Trying to Understand YouTube Success

Ramil Sitdikov/Sputnik via AP

Rather than dreaming of being a film star, kids now dream of being a YouTuber, but what does that entail? Video producers and viewers wage wars on channels many people have never heard of. At Vice, Joe Zadeh spends time in Will Lenney’s London flat to understand the life of a YouTube celebrity. That life involves money, yes, fans and self-employment. It also involves days glued to various screens, responding to followers, a fragile sense of self-worth, sleepless nights producing content and anxiety about career longevity. England has an especially robust YouTube culture, with more than 250 channels that have one million subscribers each. That’s a lot of traffic, and it generates a lot of revenue for their creators. For many of us, the idea of self-employment implies freedom, but very little about Lenney’s YouTube career seems liberating.

“I’ve never loved anything as much as I love YouTube,” says Will. “But I have started to realise how it affects me. When one of my videos has a good first hour, I get so happy and sometimes I step back and think: ‘Hang on, these numbers on a screen are controlling my entire emotional state. Fuck, that’s dangerous.’ I feel good, but shit. It’s like my generation’s crack cocaine.”

“Could you go a day without looking at your YouTube analytics?”

“I’d rather go without sleep,” says Will, smiling, but in a “no, honestly” kind of way. “It’s an obsession.”

And yet, despite all the hard work they put in, YouTubers are constantly being reminded of how precarious their form of labor is. Will seems resigned to the fact that, at any point, this might all just go away. “We all have a sell-by date on this,” he says. “There will come a time when people don’t give a toss about my videos anymore. I’m just working on growing my skills in such a way that I can prolong that date.”

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