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Should you be a YouTuber?

What do you want to be when you grow up? This is a question children throughout the generations have been asked, with the desire to be a doctor or teacher perhaps remaining constant over hundreds of years. With technological progress in tow, new aspirations have entered the fold such as being a pilot or astronaut. And now, with the rapid growth of internet access in the past three decades, we’re seeing another shift; this time one that’s social media driven.

In the US, many teenagers aspire to be a YouTuber or professional streamer, beating out professions such as doctor, professional athlete and musician. In Japan, 15% of male senior high school students want to be either a content creator or video game streamer. The most popular aspiration is civil servant, which captures 15.8% of the demographic; edging out content creation by only 0.8%. Often one’s expression of their desire to be a YouTuber, TikToker or streamer is met with concern or even derision. Is that a serious job? What happened to wanting to be a teacher or doctor!?

Questioning of this type is somewhat misguided and out of date. For one, people still want to be doctors, teachers and astronauts. That hasn’t changed. However to denigrate the aspirations of children who want to be content creators lacks an understanding of how the entertainment, information and communication landscape has changed. There are 5.3 billion internet users worldwide, 4.95 billion of which are social media users. Reasons for using social media are widespread, including making new friends, shopping and seeing what’s being talked about i.e. what’s trending. Social media is a big part of our lives, and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. There are projected to be 5.85 billion social media users by 2027 and teenagers are spending on average 4.8 hours per day on social media platforms. If there weren’t career aspirations related to something so prevalent in our everyday lives, it would be absurd.

Perhaps the concern lies in the uncertainty associated with a career as a YouTuber; a career in which you’re at the mercy of the algorithm. A good paycheck one month can be followed by a pittance the next. However is this such a bad thing? One perspective argues that a career as a YouTuber has created a new paradigm of meritocratic work. If someone employed in a traditional job performs terribly, is lazy and doesn’t take responsibility for their work, why should they be deserving of a stable paycheck? As the argument goes, earnings should be more like YouTube whereby monthly wages shift regularly on the basis of performance.

However detractors of this argument suggest that success on YouTube is inherently unfair, pointing to cases of favouritism towards larger creators. Research suggests that the majority of views goes to only 3% of all channels and 96.5% of all YouTubers don’t make it above the US poverty line. For smaller creators it’s easy to feel the cards are stacked against you, to the point where you may be working harder than larger, established creators but not attaining the same benefits. Let’s take a look at someone like PewDiePie, one of YouTube’s most successful creators. He has 110 million+ subscribers and can upload a video tomorrow with an opaque title and questionable thumbnail, and will still garner millions of views. Understandable. He’s earned that privilege through years of hard work.

But a small time YouTuber, maybe even someone who’s been creating videos for years, won’t have such luck. It turns out being a content creator isn’t quite as easy as some people think. Time and effort will be spent on optimising thumbnails, titles, descriptions and captions in the hope that YouTube’s algorithm grants them a chance at greater exposure. They’ll have to get to grips with Photoshop or Canva to get thumbnails looking clickable. Video editing is a time-consuming process that can take hours to get right for a short video. And then there’s the psychological element, spending hours and hours on a video, from writing a script, filming and editing, to getting only a trickle of views. While this point isn’t to say creators should be entitled to views, it raises a discrepancy between effort and results, and thus suggests YouTube isn’t as meritocratic as some people think.

When YouTuber’s Partner Program (YPP) was introduced in 2007, YouTube had a more innocent feel. It was a place for people to share enjoyable content without the pressure of worrying about how much they’d earn. This culture continued for several years until it became more and more visible that one could earn a full-time income (and much more) by posting videos. Amateur videos posted for fun were soon squeezed out by sleek, professionally edited content that had teams working behind the scenes. The solo YouTuber who posted for fun found it harder to compete. The only way to survive was to step up your game and put in more time to make your videos better. Passions and hobbies soon became side gigs in which you’d spend hours working on videos after a full day at your regular job or school. Making videos was no longer fun. The time invested wouldn’t guarantee a return, leading to many content creators burning out. Was it even worth trying to be a YouTuber?

To many people, the answer was and still is ‘yes’. While articles circulate the internet with advice such as “Do your children dream of being YouTubers? Do them a favour: Crush that ambition”, ad revenue, which is so often mentioned in these articles, is just one part of the monetisation equation. As powerful as the algorithm can be in showing your content to a wider audience, human dynamics are still at play. If we like someone’s content, we’ll come back again and again. This goes for creators with professionally edited videos or someone recording themselves with their mobile.

Building a community can pay dividends. Those who like your videos can support you on Patreon and buy your products. They’ll donate to you during live streams and share your content. A thriving community will signal to brands that you’re an attractive candidate for sponsorship. Even if YouTube is your main platform, cross-platform promotion of your videos will provide even greater earning opportunities and widen your audience. Earnings on YouTube go far beyond a sole focus on ad revenue and being a YouTuber is no longer a fringe career prospect it once was.

Ultimately it’s worth putting things in perspective. The probability of achieving millions of subscribers on YouTube is undoubtedly low. But so is achieving success in almost every aspirational endeavour. What exactly is the implication of crushing the ambitions of kids who dream of being YouTubers? If they want to be athletes, doctors or astronauts, should those ambitions be crushed too? Some of the most successful creators on YouTube have demonstrated admirable qualities such as hard work, creativity and persistence. Mr. Beast, the world’s most popular YouTuber with 221 million subscribers, was making videos for a decade before things started taking off for him. In this video from April 2015, he talks about how it would take him 40 years to reach 100,000 subscribers at the rate his channel was growing back then.

What if he’d given up? What if someone had crushed his ambitions? Today, people talk about how it’s harder to make it as a successful YouTuber. There’s much more competition today than there was back then, they say. While this may be true, there are numerous instances of new YouTubers gaining large followings. And as for it being too late, this was a common argument a decade ago too. It’s in YouTube’s interest that there’s fresh crop of creators regularly breaking out. What these creators have in common is that they didn’t let the competition stop them from making videos. And so in answer to the question, ‘Should you be a YouTuber?’, that’s something for you to decide, not someone else.

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