The Sad Economics Of Internet Fame


The disconnect between internet fame and financial security is hard to comprehend for both creators and fans. But it’s the crux of many mid-level web personalities’ lives. Platforms like YouTube mirror the U.S. economy’s yawning wealth gap, and being a part of YouTube’s “middle class” often means grappling daily with the cognitive dissonance of a full comments section and an empty wallet.

Fan-funding sites like Patreon are at the center of a communal movement to fund “smaller YouTubers.” But that definition gets blurry. Is someone with 50,000 subscribers worth supporting financially? How about 200,000? What if people assume you’re too successful to need money, and you’re too proud to tell them otherwise?

Like many other areas of the economy, YouTube has a basic supply and demand problem. Everybody wants to be there, so fledgling performers put up with a lot because they want to be famous.

“It’s not surprising that the failure rate on YouTube would be higher because people aren’t good judges of their own abilities,” [economist Jodi N.] Beggs said. The result is that the market is oversaturated, and subscriber numbers, which rarely make any sense, become the gatekeepers of financial success.

In a 2013 speech, Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers Alan Krueger said the increase of knowledge about a performer’s life and beliefs due to social media has led to not being able to charge as much for concert tickets. Besides, he said, “most people do not want to think of their favorite singer as greedy,” he said. “Would you rather listen to a singer who is committed to social causes you identify with, or one who is only in it for the money?” If an artist—a YouTuber or Instagram star, for instance—is committed to championing the little guy, they can’t very well look like they’re taking money for their work.

The recent phenomenon of the internet ‘star’ continues to fascinate. These folks sound like the YouTube equivalent of rock bands that van-tour the country by the seat of their pants … sold out shows a thousand miles away, but grueling and necessary day jobs waiting at home. The crucial difference is that the entertainers in this article are relying on third-party platforms outside of their control for their fame, which is partly why their trade is often seen as a calculated, hopeful stepping stone to more traditional media.

(h/t Jon Curtis)

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