I remember there are pop-ups on the backend of YouTube sometimes that say, “Hey, take a break. Hey, don’t work too hard.” Then it’s like, well, yeah, but you’ve literally designed the algorithms on your platform to reward people who put up videos every day.
HOST: This sounds pretty bleak, and if we go back to that original question of, “Is social media a viable career?” it might seem like the answer should be a resounding no.
But… maybe it’s just a matter of finding the right way, moving beyond the internet’s obsession with clicks and with scale. Being more thoughtful about how we use these communication tools to actually serve creators — and not have the creators serve the algorithms and the advertisements.
Because ultimately, Larissa, Matt, and Sara and her daughter may all be concerned — but, they’re also finding ways forward.
CREDITS: Nevertheless is a Storythings production, series producer is Renay Richardson, executive producers are Nathan Martin and Anjali Ramachandran, this episode was produced and written by Eileen Guo, music and sound design by Jason Oberholtzer and Michael Simonelli, supported by Pearson and presented by me Leigh Alexander.
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This week’s unsung hero is Sophie Deen, author of Detective Dot — a book to encourage girls to be curious and code. Sophie is also the founder of Bright Little Labs