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YouTubers and the trouble with being relatable

Making people famous so that we can then idolise and envy them in equal measure is the most popular pastime of the 21st century. But while rappers and movie stars and Kardashians can flaunt their wealth and glamorous lifestyle, the newer breed of internet celebrity is expected to be humble and gracious and above all else, relatable. “Because no matter what, ‘relatability’ has become the coin of the realm,” writes Doree Shafrir. She’s talking about vlogger Tyler Oakley in particular, whose year has included a book launch and an appearance on The Amazing Race.

Oakley, like PewDiePie and Michelle Phan and a handful of others, has succeeded in building a lucrative career out of his videos. But visibility is not the only measure of success, and for many popular YouTubers, their subscriber counts don’t add up to a living wage. They’re part of a new middle class; YouTubers, Viners and Instagrammers who have relinquished their anonymity but have yet to attain the elusive financial security that only comes to an elite few in their field. And of course, the majority of their followers feel entitled to enjoy their content for free.

Relatability might be the influencer’s currency, but it’s also part of the problem. Consumers will sit in online queues for hours to get tickets to Adele’s new tour or the upcoming Harry Potter play, but they resent sitting through a 30 second ad in order to watch their favourite vlogger broadcast from their bedroom.

In a Fusion piece published this week, entitled The Sad Economics of Internet Fame, YouTuber Gaby Dunn wrote about the misconceptions surrounding online performers and wealth. One anecdote sees Brittany Ashley, star of BuzzFeed’s YouTube channel, being forced to serve her colleagues at their Golden Globes party due to her day job as a waitress. Another recounts how blogger Rachel Whitehurst had to quit her Starbucks job after fans memorised her schedule and began harassing her at work. Dunn even wrote about her own financial struggles, and the resentment that some fans have expressed when she has tried to offset her expenses by collaborating on branded content.

People don’t seem to mind sponsorships in certain places. Nobody objects to the Mail Chimp ad that precedes each episode of Serial, perhaps because advertising is expected from a high quality, NPR-produced podcast. However, when a common perception of YouTubers is that “anybody could do it,” the tolerance for ads and sponsored posts plummets. But if the demand for new content is so high that the creator no longer has the time to hold down a day job, then how else are they to pay their bills?

The likes of Oakley and Phan have shown that it is possible to make it as a rich and famous YouTuber, and so of course this is what countless teens want to do with their lives, leading to a flooded marketplace where the consumer is king. “Like so many other areas of the economy, YouTube has a basic supply and demand problem,” says Dunn. “Everybody wants to be there, so fledgling performers put up with a lot because they want to be famous.”

It’s no different to being offered an unpaid internship at the outset of your career, or being asked to do creative work in exchange for ‘exposure’. As a writer, I can relate to wanting to pursue your passion while still needing to be able to make rent. Harlan Ellison’s “pay the writer” rant from seven years ago could just as easily apply to somebody whose work is being enjoyed for free on YouTube in 2015.

Brands, or at least some brands, need to take some of the blame here. They see the hordes of millennial consumers hanging off a vlogger’s every word, and they immediately want a slice of the action. At Digital Matters 2015 earlier this month, Andrew Trimboli from SapientNitro said that “95 per cent of agencies won’t be able to tell you what the value of a like, a share or a fan is.” Similarly, Endemol Beyond’s Head of Digital and Branded Content, Christopher Smith believes that far too often, brands think channel-first without any real understanding of the medium.

If there is to be any hope of anyone making a sustainable living from YouTube or Vine or whichever the next big platform may be, then consumers need to acknowledge the time and passion that goes into creating all this stuff, and stop crying “sellout” whenever they see a sponsored post. And on the other end of the spectrum, brands need to focus first on the story they want to tell — then they can find the right performer to help them tell it, creating less of a dissonance between the video and the viewer.

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