Down The Tubes: How being internet famous doesn't pay

In today's Hollywood Reporter there's an article by Bill Carter about the still runway success Jimmy Fallon is enjoying, and how Stephen Colbert as a late night host has been all but stillborn since his debut in September. The article makes the point that in Youtube Age, hits mean as much as tuning in during the show. Carter posits that Jimmy Fallon has been able to win by creating skits that are "viral" and "sticky." They are also incredibly pedestrian and repetitive--perfect for anyone who finds College Humor or Buzzfeed listicles entertaining. They're kind of the same thing, now that I think about it.

So Fallon knows how to trend and Colbert does not. As Carter writes "What has surprised some Colbert fans — including this one — is that he did not fashion surefire pretaped bits for his early weeks. Few of his segments truly have exploded on YouTube, and that might be contributing to the perception that he is not breaking out as many expected. "

So in order to be big, in late night, you have to be big on Youtube. Fair enough. But there's a problem with that. In the same article, another Jimmy is quoted: Jimmy Kimmel. His comedy bits have also have success on Youtube, but he doesn't chase it. Why? "....'mainly because "we make almost no money on those.'" We're talking about a show that has some videos racking up millions of hits. Like this Mean Tweets bit that has 15 million hits. Lot of hits for no money. But Kimmel and Fallon don't care: their late night host salaries more than offset the lost revenue. They have day jobs.

Most of your favorite Youtube stars have day jobs, too. Because not everyone is like Felix Kjellberg, the video gaming millionaire otherwise known as PewDiePie. And while every year there are top Youtube Millionaire lists, like this one from Forbes the stark reality is a lot of these millionaires are using their Youtube status to nab lucrative merchandising and advertising deals, not to mention their day jobs. If they are Youtube millionaires its not because of Youtube. It's because of exposure. And they are still the exception to the rule.

In Fusion, Gaby Dunn has written an article that blows the lid off this fallacy called Get rich or die vlogging: The sad economics of internet fame. She pulls examples of internet famous "influencers," working as baristas ( Rachel Whitehurst) waitresses ( Brittany Ashley) and working at the aquarium ( Connor Manning. )

Dunn points out how the Youtube economy mirrors the current economy, with the top 1% of people making all the cash while the rest of us barely get by. She's more right than she knows. Youtube, like other tech companies, with billions in their coffers are routinely keeping all the share for themselves while the rest of us create the content. It's no different from Pandora claiming they need to reduce royalty rates even though they made a billion in revenue and have total cash of $363,600,000. Remember, both Pandora and Youtube are ad supported and there is big money in advertising. Just not for the creators.

Youtube and the like have routinely promised utopia for the content creator but never deliver on that promise. As long as we get hits there's always the false promise of a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Although sadly, the biggest wish it seems isn't even about getting rich-- it's about making ends meet. Perhaps this is why Youtube has even admitted as much by setting up fan funding. And I'm sure that's working really well, judging by the number of Youtube millionaires that hasn't changed.

Dunn is writing from the POV of someone who is experiencing this as a content creator herself. While the channel she started with her friend Allison Raskin, Just Between Us, has a half million subscribers, that isn't translating into a living wage. From her article:

We’re a two-person video creation machine. When we’re not producing and starring in a comedy sketch and advice show, we’re writing the episodes, dealing with business contracts and deals, and running our company Gallison, LLC, which we registered officially about a month ago.

And yet, despite this success, we’re just barely scraping by. Allison and I make money from ads that play before our videos, freelance writing and acting gigs, and brand deals on YouTube and Instagram. But it’s not enough to live, and its influx is unpredictable. Our channel exists in that YouTube no-man’s-land: Brands think we’re too small to sponsor, but fans think we’re too big for donations. I’ve never had more than a couple thousand dollars in my bank account at once. My Instagram account has 340,000 followers, but I’ve never made $340,000 in my life collectively.

These are two clearly ambitious women who want to deliver the best content and are serious about making this their career. But Youtube and Instagram make this hard. To paraphrase the title of a speech by David Lowery, the new boss is much, much worse than the old boss. Dunn is right to question an economic reality where Tech Companies are no different from the greedy robber barons of yesterday. But with the odds economically stacked against the content creator, and deliberately so, I have to wonder how much longer content will be produced for next to nothing in return before people throw in the towel.

On an optimistic note, I am hopeful that with more articles like Dunn's the majority will finally put two and two together and realize they can start their own channel off Youtube host it themselves, and bring their following with them. There's no promise of more money in doing so, but at least you'll prevent another Big tech asshole from buying another yacht.

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