For mental health YouTuber Kati Morton, finding some kind of stability has meant using Patreon, which contributes about half of her monthly income and is her most consistent revenue stream. She's been on it for the past four years; her channel has existed since 2011.
Patreon is a service for fans to pay monthly subscriptions to online creators in return for certain benefits. Morton has more than 400 patrons, half a dozen of which pay her $250 each month. That gives them -- among other things -- a monthly one-on-one Skype session with Morton just to shoot the shit.
Morton, 36, has reason to feel secure. She has specific expertise as a trained clinical psychologist, which also means a backup plan in private practice should the videos not work out. Patreon provides a stable living, but she also has close links with her "partner manager" at YouTube, whom she can consult if a video is not getting views. She has a solid 820,000 subscribers, puts out one video per week and has a published book. Like both Slade and Marie, she also has help: Her husband, Sean, used to run a film production company -- reality TV, corporate-training videos on how to use medical devices -- and now spends most of his time shooting and editing Morton's videos. Morton has an assistant, her upstairs neighbor.
But it's rare to find this kind of niche. The dream of merging passion and commerce, getting paid to simply live your life on camera, has for a long time been misrepresented -- usually by the people on camera themselves. Now more kids in the US want to be YouTubers than athletes or astronauts. The fact that traditional employment and social mobility appear so fragile today can make the idea of overnight fame even more appealing -- the quickest or at least most visible route to some kind of good life.
More kids in the US want to be YouTubers than athletes or astronauts.
Yet most people don't make it. A recent study showed that about 85 percent of YouTube views go to three percent of channels. Based on a sample of 19,000 channels observed over a decade, the study showed that a video in 2016 got a median number of 89 views whereas in 2006 it got more than 10,000. Meanwhile, major channels like Ryan's World are reported to make eight-figure annual incomes.
"My sense is it's very much a kind of winner-takes-all economy, which can only sustain so many people aspiring to do this," Duffy, the Cornell academic, said.
Ironically, the surge of influencers sharing their tales of mental health struggles online has drawn a lot of eyeballs to their accounts. Social media, after all, rewards authenticity, and this kind of raw vulnerability feels genuine. The recent rise of candid burnout discussion on YouTube has certainly helped unveil the cost of participating in the online micro-fame game. And unless you're a superstar, it's become increasingly clear that the key to finding career stability as a YouTuber is to look beyond YouTube.
That's why some of the channel's most recognizable faces peddle merch, set up Skype sessions with fans and toss sneakers in the air for the 'gram. In fact, Slade, Marie and Morton know they're the lucky ones. They do this job full time, they have regular income outside YouTube and they've made backup plans if the streaming service were to disappear tomorrow. Still, when Engadget got them together to discuss burnout, we asked them how secure they felt on YouTube on a scale of one to 10, and they all gave us the same answer: five.
They discussed how even the fortune of rising to the top can breed a certain insecurity. "This is not a path that we chose for ourselves: 'I'm gonna be the best sneaker unboxer,' or 'I'm gonna be the funniest comedian' or 'I'm gonna be the coolest therapist on YouTube,' said Slade. "It's kinda something that we fell into, and now we're trying to make the most of it. ... And if we're gonna keep it totally 100, we get paid outrageous amounts of money to do things that other people [who] work a lot harder don't."