Why are so many YouTubers finding themselves stressed, lonely and exhausted?
When Matt Lees became a full-time YouTuber, he felt as if he had won the lottery. As a young, ambitious writer, director and presenter, he was able to create low-budget, high-impact films that could reach a worldwide audience, in a way that would have been impossible without the blessing of television’s gatekeepers just a few years earlier. In February 2013, he had his first viral hit, an abridged version of Sony’s announcement of its PlayStation 4 video game console, dubbed with a cheerily acerbic commentary. Within days the video had been watched millions of times. “It hardly seems viral at all, by today’s standards,” Lees says, yet it was one of the most viewed videos on YouTube that month. The boost to Lees’ ego was nothing compared with the effect it had on his career. When YouTube’s algorithm notices this sort of success, it starts directing viewers to the uploader’s other videos, earning the channel more subscribers and, via the snippety advertisements that play before each one, higher income. Overnight, Lees had what seemed like the first shoots of a sustainable career.
Excitement soon gave way to anxiety. Even in 2013, Lees was aware that his success depended not so much on smash hits as on day-by-day reliability. “It’s not enough to simply create great things,” he says. “The audience expect consistency. They expect frequency. Without these, it’s incredibly easy to slip off the radar and lose favour with the algorithm that gave you your wings.” By the end of the year Lees had grown his channel from 1,000 subscribers to 90,000, and caught the attention of one of his influences, Charlie Brooker, who invited Lees to collaborate on writing a Channel 4 special. For a month Lees worked 20-hour days, dividing his time between the TV script work and, ever conscious that missing a day’s upload could cause his videos to tumble down the search rankings, his YouTube channel.