YouTube Made Them Famous. Now, They're Done With It. What Happened?
One by one, original YouTube creators have found themselves pivoting away from the limelight to more traditional career paths. Here's why.
I went to VidCon this year less for 2019 Kathryn and more as a gift to my 16-year-old self. In 2009, just four years after YouTube’s creation, it was never worth even asking my parents if they could take me to the other side of the country to meet a bunch of people I had been watching on the internet. Unbeknownst to them, my Friday nights were dimly lit by the glow of my laptop screen under my bed sheets as I scrolled through Harry Potter forums and, eventually, ventured into the new world of YouTube.
Vlogbrothers, a channel started by Hank and John Green (yes, that one) in 2007 as a way for the two brothers to stay in touch, was my gateway drug. Through YouTube’s recommended videos, chatter on forums, and Tumblr, I clicked my way to channels like Mememolly, FiveAwesomeGirls, CharlieIsSoCoolLike, Rosianna Rojas, and Marion Honey. Next came DailyGrace (now Grace Helbig), Tyler Oakley, Ingrid Nilsen, Zoella (Zoe Sugg), Sprinkleofglitter (Louise Pentland), Estee LaLonde, and a handful more whose faces and sign-offs are forever imprinted in my brain, even if we’ve gone our separate ways. After nearly a decade on the site that made them famous, many have transitioned to new lives beyond the Upload button.
Arriving at the Anaheim convention center for VidCon earlier this month along with 75,000 others, I was determined to hear what happened after YouTube for so many of the people who were responsible for making it what it is today. They pioneered a revolutionary new career path and ignited a cultural discussion, and then did the professional equivalent of the Homer-disappearing-into-bushes GIF. I naively expected those who had been invited back in honor of VidCon’s 10-year celebration to be welcomed like rock stars; hailed as conquering heroes. In the shadow of last year's Tanacon disaster with popular YouTuber-turned-reality-star-turned-Jake-Paul-fiancé Tana Mongeau, VidCon had something to prove to the younger creators and recent converts. Instead, I found myself looking around a nearly empty convention room at the paltry 50-person crowd who trickled in to watch the “VidCon #tbt” panel. Moderated by Hank Green, panelists Meghan Camarena (Strawburry17), Mitchell Davis (LiveLavaLive), Iman Crosson (Alphacat), Will Hyde (TheWillofDC), and Molly Lewis were there to take a trip down memory lane together. There was a world-weary laughter that erupted when Green kicked off the panel with a question for Hyde: “So, if you were still covering YouTube drama, how would that be?”
Hyde’s YouTube videos, posted between 2008 and 2012 on the channel TheWillofDC, boasted headlines such as “YOUTUBE UPLOADER CHANGES!” and “NEW AUDIO EDITING FEATURES!” — video creators’ bread and butter for clicks and subscribes in the platform’s early days. To Green’s question, Hyde admitted he’d be no match for the fast-paced, interpersonal, and sometimes tragic goings-on that plague the platform today.
This slight friction between generations of “creators” (which, along with “YouTuber” and “vlogger,” became the colloquial term for those who uploaded on the website) was the general attitude at VidCon this year, and it started with the attendees. While the theme of the annual convention was a celebration of a milestone, you wouldn’t have known it by the crowd. Many would have only been alive for five years when VidCon first kicked off a decade ago at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza hotel in Los Angeles with just over 1,400 guests (less than 0.02% of this year’s attendance). I’d venture a large number of the younger attendees, huddled nervously in pairs tapping on phones or congregating around the center’s large fountain filming choreographed dances, had no idea they were walking the hallways with the very people who made this whole community possible. Instead, there was a lot of buzz, both at the convention and in subsequent media coverage, about the newest wave of creators, many of whom use the short-form video app TikTok. There is some speculation that YouTube’s shine is fading, and that this new app — a revamp of musical.ly whose current iteration is not yet a year old — will be its successor. (It’s too early to say.)
But YouTube has suffered a death, in a way. Many of the people like Hyde who made YouTube what it is now — a career track, a community, a behemoth where we watch ordinary people do mundane things and inexplicably be elevated to niche celebrity status — have shifted their focus to more traditional jobs, or have quietly stepped back from their internet fame. During hushed conversations at VidCon and dozens of phone calls, both former first-gen YouTubers and their managers explained to Refinery29 why they fled the community they founded — and whether they even recognize it today.
“My expectations were that I would be able to store my videos somewhere online that wasn't Facebook,” artist Julia Nunes, who uploaded her first video of herself playing ukulele in 2007 and currently has 230,000 subscribers, told me during VidCon of her early days. “I didn't want people from my high school to see me being vulnerable and playing emotional songs. So I thought that YouTube was going to be the video version of PhotoBucket.” PhotoBucket was an early photo sharing site that was basically rendered useless by smartphones.
Then YouTube put one of her videos, most of which have since been switched to private, on its front page, sending 10,000 subscribers her way. (Now, your YouTube homepage is determined by a mix of your subscriptions, what’s trending, and the mysterious algorithm.)
There were practical reasons, too, for using the platform. In 2008, comedian GloZell Lyneette Simon switched from spending her evenings performing at open mics in unsafe Los Angeles neighborhoods when she realized she could avoid the often dangerous walks back to her car every night with the help of one website.
“When YouTube came around, I was like, Well you know what, I can just put my ideas here, and one day I'll have a show,” she reasoned when we spoke on the phone a few months ahead of VidCon. Eleven years and 4.7 million subscribers later, Simon, who goes by the username GloZell, is one of the most beloved and enduring comedians on the platform, interviewing Barack Obama in 2015 and landing roles in Trolls and Ralph Breaks the Internet, as well as publishing her autobiography, Is You Okay?
For the most part, though, the original YouTubers — the O.G.s who began posting in YouTube’s inchoate years between 2005-2010, before the term “YouTuber” even existed — all had the same reason for posting their first video: They saw another YouTuber do it, and they wanted to be their friend. The exact inciting incident can be hard to track, because every YouTuber has another YouTuber they can point back to and credit for inspiring them to join the platform. Still, a lot of those to whom I spoke said it was English YouTuber Mememolly who convinced them to get on board.
Mememolly, real name Molly Templeton, joined YouTube in 2006 after watching people like SMOSH, LonelyGirl15 (who was later determined to be a hoax), and Caitlin Hill. One of Templeton’s videos, a creative nonfiction piece called “Dear Body” was inspired by a writer she loved from LiveJournal and was imitated by a number of other creators. Her most popular video, “Are you anybody’s favourite person?” was based on a Miranda July short story and has over 3 million views.
“The idea that you could come up with a format or a joke or a concept and then build the parameters around it so that other people could make it their own, I thought was the most interesting thing,” Templeton, whose current subscriber count sits around 100,000, told Refinery29. That was when she started to realize what she was doing was more than just a pastime — and so did YouTube.
“The first week I decided to [be a YouTuber manager], I closed a six-figure brand deal.”
In November 2006, Google bought YouTube. This allowed the search giant, among many things, to launch the YouTube Partner program the following year. This program, made up of pre-selected creators (like Templeton, tayzonday, hotforwords, apauledtv, and peteandbrian) as well as chosen applicants, was the first opportunity users had to make money off their videos through ads displayed next to them on the screen. For Hayley G. Hoover, a former member of the FiveAwesomeGirls channel who currently has 85,000 followers on her personal account, this allowed YouTube to go from after-school hobby to career move.
“I never was motivated by trying to make a certain amount or anything. It was just like this lucky surprise,” she told me over the phone. “I did make some money that was very helpful in my life. I paid for my college books and food and activities with friends, and I was able to go on tours with other friends from YouTube.”
None of the original creators joined YouTube expecting to change the digital landscape. But as YouTube grew, people started dreaming bigger, which included not just raking in the dollars from ads, but raking in the thousands from brand deals, which remain the most lucrative and sustainable path for creators. The system is simple: Brands pay creators to promote their products in videos, or to partner on larger video projects. It’s something people recognize from present-day Instagram, but this was happening on YouTube years before the app had even launched. For every #spon post on your feed today, there’s a 2008 YouTuber to thank.
Understandably, this kind of work requires more than just a webcam and a self-timer. If creators wanted make YouTube their profession, many realized they would need to start outsourcing. More importantly, they would need to involve someone who not only knew what YouTube was, but believed it could be a legitimate career. For early big YouTube names like Philip DeFranco and Jenna Marbles, Sarah Penna was that person. Now the co-creator of romance novel and culture website Frolic, Penna’s career began as one of the first managers of YouTubers, including her now-husband, Joe Penna (MysteryGuitarMan). It was a risk to throw herself behind what could have just been a passing fad, but it paid off.
“The first week I decided to [be a YouTuber manager], I closed a six-figure brand deal,” she told me at VidCon, which she also attended in 2010. “I think there was an excitement and a lack of sophistication in the marketing, so we were able to snag a lot of experimental dollars. We weren't getting the big media budgets, but if you're an individual creator, a six-figure deal is a life-changing event.”
So life-altering that YouTubers were able to move, upgrade their equipment, and flourish beyond their previous paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyles. It seemed like the perfect situation: Make just two videos a week for what could be considered a disproportionate amount of money, and attend fancy conventions like VidCon where you were treated like a celebrity (because, well, you were).
“YouTube has warped into a monster in so many ways in my opinion.”
On March 15, 2012, total views on YouTube plummeted 20% thanks to a change implemented by the site in response to users who bounced from one video to the next without watching them in full. YouTube saw this behavior as a failure on its part to successfully recommend videos people actually wanted to watch. Instead of views, YouTube switched to watch time as the main way to determine its algorithm, which lost creators viewers and, for those who made money through ads based on those viewers, money — but that wasn’t the only issue on the horizon.
“There was one year of VidCon, maybe the fifth year, and it was the British invasion,” Penna said, referring to creators like Sugg, Pentland, Marcus Butler, and Alfie Deyes, who dominated the platform in 2014, some of whom continue to make videos today. “And I think that was really hard for a lot of the O.G. YouTube talent, because it was sort of the first signs of, Okay, there's fresh blood.”
These international YouTubers were part of the second wave of creators — your Tyler Oakleys, Grace Helbigs (who would later have a short-lived E! show), and Hannah Harts to name just a few. YouTube was growing exponentially to the point that there were too many creators to maintain the one-big-friend-group feel it had at the beginning, and things began to splinter off. As the years went by, YouTube became home to collab channels, beauty gurus, lip syncers, comedians, BookTubers, chefs, musicians (Troye Sivan palled around with Oakley and Sugg before he became a mainstream star), family vloggers, daily vloggers, prank channels, ASMRtists, religious creators, challenges, and gamers. Gaming YouTubers like DanTDM, Markiplier, and PewDiePie made $18.5, $17.5, and $15.5 million, respectively, in 2018, according to Forbes. The highest-earning in 2018? A 7-year-old boy who reviews toys and rakes in $22 million yearly while doing it. I’m not his target audience, but one of the good things about YouTube is that you create your own experience through subscriptions. My front page will never show me a review of the latest Nerf gun, but I will see a 10-month old vlog from Olivia Jade. Don’t mind if I do.
It’s natural to be skeptical of newcomers, but original YouTubers continue to be wary, particularly of the newest generation. While these O.G.s joined YouTube with no idea what they were in for, anyone who uploads a video now knows, even vaguely, that they’re doing something that could make them rich and famous.
“YouTube has warped into a monster in so many ways in my opinion,” Kat Blaque, whose subscriber count is hidden but has been making videos on her current channel since 2013, said at VidCon. “YouTube gamifies a lot of creators, so they will try to do the most outlandish stuff and one up, one up, one up, one up, one up. That's why you'll have someone like Logan Paul go into the suicide forest, without a moment of thought.”
There’s another frustration that’s already apparent from this article: diversity, a failure that follows YouTube to this day. That Forbes’ list of the highest-earning YouTubers in 2018 contained no Black creators, and also no women.
“I remember my first panel. It was Jenna Marbles and Grace Helbig and a couple of other people,” Simon (GloZell) reflected. “And I'm like, Oh gosh, everyone is beautiful and white and blonde and young. I'm old enough to be the mom, and Black.”
For every Logan Paul joining YouTube, there’s another thoughtful, necessary creator sitting behind the camera for the first time, ready and determined to fix the issues original YouTubers have been lamenting. But with everyone scrambling to get views and beat the algorithm, the onus is put on diverse creators to make their already disadvantaged voices heard.
“I'm very different from a lot of the known trans people on YouTube right now because I transitioned over a decade ago,” Blaque said of the pressure to define herself on the platform. “I have a lot of perspective, and these are not new things. You're not going to be able to debate who I am away from me...so I do feel a greater responsibility to just be visible and to talk about things.”
“Inclusivity wasn't really talked about three years ago like it is now,” Nyma Tang, a newer YouTuber whose hit make-up series “The Darkest Shade” earned her over one million subscribers, told Refinery29. “I pretty much showed them the lack of inclusivity. At that point in time, there was no one on the platform doing beauty content the way that I'm doing it now, and it was just out of pure frustration.”
In her three years making videos, Tang says she has noticed an increase in the confidence of dark-skinned women on YouTube, as well as an influx of dark skin being more welcomed on other platforms like Instagram, and that’s just the beginning of what she has planned for her YouTube career.
“What else am I supposed to do?”
But for the first YouTube guinea pigs, their days of internet fame and ceiling-breaking are behind them. One by one, as they grew the platform, and it became harder to get noticed through the algorithm, and the culture of YouTube hurtled towards...whatever it is today, they found themselves moving their careers onto more traditional paths that were clearly still informed by their YouTube experience.
Templeton went on to co-found Everybody At Once, a marketing agency that’s worked with shows like Orphan Black and Doctor Who to develop audiences and fan communities. Nunes continues to independently make music, and has released two full albums as well as her most recent EP, Ughwow, and will be performing at Rockwood Music Hall in NYC on July 30. Charlie McDonnell (CharlieIsSoCoolLike), who started out making quaint songs on the ukulele before transitioning to narrative and science videos, is a writer and producer for Quibi’s upcoming sci-fi series, Don’t Look Deeper. Sugg, a beauty and fashion YouTuber, now mostly posts vlogs on her secondary channel, with her main focus being the beauty and lifestyle brand she founded. Hoover works in marketing, Hyde at Ubisoft, and Crosson voiced Barack Obama in My Cartoon President thanks to his popular YouTube impression that earned him 780,000 subscribers. This is just a small sample, but shows how valuable a stepping stone YouTube can be.
At the same time, though, there are a number of original creators who have stuck around, having found a way to keep chugging along thanks to the subscribers who remain loyal.
“What else am I supposed to do?” Simon asked. “I love it. I'm enjoying myself.”
“I've been on YouTube long enough to know that it's kind of like fashion, it's always changing,” Brittani Louise Taylor, who started on YouTube with character videos 10 years ago and has earned 1.4 million subscribers, explained at VidCon. “Challenges were in style, and then special effects were in style, and then parodies were in style, and now documentary and reality TV is in style. I don't think it's going anywhere — you just keep evolving with the site.”
In fact, the current generation of YouTubers is already preparing for the cycle to keep churning, with people like 18-year-old YouTuber Haley Pham telling me that she thinks highly-produced videos are coming back into style. TikTok, at least in its earlier iteration, is just an updated version of the lip sync videos of yore. Still, when The Harris Poll asked 3,000 children in the United States, China, and the United Kingdom what they wanted to be when they grew up, the top answer in both the U.S. and the U.K. was “Vlogger/YouTuber.” If only they could see the long road behind them, littered with abandoned channels, millions of dollars left on the table, and the exact same videos they’re about to make all over again.