“There have been YouTube influencers since the birth of YouTube.” Now they just monetize a little better.
On this episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask, Daily Beast reporter Taylor Lorenz talks with Kara Swisher and Lauren Goode about the state of YouTube in early 2018. The three discuss how some of its biggest stars have begun to attract negative attention in recent years and what the site could be doing to keep exploitative content off its platform.
You can read some of the highlights from the discussion here or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
If you like this, be sure to subscribe to Too Embarrassed to Ask on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Kara Swisher: Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, executive editor of Recode.
Lauren Goode: And I’m Lauren Goode, senior tech editor at The Verge.
KS: You’re listening to Too Embarrassed to Ask, coming to you from the Vox Media podcast network. I’m going to read this line now, Lauren. Are you sure it’s okay?
LG: Trying to take over the show step by step.
KS: This is a show where we answer all of your embarrassing questions about consumer tech.
LG: It could be anything at all, like, what does Kara Swisher watch on YouTube?
KS: A lot of things.
LG: Does she even watch YouTube?
LG: She’s complained about the amount of data her sons use watching YouTube.
KS: They use YouTube a lot. I don’t use YouTube a lot. I, sometimes, when I’m looking up “SNL” skits. That’s pretty much it.
LG: Or when you’re watching my series.
KS: Yes, sure. That too. Send us your questions …
LG: Did you like that last one about the smart cars, the flying cars?
KS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I didn’t know …
LG: I had to mention the flying cars.
KS: Find us on Twitter or tweet … I know you’re a tricky one like that. Tweet them to us at Recode or myself or to Lauren with the hashtag #TooEmbarrassed.
LG: We also have an email address. It’s email@example.com. A friendly reminder, there are two Rs and two Ss in embarrassed. I would do an episode on flying cars, that’d be a good one.
KS: Yeah, why don’t you do that one?
LG: That’s vertical takeoff and landing. Okay, all right. Today on Too Embarrassed to Ask we’re talking about the world of YouTube influencers.
LG: There are people now — and in some cases, pretty young people.
KS: Pretty comma young people or pretty young people?
LG: Both. Both. Pretty comma young and pretty young people who make a living entirely off of their YouTube videos.
KS: A friend of mine’s dating one.
LG: They’re called creators. Really?
KS: Yeah. I’m not going to say.
LG: Okay. All right. Well there are also some people who are making a living off of YouTube who are at the center of a lot of controversy, including Logan Paul who came under fire after he published a YouTube video of a corpse in a so-called Japanese suicide forest.
KS: Yeah, I don’t think it’s a so-called forest. I think it is when he did that.
LG: Well, I mean, it’s a forest, but people have called it a suicide forest because of what has happened there, unfortunately.
KS: Yeah, that was really appalling in many ways. Anyway, there’s a lot of other recent issues in YouTube as well. I just recently read … When we just came, we talked a lot about this and some others. It seems like every week something else comes up, including last year’s PewDiePie controversy. All of this is brought to light not only on the growing industry of YouTube creators and how the industry works; it also highlights YouTube’s need to seriously figure out how to moderate its content and also payments. Just in every area, YouTube has been … It has a lot of folks, as well as the Russia issues, the use of the medium by Russian perpetrators to impact the election.
LG: So we’re excited to bring in Taylor Lorenz. She’s a writer for The Daily Beast who has been covering the world of social media influencers, from the stars of the HQ app to the Paul brothers in YouTube. Welcome, Taylor. It’s your first time on Too Embarrassed. We’re super excited to have you on.
Taylor Lorenz: Thanks so much for having me.
KS: Yeah, so let’s talk about the whole concept of YouTube influencer from the beginning of YouTube, cheeseburger, iJustine. I actually went to a party that YouTube threw when Chad Hurley was running it. They threw it in San Francisco at one of the docks, and the YouTube influencer at the time who was starting to get some traction was Katy Perry, which was kind of … and she performed. It was crazy. It was kind of … Now that I think about it, I got a whole Katy Perry concert, like, right from the beginning. But it has been the birthplace of viral videos. So can you talk a little bit about that, where it’s gone and where it’s going? What you’re seeing on the YouTube, as the oldsters like to call it.
Sure. Yeah. I mean, it’s kind of crazy, just the amount and content that is uploaded there daily, and also all the different sort of like types of communities that have evolved. I think you mentioned PewDiePie earlier. He’s obviously one of YouTube’s biggest creators. He’s got 60 million subscribers now. But there have been YouTube influencers sort of since the birth of YouTube. A lot of first-generation influencers like Tyler Oakley, Grace Helbig. I didn’t know Katy Perry was on there, but …
LG: She was.
But yeah, it has sort of entered into this mainstream culture, but more recently, we’ve seen I guess the culture around influencers pivot. So I would say YouTube sort of started off with these people who would … You didn’t have smartphones, they weren’t as prevalent back then, so it was a lot of people that were sort of like in their dorm rooms vlogging to the camera with their webcam. And then it sort of moved into more viral videos, and different types of influencers doing different stunts or different music video things like parodies, and then in the past couple of years, it’s been more sort of day-to-day vloggers that I’ve taken over, which are people who sort of document every part of their life and upload it as they go.
LG: What are the three channels that, if people aren’t familiar with the culture of YouTube influencers, what are three channels with three people that everyone should go look at right now to get a sense of what the trends are right now in terms of what’s big on YouTube?
That’s a really good question. I actually would recommend PewDiePie just because he is so massive and he’s sort of a commentator now, and he sort of talks about a lot of things that are happening on YouTube, so he can give you kind of a good overview. Also, I hate to recommend them, but maybe perhaps one of the Paul brothers, Jake or Logan, just because they are so emblematic of this culture. Their vlogs are sort of like what … They sort of pioneered this vlog style that has taken over sort of the influencer world. Then I feel like I don’t … I want to recommend a girl. I’m trying to think who would be the best.
LG: Think about that and we’ll come back to you on that.
LG: But how many people would you guess are legitimately making their careers or living off of YouTube right now, if you just had to give sort of a rough estimate?
Honestly, that’s a really good question and I’m not sure. I mean, I think of the top, top, top creators. There are maybe under a thousand. I think there are several thousand now. I want to say 6,000, but it’s probably even more creators with over a million followers. So that was this one time, this big milestone, and now, a million followers is not such a … I mean, it’s still a milestone, but there are lots of creators that have scaled much further past that. But there are a lot of other ways that people make money on YouTube when they’re not living a sort of creator lifestyle. There are a lot of gaming channels. There are a lot of people who sort of produce series. You saw a lot of the kids’ content recently come under fire.
There’s this sort of algorithmically generated content on YouTube that people can play for their children. That’s all being monetized. So there are lots of sort of different ways to monetize your content. Some of the people that are making the most amount of money, though, are like the PewDiePies of the world who do the daily vlogging.
KS: About how many are doing really well? About a thousand, right? Like it’s something …
Yeah. I mean, there’s maybe a thousand top, top influencers. Honestly, to be truly honest, there’s probably 500 big names that are people that are hot and growing right now. There’s not tons but there are different …
KS: Yeah, and they tend to wax and wane.
KS: And they sometimes go into real Hollywood and usually not well. They try to jump to the next medium.
They all try and pivot out of YouTube because YouTube is not end-to-end sustainable, and like you said, they all have a shelf life. So a lot of them, either if they can’t successfully go into like becoming an actor or starring in a TV show — which most of them can’t because they’re not good actors — they’ll try to produce their own stuff or start their own talent agency or things like that.
LG: In terms of the style of content that you see really jumping out right now on YouTube, like obviously, there are different buckets or categories, right? There are antics and pranks. There’s the daily vlog, like, glimpse inside my life. There’s like the daredevil type stuff. Is there something that stands out to you as a thing that people should consider when they’re looking at these influencers, looking at this to … or even if they want to try to be one? Are you trying to do it as raw as possible? Should it be highly produced? Do you know what I mean? Is there a style that you can sort of attach this current moment in YouTube too?
Yes. I would say yeah. I mean, a 10-minute sort of daily vlog, that’s definitely produced. It’s usually like, you’ll take footage from the whole day, cut it down, or take footage from the whole week and cut it down, usually highlighting one big main moment, whether that’s a prank, whether it’s like a beauty reveal or something else. The 10-minute mark is significant because that’s when you can sort of like double monetize it well. So, you get a little bit more ad money if you reach the 10-minute mark, so a lot of vlogs now sort of follow that format.
I would say the one sort of broader trend that’s taken over, at least in the influencer community on YouTube over the past year, is drama. A lot of the top influencers have started staging drama between each other, engaging in real drama. It’s become this sort of thing where …
KS: Reality show.
It’s like a reality show, yeah. And that reality show …
KS: They all live in the same place in Hollywood, right? There’s that one ridiculous place.
Yeah, a lot of them live at 1600 Vine, and then each sort of squad will have their own house. So, Jake Paul has his Team 10 house. There is another sort of ex-Viner house that a lot of them live at. It’s like a frat house or like watching “Big Brother” or something where your … or “Real World,” I guess, where you’re kind of watching this reality show play out.
KS: They have big fans. I mean, that’s the thing they have. I said something negative about one of them, I can’t remember which one. I said something negative on Twitter, and it was literally like being … It was like a pack of 12-year-old girls who went crazy on me.
LG: You cannot …
KS: Crazy. “I cannot believe you don’t understand his soul.” I was like, “Oh I understand it, sweetheart. I got it down pretty pat. I don’t think you do, and good luck with that in the coming years.” But it was really … It was fascinating to watch the fan base. They love their YouTube influencers, let’s just say.
Yeah, it’s funny because people compare it a lot to like Backstreet Boys or N Sync and stuff, which I guess is a little bit older, or any sort of cult around certain entertainers. I’d say the difference, though, between a YouTuber is they have a much deeper relationship with their audience. Their audience really feels more of a friendship with them and relates to them, I think on a more personal level, because they’re usually experiencing all their personal stuff in their life, and then also they follow them on every platform. They’re watching every Instagram Story that they put out. So they’re just consuming a higher rate of content than … They might love One Direction too, but One Direction only puts out like an album a year.
KS: Yeah, that’s a really good point.
LG: I’m going to age myself, but it sounds to me like the “Real world,” like you know …
LG: Some of the drama was real. Some of it’s manufactured. A lot of it was heightened …
KS: Even the Kardashians.
LG: … just because they would shove all these people in a house together in LA or somewhere else, and be like, “Go. Live life together,” and inevitably there would be all this drama.
KS: I guess.
LG: It was always on camera. Then there was the confessional room, which is kind of like the point the camera in the face now with your phone and be like … I mean,”Let me tell you what Puck said today that really pissed me off.”
KS: Gosh. The minutes of my life. I did not watch. Not watching that. In any case … But they veer into idiocy and real problematic, appalling content too, which YouTube has … They have had a lot of problems of late … but they’ve always had problems with content moderation. I can’t think, like, that story seems to go on and on.
So what do you think YouTube needs to do to fix this? Because I was at YouTube recently talking in front of the company, and they said … When someone stood up, and in a moment of honesty, said, “It used to be squirrel videos, and now we have a college ethics debate every day over something on the service.” They say they’re going to fix it by AI.
And Susan Wojcicki announced hiring 10,000 new content moderators. I think just recently I told her that they needed a million or two million to do that because of the amount of content going on there. So, what do they need to do to fix the problems? Because they say they have community guidelines, but they’re regulated unevenly.
Yeah. Their community guidelines are just so arbitrarily regulated and it’s so all over the place. And I agree that they would probably need like a million more people if they wanted to truly try to moderate a lot of the platform. I mean, one thing that we’ve seen recently is all of these major stars have very public kind of blowups in the media, like, doing really problematic stuff. I’m by no means a content moderation expert, but I do think that they should have some kind of system where things are being reviewed on a regular basis, if you reach a certain threshold on your channel.
KS: A number.
I would say it’s a subscriber number where, yes, they should be moderating tons of stuff, but if somebody has an audience of millions, like 16 million, they should keep a closer eye. They theoretically do, but they really don’t moderate. They’ve given a lot of — even the biggest creators — a lot of free rein, and it only becomes a problem when things are getting negative attention in the media.
So, I don’t know. I think that they need some sort of tiered system where if people are generating this huge audience just because of the fact that their videos are going to be automatically viewed by such a large amount of people that they should have a little bit more scrutiny around that.
KS: They also have an issue, though. They don’t want editorial control. They’re very loath to admit that, even though they use the word media guidelines, but that’s really editorial control. But they don’t like to use editorial, the word, they hate it. They say, “Oh we’re not editors. We’re a platform,” you know, that whole speech. All of them give … not just YouTube.
LG: Do you see the similar … the Facebook approach.
KS: Facebook, same thing, yeah.
LG: But the more you say that it’s a platform, then you’re not acknowledging you’re a media company.
KS: Right. Well, whatever. It’s a stupid game we play with them. They’re a media company. They’re all media companies.
LG: But if you wanted to show the parallel … and this is not like in some huge defense of YouTube, but I’m really just curious. You want to draw the parallel right now between TV as we knew it for years and YouTube now, which is TV for a lot of young people growing up. That’s like all they watch. Cable was also not the media company either. It was distribution.
KS: It was regulated.
LG: Right, it was regulated, so …
KS: And it was limited.
LG: … in this case assuming like …
KS: It was limited in 24 hours a day on each channel. So, I mean, if there were 500 channels, that’s one thing. This is billions, right? I mean, Taylor, isn’t it some …
Yeah, yeah. I mean, it would be almost impossible to regulate it all or adhere … like put standards around it. I do think, though, if you are in the Google Preferred ad network or if you do have some threshold of millions of followers, that you should be held to tighter scrutiny.
KS: I agree.
Yeah, they say … You’re right. It’s any company. But right now, it’s just this really … They’ve alienated so many creators, because they’re just randomly punishing people if they get in trouble with the press, but they’re not really being proactive about changing the culture or changing what content performs … which I guess, what you’re saying, it’s true. I know that they don’t want to exert that much control, but I think they just need to take a little bit more of a proactive approach with some of the biggest people in their platform.
KS: And what about AI?
I mean, I’m so skeptical of …
KS: That’s something Susan Wojcicki points to.
I know. I heard her say that to you. I honestly … so much of this stuff, it’s not in my … and I don’t know. I guess maybe AI is smarter than I think. But take the YouTuber that just got in trouble last week for throwing water in people’s faces and a sort of fake acid attacks in London. That in itself, throwing water in someone’s face, is not necessarily a problematic prank, but the fact that London has been sort of hit with this spate of actual acid attacks and sort of the nature in which he was doing it is what caused such outrage around it and caused YouTube to remove the video in the end. I don’t know that an AI would have sort of that historical context and be able to sort of anticipate those types of nuances. I’m really skeptical. I think it takes a human being.
KS: Well, they don’t want to pay money. That’s what it is. They have to then pay the money like the rest of us do, the rest of the media. It has to have big costs in order to monitor things and they’ve been … all of these, not just YouTube, have been getting away with very few people and letting anything goes and then wondering why people behave badly. They have a presumption of that people don’t behave badly when, in fact, every single moment of human history says that you got some tool, you’re going to fuck with people.
LG: Right, and these social sites are an amplification of that in a lot of ways, but it’s a slippery slope from moderating to curating to editing to, “Oops. We’re a media company.”
KS: What’s the slope? What’s the slope? They take the money. They take the advertising money.
LG: In a sense that the more that you do as a so-called platform, the more you start to encroach on territory of, like I said, it starts with a little bit of moderation, and all of a sudden you’re into curation, and all of a sudden you’re into editing, and then you’re making decisions, and all of a sudden you’re a media company.
KS: Yeah, they are. That’s right. That’s so right there.
They are. I mean, they already [do] sort of like curate and promote certain content like they have.
There are YouTube Red shows, too, where they directly work with some of these biggest creators on developing content. They already are a media company. I think that they just need to recognize it and be more proactive about …
KS: And communicate their values. I mean, that’s the thing. These are their values. “We do not promote this. This goes off. This comes off.” And I don’t think they’re going to be perfect about … like the haphazard nature, there’s so much content here. They’re going to make mistakes, but at least have a commitment to trying to keep those standards properly vetted among the people that are on that service.
LG: Taylor, I’m curious where you see YouTube fitting into society at large in terms of just the way people consume content right now. I mean, it has one and a half billion people on the site. YouTube says people are watching something like a billion hours of video a day, and as I mentioned earlier, there are some people who are growing up now where YouTube is the only thing that they watch. They don’t necessarily watch TV news. That was something that their grandparents did, or they’re watching other streaming services, some of its competitors.
I mean, do you see this as this is the way that people growing up now are going to watch videos going forward, even if YouTube continues to play fast and loose with its content moderation? And if so, what does that actually mean for video consumption?
Yeah, I mean, I certainly do. It’s hard to predict too far in the future, but certainly in the next several years, I don’t see YouTube going away. If anything, it just becomes more and more sort of prevalent. I interview a lot of kids and speak to a lot of fans of these creators and they’re hyper-dedicated to sort of following the content. That’s where they go. That’s where they go to watch stuff. It’s a better experience to watch stuff on YouTube, I think, than traditional TV — I mean, just in the sense that you can watch it whenever you want. You can subscribe to certain channels, and they’re pumping stuff 24/7 out that I guess is interesting, whereas it’s not like waiting for a TV show.
So I think … And also, obviously, the fact that it’s mobile, and it’s sort of short-form, easy to digest, I think … Yeah, I don’t see it going away at all. I think the type of content on the platform will evolve. I think eventually YouTube will do something to shift the format again. When they made a shift, I think it was in 2012, initially that was going — instead of cutting, sort of, optimizing for views, optimizing for watch time, and you saw these longer videos emerge. I think as they grow the platform, I think they’ll probably encourage different types of, I guess, content, like formats, and so maybe different types of videos will emerge, different types of creators.
But I think that YouTube as a service is still compelling, especially for young people. Yeah, it’s just like I was saying before, I think that the people that they watch there, they just have a deeper relationship with than other people. I mean, even people that they watch on Disney, they’ll still follow on YouTube.
KS: Yep, absolutely.
LG: Yeah, like there will be an era where people growing up will be like, “I don’t remember a time when there wasn’t personalized media.”
KS: Yeah, that’s true, although, again, anecdotally, my kids watch a lot of “Rick and Morty” and “Family Guy.” They watch it one after the other on demand.
LG: Oh interesting. They’re bingeing.
KS: They have certain things they find, and that’s their primary viewing, I’ll say. They watch shows or else do video games, that kind of thing. But they definitely use a lot … I think my kids use a lot of the YouTube videos that help you play video games, those kind of things.
I was going to say so many kids watch Minecraft videos and how-to videos.
KS: That’s my son, he was just doing that.
KS: My one son loves historical videos.
LG: I can’t wait until some of these YouTube influencers that are like super popular now just get older. We all get old, get older.
KS: Oh they’re going to be sad at 1600 Vines.
LG: But they’re still going at it. It’s going to be amazing. They’re going to be like, “Here is an episode about how I can’t drink as much as I used to anymore.” And then the next day it’s going to be like, “Found another suspicious mole.”
KS: What’s that movie with Jim Carrey, the one where they followed him his whole life.
LG: Oh “The Truman Show.”
Oh yeah, Truman Show.
KS: That was a good movie.
I think a lot of them do age out. They age out of their audiences far before they ever stop vlogging.
KS: They do.
Even if you think of a few superstars from a few years ago … like Nash Grier and Cameron Dallas were both like the hottest, most popular people, and now they’re sort of passé and old. I think, right now, Jake and Logan Paul are the hottest, most popular people, and in two years they’re going to be subsumed by something else.
KS: Or before that. I think before that. There was a bunch of kids over at the house and I mentioned Logan Paul and they were like, “Douche.” They just were like … like it was over. They had been watching them six months before, but then it was like, they go through them fast. It’s like fast food or something.
It’s funny. Yeah, I was actually interviewing another … There’s this YouTuber called RiceGum that’s sort of like the foil to Jake and Logan, and he’s now getting basically popular because people think that they’re lame. Anytime they reach a certain scale …
KS: There’s a lame moment.
LG: All right. You also wrote a great story, and before we get to the questions from readers and listeners, what it’s like for the parents of social media stars, which I think would be a nightmare of a parental situation. So, talk about the story really briefly.
Yeah, sure. So, I was really interested in how the families are affected when kids become really popular on social media, and it affects families I think a lot of different ways. A lot of parents, you know, fame will sort of come really quickly. Something that they have will go viral, or kids will just sort of develop this audience within six months or a year. I just talked to a lot of parents about how they navigate that. Some parents sort of go all-in. They move to L.A.
KS: Those parents.
They assume their kid’s going to … I know. And then other parents very much keep their kids out of that. Rob Bridges, who’s Jonas Bridges’ father, who’s a young livestreamer, he’s been so adamant about keeping his son in school and making sure that he has a contingency plan. I think it depends on the parent themselves. Like … not to keep bringing them up, but Jake and Logan Paul’s, their parents …
KS: They have parents?
VlogDad, Greg Paul, and Pam Paul or Pam Stepnick who has her Pamily. They both have tried to become social media influencers themselves.
KS: It’s like the Kardashians’s worse.
LG: Wow. When I was growing up, I was obsessed with basketball growing up. I can’t imagine growing up, like, my mom suddenly being like, “I’m going to pick up a basketball career too.”
I would be mortified if my mom …
LG: I’m like, “Mom, we have to talk.”
KS: She got a license to be a parent. I’m sorry. I just feel like you should pass a series of tests and you’d have a whole lot less kids.
Yeah. I think it’s hard. I think that it’s just hard to keep your kids grounded in general. If they suddenly have a lot of money or autonomy or feel emboldened by their social following, it just can sort of be a challenge parenting them, but there’s a lot of responsible parents who … Kids who are YouTubers who do have responsible parents, most of them don’t live in L.A.
LG: Kara, would you let Louie and Alex, if they expressed interest in being YouTube influencers, would you encourage that?
KS: I would … I guess probably not.
LG: I could picture what they would do. I think Louie would do a cooking show, and he’d be really good.
KS: He would be.
LG: And Alex would be … I don’t know … building bombs in the backyard.
KS: Right, exactly. Or Legos. Bombs out of Legos. I don’t know. I don’t think they … I don’t know. Probably I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t like that. I would not encourage it. How’s that? I wouldn’t discourage it, but I wouldn’t encourage … I wouldn’t go, “Yay, good job.”
LG: Oh interesting. Why is that?
KS: Because it’s just kind of gross. You know what I mean? They’re just kind of … like they have to have more substantive lives. I’ve watched a lot of these videos. They’re idiotic. They’re absolutely … At any age you are, they’re idiotic.
LG: But some of them are fun.
KS: Well …
LG: What if Alex is building robots, which is really more …
KS: Yeah, I like the instructional ones. The instructional ones are interesting. Taylor, you were talking about the Minecraft ones. They’re quite good.
KS: They’re quite good.
I think if your kid had a … There are some kids that have science channels and things.
KS: Yeah, some of them are good. Those are great.
Yeah, that’s very different than, like, you’re jumping off the roof of your house for the vlog or whatever.
KS: Yeah, and I don’t like them watching them, I’ll be honest with you. I don’t like them when they watch the stupid ones. I don’t mind … I’ll let them watch historical ones or even Minecraft ones for hours if they want to, if that’s what they want to do instead of in their TV watching time, but not the … I just don’t like …
LG: That’s a whole category on YouTube.
KS: It is. “I just made slanty eyes at a Chinese person. Ha ha, funny.” Like, what? There was one I saw. I literally was looking down my … I was like, “Turn that off now.” It was so … They’re racist. They’re rude. I get … They go, “It’s a joke, Mom.” I’m like, “It’s not a funny joke.” I’m like the angry old woman shaking her fist at the internet now.
There’s a lot of YouTubers, though, that will critique the popular YouTubers that have pretty popular followings too, though. I don’t know. I feel like there are some kids that are skeptical that have found their skeptical influencers, that are like, “Those kids suck.”
KS: Yeah. There’s that too.
LG: Right, yeah. They’re providing reasonable thought and filters.
Yeah, they’re not …
KS: But many of them are onto them, for sure.
We’re here with Taylor Lorenz from The Daily Beast talking about YouTube. And now, we’re going to take some questions from our readers and listeners. Lauren, would you like to read the first question?
LG: Yes, I would. This is from Grzegorz Ignatowicz. I really hope I said that correctly.
KS: That’s a name.
LG: “How many years ago should I have started uploading videos?” Well, I guess if you missed the boat on being a YouTube influencer, I don’t know what to tell you.
KS: What do you think, Taylor?
LG: Taylor, what do you think?
Actually, it’s funny. I don’t think you had to start as long ago as you think. I mean, I just interviewed this one girl, Elle Mills, who started less than a year ago and she’s already reached a million followers. It’s pretty easy to just scale quickly, especially if you get big on Instagram or something first, you can blow up really quickly on YouTube. So it’s never really too late to do.
KS: What does she do?
Actually, she’s a female pranker.
KS: Oh God.
I know. But actually, she does pretty creative ones, and she’s sort of trying to change this male-dominated prank culture.
KS: It’s like “Candid Camera.” I’m just dating myself.
KS: It’s the same thing. Embarrassing people for fun.
Yeah. I would just say, don’t think that to become a popular vlogger you would have had to start like nine years ago, because you’d be passé by now.
KS: There’s also no age, correct? Presumably?
Yeah, you can get …
KS: You’re just not writing about the oldsters who are doing great things.
I try, but they’re usually not as popular as like the 15-year-old, you know …
KS: I was at YouTube, and they were like, “Kara, you need to start your channel.” I’m like, “Uh-uh. No.” They want me every day to go, “Hi.”
LG: I would watch the channel.
KS: Would you? Today?
KS: Today in Kara Swisher Land.
I just want to see you carrying around the vlog cam. Every vlog cam.
KS: Hey, hey everybody, hey, I’m going to prank Lauren today, there’s a whoopie cushion on her seat, it will be crazy.
LG: You should bring back the Flip camera.
KS: I did. I was an original vlogger.
LG: You used to stick that thing in people’s faces and get answers.
KS: I did. That was genius.
KS: Yes, that was early genius by Kara Swisher.
Anyway, Jullian Sibi: “Are there any other ways for video creators to make money besides YouTube and Patreon?” Yes, that’s a good question.
Big time. Yes. Most of … I mean …
KS: Explain Patreon first.
Sure. So Patreon is a little way that you can subscribe to monthly payments to your favorite creators or really anyone. Basically, you would donate maybe $ 5 a month or something to support someone’s art or creation. It’s popular with a lot of podcasters, too, and other creative artists. I don’t think Patreon is honestly a way that most YouTubers support themselves. The biggest revenue stream for most top creators outside of ad revenue is merch.
Yeah, merch is the way that you make your millions. So basically, you sell merch. You sell … 40 of the biggest YouTubers just in the past year at launch, you sort of like make custom merch lines. The whole thing is to constantly be launching new merch. So it’s like flash sales 24/7 based off, say, like a YouTuber is in a relationship with another YouTuber, they’ll sell ship merch, with their ship name, relationship name on it.
KS: Oh no. Like what?
Yeah, so, if it’s like Kara and Lauren, your ship name would be like #Kauren, and then you’d sell sweatshirts with that on it immediately.
LG: Kauren. I like that.
LG: Yeah, because it uses primarily my name.
KS: All right.
LG: There are people named Lara.
KS: It’s true. Did you see the Lara Croft movie is coming? Let me just say. I’m so excited.
KS: The new one. It’s Alicia Vikander or whatever her name is. I’m very excited. Anyway, I was just telling Lauren, Taylor, that I just bought my “Black Panther” tickets.
LG: Well, merch, but we need merch. We need #TooEmbarrassed. We need #TooEmbarrassed merch.
KS: Nobody wants TooEmbarrassed merch.
LG: Why not?
KS: We’ll have to think about it.
LG: You know what? If you guys want TooEmbarrassed merch, leave it in the comments please or email us firstname.lastname@example.org.
KS: We have to do something really good. I have hats. When I was thinking of running for mayor, they say, “Make San Francisco gay again.” What do you think about that?
LG: That’s a pretty good one.
KS: It’s a red hat. I wore one the other day. Someone’s like, “Are you a Trump supporter?” I’m like, “Read it, you dumbass.” I didn’t get that person’s vote. Anyway, I used to have bumper stickers for my aunt, who is a born-again Christian, so I just made it for her and then I made more of them, which is, “When the rapture comes, can I have your stuff?” That was a good one.
These are good. You’ve already come up with like five viral merch ideas here.
KS: I know, I’m a mercher. I’m a mercher. Anyway, do the next one.
LG: All right. The next question’s from …
KS: So how much money do they make on YouTube? Just answer that very briefly.
LG: Yeah, while we’re talking about merch and our merch strategy.
Millions. I mean, people asked me that. Jake Paul made $ 65 million last year total.
LG: Oh God.
From merch sale. A lot of top YouTubers make like between five and seven million dollars a month.
KS: 65 million? That asshole? Oh my God.
LG: Five million dollars a month?
LG: But that’s like the top echelon of influencers.
That’s like the top of the top, but I think even a mid-level person, I think the … Somebody was telling me recently, for every million views, is like, $ 1,200 or $ 1,500 or something. Some of these people are getting 20 million views on a video or whatever.
KS: Oh wow. Let’s get to it. Let’s reinvigorate.
LG: Yeah, Kara. We can fake drama.
KS: We can fake drama.
LG: We can have real drama.
KS: Yeah. All right. Next question, Lauren.
LG: Next question is from Joseph Bullivant. “Hi guys. Just wondering, how do relationships between YouTubers and their agents differ from standard PR practices? How much does preserving a ‘personal brand’ play a role? Do YouTubers themselves usually approach an agent? Or is it the other way around?”
Well there are a million thirsty agents who would love to get their hands on a lot of popular YouTubers. So a lot of times, I mean, as soon as kids will hit 10,000 subscribers, 15,000 subscribers, on YouTube, you’ll have talent scouts reaching out to them, managers reaching out to them. I actually wrote about that in the Beast today. Spoke to the parents about it. It can be really difficult for kids to kind of assess who is legit and who’s not. But the biggest YouTubers all … I mean, absolutely, they’re repped by William Morris’ Creative Artists Agency, like top … There’s digital talent managers and agents at all of those places. So it’s sort of similar to Hollywood where you’ll have a traditional manager, agent.
Unlike traditional Hollywood, they don’t get … Your manager doesn’t always get a say over the type of content that you post on a channel. They don’t review, I guess, all of the editorial output that you put in a day, so it can be more challenging to manage digital creators. But they’re still sort of pumped into the same Hollywood system.
There are a lot more, also — I would say, especially in the past years — companies that have popped up that are supposed to be specifically tailored to working with, like, digital creators, because they feel like a lot of mid-level creators’ needs aren’t being met, and that basically those people will work with the creators, get the business opportunities, brand deals, things like that. Strategize with them on growing their channel. It’s a lot of actually ex-YouTube stars that are starting these types of agencies.
LG: Oh that’s interesting.
KS: They had a bunch where they want to tour … There’s a whole of bunch of things.
LG: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. From an agent perspective, that’s really interesting, because let’s say you rep a movie star and then you know exactly what they’re shooting at what time, and then a year later, you’re taking them through the junket, and you’re like you’re going to sit there and talk to these outlets, and you’re going to walk this carpet and that’s … We’re going to do all this, right?
KS: That’s a manager …
LG: And a YouTube creator’s like, “I’m going to vlog with whoever the hell I want every day.”
KS: It’d be hard.
There’s still a cadence to the year, like a lot of it’s built around VidCon and it’s like a lot of them will sort of build toward VidCon or build around specific opportunities that they have. Like, their YouTube Red shows will all launch around the same time. So there’s still sort of a broader structure to it, but yeah, it’s more …
KS: Red is interesting. Still no hit from them, but we’ll see. All right. A traditional hit the way like “Transparent” or some others.
Yeah. It’s not very good.
KS: They have some good ones. I have a friend working on one that sounds pretty good, actually. A decent writer who’s working on what sounds like a good show, but we’ll see. Liz Nasty Weeks, one of our long-time fans: “If/then talked about YouTube stars vis-a-vis vlogging, and my takeaway was this is for tweens and just a way to sell merch. Am I wrong? Is being a YouTube star just about vlogging or is there more to it? I feel plugged in on most tech platforms but this mystifies me.
Is there more to YouTube than selling merch? Is that the question?
LG: Vlogging and selling stuff.
Honestly, merch and vlogging are so intertwined at this point.
KS: All right. You got it, Liz. No mystery. Mystery solved. Mystery solved. And also, stupid pranks.
LG: But it does seem like some of the vloggers are very good at speaking to an audience in a way that feels like they’re really talking to people.
KS: And confessional, too. There’s a lot of confessionals.
LG: And being authentic that you don’t necessarily get in more slickly produced type of media.
But you get that content on Instagram, too. You get … A lot of the Instagram influencers talk in the same way.
LG: That’s a good point.
It’s like the same kind of thing. I think that format and that type of voice, your audience, just resonates with people.
KS: Yes, absolutely. Oh my God. It’s Mossberg.
LG: Mossberg had two tweets.
KS: Oh my God.
LG: He actually followed up with one too. Where did that one go?
KS: Oh my God. Mossberg has too much free time. Maybe Mossberg should have a channel.
Maybe he needs to … He can be like the oldest YouTube influencer.
KS: He’d be good. I can see Mossberg. “Hello. I’m in a cigar store today.”
LG: Mossberg used to just talk to people on his Mac …
KS: He did.
LG: … about his review for 10 minutes, and those for a very long time were the most popular videos on wsj.com.
KS: They were popular. Yes, they were.
LG: This is a true story.
KS: All right. Questions from the original vlogger.
LG: He was a vlogger.
LG: Mossberg says, “Are YouTube stars, like some Twitter influencers, making use of the purchase of fake followers? And even if it’s hard to buy fake followers on YouTube, are YouTube influencers buying them on Twitter?” Which I would assume yes, the latter, but yeah, can you buy fake followers on YouTube? Is that a thing?
You can get bots and stuff to watch your videos and get views up. It’s funny, the Twitter thing, they’re so shameless about scaling their audience, and yes, tons of them do just buy fake followers. At least on Twitter and Instagram is like a big one. But one thing that they do that’s really scammy too is they’d subscribe to the Taye Diggs philosophy of following everyone back, or they’ll follow, they’ll be like, “For 10 minutes, tweet me and I’ll follow all the fans that tweet my new video out in the next 10 minutes,” or whatever. So they do a lot of scammy stuff like that. That’s not buying followers, but it’s like …
It’s just kind of scammy. I don’t think the biggest ones would ever really significantly buy views. It’d be so obvious. But definitely for branded content and stuff, it’s usually given like a little bit of a boost, I think, by promotion.
There’s a big thing to be first in YouTube comments.
LG: Yeah, it happens. It happens in every single one of my videos. When you scroll down to the bottom, there’s always somebody …
People are like …
LG: “No, I was first.” “No, I was first!” “I’m first.”
Yeah, it’s an honor.
LG: That’s the thing, yeah.
KS: Minutes of our life just tick on by doing things like that.
Anyway, next one. “Looking at the Logan Paul incident and the brothers’ whole behavior and influence on young people, is there anything YouTube can do to prevent bad role models from having a huge influence on future generations? How do they stop the next Logan Paul before it’s too late?” Oh my God. That’s a question from the beginning of time. Elvis Presley and the hips … It’s always that, right?
Yeah, I don’t think … I mean, like we said before, I think there’s things they can do to moderate truly problematic content, but kids are never going to idolize like some boring straight-A person that isn’t …
KS: Never. Hello. Come on. Let’s bar teenagerness. Let’s bar teenagers, right?
LG: No one wants to watch YouTube videos of people doing homework.
KS: “Hi. We’re doing …”
LG: “I’m looking for the answers.”
KS: “We’re conjugating the following verbs.”
LG: Latin. Es orem …
Oh my God. You’re kind of getting Latin there.
LG: I’ve taken Latin, for two years in high school.
KS: You obviously didn’t go to the prom. You took Latin?
All right. Last question, which is a very good one from someone I know very well. Go ahead.
LG: Okay, I’ll read it. All right. This is from Erica Joy. Erica Joy did say, “Fair warning.” Taylor, you blocked her.
KS: Blocked her?
Wait, what? Wait. Are you kidding me?
KS: You blocked Erica Joy? I can’t …
LG: That’s what she said.
Guys, first of all, I have a very non-block policy and I love Erica Joy. She’s like on my list of people … She’s like on my tech list.
KS: I know. “You blocked me for asking this question.” I think she was in the middle of a troll storm and thought I was yet another troll.
LG: She says, “I think that you, Taylor, were in the middle of a troll storm,” yes, exactly. She thinks that you thought she was accidentally a troll.
I was in the middle of … If you deal with YouTubers, you get so many things, and I have mass blocked, but …
KS: You need to de-block her.
Wait, Erica, I follow you. She’s still on my list. You get some messy things and I have like mass blocks but I need to do blogger Erica I follow you’re on my … She’s still on my list in TweetDeck of people that I follow.
LG: Okay. Well she’s not …
KS: Erica, you are not blocked. This is fake news.
LG: You know what? We’re all about making peace on Too Embarrassed to Ask, and I’m glad to bring you two together. I wish we had Erica call in right now, but she said she’s really interested in the answer to this original question that she had asked. I think I know what this is related to. “So news outlets have demonstrated that they can and will write stories about user-generated content,” she says.
KS: I’m texting her right now.
LG: “All the while monetizing that content. What value does a YouTuber with an audience get out of doing interviews with news outlets if the news outlets will use their content anyway?” So I think we have to back up the bus a little bit here, because this was related to a tweet that you sent out a while ago about how you … You explain it.
I was supposed to write about this and then I still haven’t written about this because I’ve been so busy. And honestly, people just ask me so much and I need to just like write a thing on it. But yeah, so do you want me to explain it?
LG: Yes, that’d be great.
I sent out a tweet, I don’t know, like a month ago, and I said, “I’m always amazed at how many YouTubers ask for money when I reach out to them for a comment or for interviews,” and that was that. I was just like, it’s amazing because it happens a lot. It happens a lot and frequently. I’ll get into sort of the details of why I think that is in a minute, but so many people went insane. It got retweeted by a lot of troll type of people, a lot of right-wing anti-media people like Mike Cernovich and sort of his crew, and they were like, “Well YouTubers don’t need you, and you’re the mainstream media, so they don’t care, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.”
Here’s the thing. I’ve never lost an interview or not gotten an interview with a YouTuber because we’ve not paid them. Honestly, it usually comes from a place of ignorance. It’s always with smaller YouTubers. It’s never with YouTubers that have a legitimate agent, but it’s usually like a smaller YouTuber that you’re reaching out to directly, they don’t understand how media works, and they’re usually like, in their mind, it’s like, “Content. I’m providing you content. I should get paid.” You just explain to them the value, why you wouldn’t be paid for some type of thing, and they’ll usually almost always speak to you unless you’re asking for comment on something that they truly don’t want to comment on. I felt like that got lost because people were like, “Ha ha, YouTubers don’t talk,” and I’m like, “No, they all still want …” They’re so hungry for attention. They’re so hungry for attention, they’ll almost always talk to you.
The only time they won’t usually give you a quote is if they can like monetize sort of like their response. So sometimes you’ll reach out to a YouTuber about something that happened on YouTube or something they did, and they actually do want to make a statement about it, but they know that if they can put up like a five-minute vlog and monetize that on their channel where they share their response, that’s much better than giving a quote to The Daily Beast.
KS: Yeah, that’s like the Donald Trump plan, right?
Exactly, yeah. So, in that sense, they don’t need media. But I would say — and which I do say and which most YouTubers definitely understand is — there’s a huge value to doing mainstream press, especially around certain sort of product launches or things or whatever. Most YouTubers are desperate for attention, so they’ll usually … I mean, they want to grow their audience, and they want to reach new people, and they usually know that … yeah.
KS: Yeah, exactly. I love when they do that. I love when anyone does that. “I don’t have to talk to you.” I’m like, “Fine. Fuck you.”
LG: But what does that say about, I guess, the lack of … Maybe it’s a lack of understanding around the delineation between traditional media and YouTube, right? Like this idea …
KS: They don’t care.
LG: But let’s say you are a young YouTuber and you grew up with YouTube and you make YouTube videos, you make content and you get paid for it, and that’s the mode you’re in. Then, if you don’t actually understand that at some point there’s a difference between what you’re doing and the free press that is doing journalism and writing stories, then you …
KS: I think they get it. I think they get it.
Yeah, I think a lot of them get it. I mean, honestly, the ones that don’t are like in another world. They get it. They’re still going to ask like, “I don’t follow them for asking.” Whatever. They can ask for money. They want money for everything or whatever.
KS: They’ll talk to Taylor.
I mean, they won’t talk if like … For instance, I have a lot of friends that cover gaming, and I know that there are certain reporters at Polygon that certain YouTubers really don’t like because they feel like they weren’t covered fairly or whatever. Whatever. But if you’re writing a thing … I mean, it’s sort of like the same thing with the … I wrote about Scott Rogowski at one point where I’m just looking to talk to this guy about hosting HQ, super benign, like whatever, and the founder ended up freaking out over it. Most of the time a hit piece isn’t being planned, especially if it’s, like, most of the time …
KS: That was ridiculous. He’s an idiot. The founder’s an idiot. Hello, HQ founder, you’re an idiot. I saw that whole thing. FFS, as I like to say.
Anyway, YouTubers, they’re generally … yeah, it’s whatever. It is what it is.
KS: They love attention. I’m guessing they love attention.
They usually want attention.
LG: To answer Erica’s question, though, you still see that they could get value out of doing interviews with news outlets, even if we’re still sort of aggregating some of their content in some way anyway.
Oh an enormous … I mean, the biggest thing, the biggest way that they get value is that, first of all, I mean, it’s getting them in front of a mainstream audience. These are people that are desperate for mainstream approval. A lot of them don’t even like to be called YouTubers even though they make their living on YouTube, or they want to be called an aspiring actor or whatever. So they know that studio executives read the mainstream press. They know that brand managers read the mainstream press. They’re still evaluating themselves in that.
LG: Nobody puts Taylor Lorenz in the corner.
I was so mad about that tweet, though, because of all these trolls who were responding to me, and they were like, “Everyone who’s quoted in the news story should get paid because they’re helping make content,” and I was just like … Anyway, I was on a block. I did go on a block. Erica, I’m sorry that you got caught up in that.
KS: I just texted her and said you are going to make amends.
LG: But wait, I don’t mean to hammer this home again. So you’re saying that people who responded in that way, like they’re making content, therefore they should get paid. Do you think they do understand the difference between press and making other content? Because it sounds like maybe …
I think it’s confusing. I mean, look, it’s confusing. I remember when I was at People magazine, often magazines — especially tabloid magazines — will buy exclusive photos from these YouTubers, or there is payment involved for certain appearances and certain things. So I think for some of them, honestly, the line can be confusing, and when someone reaches out to them, they aren’t always 100 percent sure. But a lot of them I think just ask for money because they want money.
KS: They do, they do. We get that sometimes every now and then at Code or at one of our events.
Yeah, and then you’re just like, “No.”
KS: Someone’s like, “How much are you going to pay me?” I’m like, “How about nothing? Does nothing work for you? Because it works for me.”
Like, do you know how much I make? You think we have extra money.
KS: That’s not even what I say. I’m like, “No.”
$ 5 million? I’m like, “Where do you think news organizations get money that they can pay people for every single quote?”
KS: That’s a really nice way of saying it. Here, let me give you another line.
LG: Merch. That’s where we get it all.
Yeah, it’s merch.
KS: This is what you say, Taylor, “Fuck you.” You say, “Fuck you.” Try that.
I do think it’s an interesting thing. There are a lot of YouTubers. I’ve written a lot about Keemstar who kind of runs like the TMZ of YouTube. It’s called Drama Alert. He always gets the exclusive interviews with everyone because he is a YouTuber. So people will like … He’s kind of a bully, but people will talk to him because he’s of that world. And other … like Philip DeFranco’s another one, is sort of like a YouTube commentator. People will …
KS: Oh God, really? There’s commentators on the comment … Oh my God.
He’s like pivoting himself and he’s trying to be …
KS: Oh, Taylor. Taylor, I’m so glad someone’s going down this sad and scary road. We appreciate it. What’s your favorite YouTube thing? We’re going to finish there, last question.
The thing is, what I honestly subscribe to is how-to videos and tutorials from brands. It’s very lame. That’s my favorite.
KS: Like what?
I was really into the slime thing for a while.
You know how there’s the slime trends on YouTube and Instagram? People making slime.
LG: It’s a thing. It’s really cool. My niece made slime after watching it.
KS: Is it like the Tide Pods?
LG: Oh my God.
KS: My son had a million of those.
LG: I don’t think people are eating the slime. I think they’re just making it, right? Taylor?
No, no one eats the slime. It’s like a ASMR-type thing. It’s like you watch people make different slime. It’s just like a relaxing thing.
KS: I used to like watching people cut up vegetables. Yeah, okay. All right. I get it. I get it. I’m getting it. I’m getting it.
I still like Joey Graceffa. He’s like sort of an older-school YouTuber, but he was of the Tyler Oakley [era], but like, he just lives this beautiful life in LA with his boyfriend and dogs. I watch his vlogs and it’s so relaxing.
KS: Oh all right. Okay, there you go. There you go. I like that.
What do you watch?
KS: I watch anything. I watch “The Alienist.” I watch that. I watch regular TV. I’m an old lady. I watched “The Alienist.” It was quite good.
LG: You watched “How to Get Away With Murder.”
KS: On YouTube, on videos, I watch the news clips and stuff, and I watch … I’m a clip person when I’m on YouTube. I’m watching news clips or “SNL” videos or, you know, what’s his name? The one on HBO, Stephen Colbert and the other. All of them. John, whatever his name is. Anyway, I watch those, but nothing else much really. I lose interest really quickly.
Anyway, Taylor, we are glad you’re doing this. This is God’s work, of a sort, and we appreciate it very much, and you’re doing great work. Taylor is a writer for The Daily Beast. She’s doing really some great articles on this topic and a lot of other social media stuff. This has been another great episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask. Taylor, thank you for joining us.
Thank you so much for having me.
LG: Thank you, Taylor. It’s been great. And Taylor, tell people where they can find you online.
You can follow me on Twitter. I’m @TaylorLorenz. T-A-Y-L-O-R. L-O-R-E-N-Z.
KS: I just blocked you. Oops.
LG: Kara’s a troll. Don’t worry about it.
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