It was all so painfully awkward. That night, Brittany Ashley, a lesbian stoner in red lipstick, was at Eveleigh, a popular farm-to-table spot in West Hollywood. The restaurant was hosting Buzzfeed’s Golden Globes party. For the past two years, Ashley has been one of the most visible actresses on the company’s four YouTube channels, which altogether have about 17 million subscribers. She stars in bawdy videos with titles like “How To Win The Breakup” or “Masturbation: Guys Vs. Girls,” many of which rack up millions of views.
The awkward part was that Ashley wasn’t there to celebrate with Buzzfeed. She was there to serve them. Not realizing that her handful of weekly waitressing shifts at Eveleigh paid most of her bills, a coworker from the video production site asked Ashley if her serving tray was “a bit.” It was not.
The question sent Ashley into a depressive spiral. Hers just wasn’t the breezy, glamorous life people expected from her. Customers had approached her at work before, starstruck but confused. Why would someone with 90,000 Instagram followers be serving brunch?
Simple: because Ashley needed the money. And yet, she said, “as I started having more visibility on the internet, I had to scale back on serving people.” Her wallet took the hit, and so did her pride. “My coworkers would tell me a table of kids was freaking out [about seeing me] and I’m like, ‘What? Am I going to go say hi and take a picture in my work uniform?’”
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. Take moderately successful YouTubers, for example. Connor Manning, an LGBT vlogger with 70,000 subscribers, was recognized six times selling memberships at the Baltimore Aquarium. Rosianna Halse Rojas, who has her own books and lifestyle channel and is also YouTube king John Green’s producing partner, has had people freak out at her TopMan register. Rachel Whitehurst, whose beauty and sexuality vlog has 160,000 subscribers, was forced to quit her job at Starbucks because fans memorized her schedule.
In other words: Many famous social media stars are too visible to have “real” jobs, but too broke not to.
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. Journalists kvell over stars like Swedish gamer Pewdiepie, whose net worth is around $12 million, or comedian Jenna Marbles, who’s worth around $2.5 million. On the other extreme, fan-funding sites like Patreon (a Kickstarter-type site that allows for ongoing funding) 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?
Nobody knows all this better than me. I’m 27 years old and have been building an online following for 10 years, beginning with a popular Livejournal I wrote in high school. A couple of years ago, after moving to Los Angeles, I made the transition from freelance writing to creating online video. The channel I have with my best friend Allison Raskin, Just Between Us, has more than half a million subscribers and a hungry fan base. We’re a two-person video creation machine. When we’re not producing and starring in a comedy sketch and advice show, we’re writing the episodes, dealing with business contracts and deals, and running our company Gallison, LLC, which we registered officially about a month ago.
And yet, despite this success, we’re just barely scraping by. Allison and I make money from ads that play before our videos, freelance writing and acting gigs, and brand deals on YouTube and Instagram. But it’s not enough to live, and its influx is unpredictable. Our channel exists in that YouTube no-man’s-land: Brands think we’re too small to sponsor, but fans think we’re too big for donations. I’ve never had more than a couple thousand dollars in my bank account at once. My Instagram account has 340,000 followers, but I’ve never made $340,000 in my life collectively.
The high highs and low lows leave me reeling. One week, I was stopped for photos six times while perusing comic books in downtown LA. The next week, I sat faceless in a room of 40 people vying for a menial courier job. I’ve walked a red carpet with $80 in my bank account. Popular YouTube musician Meghan Tonjes said she performed on Vidcon’s MainStage this year to screaming, crying fans without knowing whether she’d be able to afford groceries.