When Lucy Moon sat down with her therapist to discuss why she was feeling so low, she was on top of the world. A burgeoning career as a YouTuber was in mid-bloom: her subscriber count – an important metric on the site, and a sign of a creator’s popularity – was booming, and offers of work and brand tie-ins were rolling in. But all was not well. She wasn’t happy. The workload was rising; the pressure to be perfect in front of the camera was crushing. And the therapist was shocked.“She was like: ‘I cannot believe you think this is normal, to be running this kind of operation for the first time with no career support,’” says Moon, a 23-year-old beauty-and-lifestyle YouTuber with more than 319,000 subscribers. “I meet so many YouTubers who say that.”
Despite the protestations of obsessive fans and dismissive naysayers, for the site’s most successful content creators, simply switching on a camera and spouting whatever comes to mind is no longer the entire job description. A YouTuber is a small-screen entrepreneur who must oversee growth in a highly competitive and ever-expanding market, win merchandise deals, broker brand tie-ins and often manage support staff.
The pace of the site’s success has outstripped the behind-the-scenes support for creators, leaving them to perform a growing number of tasks with little help, all while success is fleeting and based on an ever-changing engine running the site: the algorithm. YouTube’s long-standing lack of transparency about how its algorithm works has caused YouTubers untold hours of stress over the years, as they try to second-guess the constantly changing mathematics that govern how their content is displayed.
“YouTube’s algorithms prefer channels that have regular uploads and a narrow focus in terms of content,” explains Zoe Glatt, a PhD researcher conducting a digital ethnography of YouTube creators at the London School of Economics. “Creators are encouraged to pursue a quantity-over-quality approach if they want to achieve success on YouTube. This, combined with a lack of clarity about what content exactly YouTube will promote and what might be demonetised, leads to an extremely precarious and stressful working life for creators.”
The algorithmic uncertainty can also cause creative minds to lean towards conservatism in an attempt to keep viewing numbers buoyant. “People are worried about taking risks, so a lot of the content feels quite similar,” says Charlie McDonnell, who has burned out on the site several times in his 11-year YouTube career.
As you’d expect for a cohort of creatives whose lives are spent in front of the camera, pouring out their hopes and fears to a capricious audience, YouTubers aren’t suffering in silence. McDonnell has opened up about his mental health issues to his fans, and explained why he has taken time off from the site. “Sometimes that can be a fulfilling thing to do, to share, but I do think you have to pace yourself,” he says.
Some are not heeding his call for caution. An increasing number of YouTubers are expressing concerns for their mental health in front of the camera. They are opening up about the behind-the-scenes stresses of a life lived in the online limelight.
In late July, Felix Kjellberg, better known as PewDiePie, the most successful YouTuber on the planet, uploaded a video to his 64 million subscribers explaining his fear about taking a break from the punishing schedule of posting. “You realise you can’t take a break,” he said. “If you take a break, your numbers” – the number of viewers watching your video, helped by YouTube’s algorithm displaying videos to casual viewers – “will fall.”
Having “the burnout talk” with your viewers has become an odd badge of honour for YouTubers. The Try Guys, a collective of four former BuzzFeed staff members who gained success on the site for their quirky, laddish challenges, recently set out on their own – but quickly found the challenges of setting up a small business were greater than expected.
“It’s one of those triangles where you choose two,” Zach Kornfeld, one of the four Try Guys, told his audience in a video explaining why they struck out as an independent group. “You can make a lot of videos, good videos, or be a sane, normal person.” As he mentioned each of these options, a corresponding visual representation of them appeared on screen. “I guess,” he said, flicking away the one reading “maintain sanity”, “I’m choosing those two.”
That’s because as the pool of videos continues to grow, the chance of making a splash becomes more difficult. “It’s gotten harder simply because there are so many more people creating content,” says Matt Gielen of Little Monster Media Company, an agency that helps people build a YouTube audience. “The number of people distributing content on to YouTube has exploded in the last few years.”
AdvertisementWhich means those who want to succeed have to do more, do it more often and do it better. “Creators are pushed to work ever harder and churn out more content of a higher quality than others in order to garner and maintain success,” says Glatt.
“It used to be you could build a decent-sized audience with one three-minute video per week,” says Gielen. His research shows that most creators now need to post at least three videos of between 10 and 12 minutes each week in order to be boosted by the algorithm.
That’s an enormous change since 27-year-old McDonnell, a British YouTuber now based in Canada who specialises in science videos, debuted on the site in 2007. “When I started, if you had a video longer than four minutes, you probably weren’t going to watch it,” he says. “Now it’s a norm to upload videos that are eight minutes, 10 minutes, 12 minutes long.”
The content has changed too as competition has increased. When 26-year-old Emma Blackery started uploading videos in 2012, she was unique. “There wasn’t really a female British comedian on YouTube. I was the only one doing it,” she says. “Now everyone’s a YouTuber, or if they’re not, they know a YouTuber. You have to stand out, which is why people do more extreme things and more daring videos.”
It’s a vicious cycle. We know about burnout among YouTube creators precisely because of the site’s raison d’être: it encourages an uncomfortable intimacy. Baring your soul to the camera is seen as normal – just part of the churn of content passing through the giant YouTube sausage machine. But the long-lasting effects of a life shared online – warts and all – have yet to be investigated. (YouTube declined both an interview request and request for comment for this story; it confirmed it was launching an educational course on creator wellbeing later this year.)
Meanwhile YouTubers continue to struggle and share, wondering whether it can all get better. “It can have a really negative impact on your life and the people who look up to you,” says Blackery. “I want to say I’m optimistic, but I don’t know.”
Beauty and lifestyle blogger covering fashion, sex, and therapy on her YouTube channel
I got really lucky. I graduated from uni and was looking for jobs. I thought, I can do this for three months and keep it up, and see if it can make me any money. I gained enough subscribers and enough momentum that it just became my job. The biggest misconception is that YouTubers don’t have a career, they just make videos.
In 2017 I did two months where I made 30 or 31 videos a month – on top of teaching myself how to run a business. Hardly any of my working week is in front of the camera. I was trying to do all the stuff like sourcing merchandise, meetings, the extra stuff.
I hadn’t expected it to take such a toll on my mental health. I was in a bad sleeping schedule, I wasn’t eating enough, I was in a daze, I was trying to get sober. You don’t really want to be sitting down and putting your life on the table, saying: “Hello, I have all these problems and this is why I can’t make videos just right now.” It’s a difficult one because you never want to seem ungrateful. With YouTubers there’s a big guilt complex: “I’m not working hard enough, I should be really grateful for this life.”
I don’t know a single YouTuber who hasn’t had a burnout in some form or another. I know lots of people whose burnout led to them being scared off the platform entirely. You’re telling everyone online you’ve got a perfect life. You’re putting out perfect images. You look like you’re having an incredible time.
Subscribers: 1.47 million
A comedian and musician, Emma Blackery makes videos about internet culture and her life in Essex
I get told every single day: “Poor you, it must be so difficult being a creator, working from home.” I’m kind of over trying to convince people it’s stressful and hard, because they don’t believe you anyway.
Right now I’m trying to upload two videos a week as well as running two companies, a record label, preparing for the release of my album, making music videos, preparing for interviews and things like that. It’s a full-time thing. It doesn’t really stop. You’re always switched on.
If a video does really, really well, you’re happy with that success. When that next video comes out and doesn’t get as many views, you think: “What did I do wrong?” You immediately think, I screwed up, I messed up, while it could be anything. It could be people not being online at the time you posted, or the algorithm not showing the videos on subscription feeds. But we all blame ourselves.
There is this massive adapt-or-die [philosophy] with YouTube but the problem is, they don’t tell us how to adapt. There are so many people who quit their full-time job because they were doing well enough to support themselves. Then the algorithm changes and suddenly they can’t support themselves any more.
You’re always thinking about the views you get, whether you’re relevant any more. You look at other creators coming up and think: “What are they doing that I’m not doing?”
Subscribers: 2.2 million
Charlie McDonnell has been on YouTube for over a decade, making short films and videos covering travel and science
I experienced burnout about five years ago for the first time. I was only uploading once a week but putting a lot of effort into it. Eventually it just got to a point where I exhausted myself.
There’s a pressure to upload as frequently as possible. I find it hard enough to upload once a week; I can only imagine what it must be like to try to do that every single day. I tried doing it and I began to feel like I wasn’t really present in my own life.
In one of my more recent videos I uploaded, I was talking about how weird it is that when you haven’t uploaded a video in a while the comment you get most frequently is: “Are you dead?” It seems funny on the surface but when you dig deeper into it, it’s uncomfortable to think that maybe people equate the regularity of my YouTube content with my actual physical life.
I’m hesitant to badmouth the algorithm too much. I feel like YouTubers can use it as a bit of a scapegoat sometimes, because it feels like an unknown thing. But at the same time, as far as I’m aware, YouTube does prefer it if you’re uploading on a regular basis. Creating longer videos means you’re more likely to do well in terms of the watch-time metric YouTube incorporates. I worry about people being put in a position where they feel like they have to make a video today but they are having a really bad time, but they need content, so they say: “I guess I’ll talk about this bad thing I’m going through today.”