YouTube is well into its 12th year of existence – and by internet standards, this is practically old media. But it also means that more and more of the platform’s brightest stars are celebrating over a decade of work; or in some cases, the anniversary of when they quit their YouTube career.
There’s no denying that the site is growing and diversifying in its focus year on year; but at the same time, familiar faces and big names of YouTube days gone by are less and less present. If you asked your average YouTube fan if they remembered when DaveDays “sold out” and wrote a song about Carl’s Jr. burgers, they would ask “Did he use #spon? Also, who?”
Ten years hardly feels like a fair amount of time for a rising artist to fade into obscurity; least of all, the pioneers of what might be the defining artistic medium of the 21st century. And yet, it seems as though many of the people who were once cornerstones in the development of what it means to be a “YouTuber” have since burnt out, or moved on, or just dissipated back into the crowd.
In the late 2000’s, LisaNova was the YouTuber.
As an LA-based, comedy-focused, stunning 20-something, Lisa Donovan was the blueprint for what a lot of today’s YouTubers aspire to be; and you could almost argue her channel was ahead of its time. As LisaNova skyrocketed (proportionally to the time) around 2007-8, Lisa was inescapable on the platform. Creators looking for a boost in views would include her name in tags, titles and thumbnails; to the point where she parodied the whole situation by offering a downloadable pack of provocative thumbnail templates of herself to fans.
However, since then, Lisa is all but invisible on the platform. After co-founding the enormous (and now Disney-owned) YouTube channel network Maker, Lisa drifted out of the YouTube limelight. Her channel peaked at a modest 550,000 subscribers; and her social media doesn’t allude in any way to what she’s doing now. Her last IMDB credit lists her as “Flight Attendant” in Kevin Hart’s 2015 film ‘The Wedding Ringer’. Compared to the embarrassing lengths in which some of today’s amateur YouTubers are willing to go to grow their channels to that size, it almost seems wasteful to walk away.
But it’s not just the old-school YouTubers.
Even nowadays, with YouTube’s ongoing “Adpocalypse“, we have seen a wide range of up-and-coming creators saying their “goodbyes” to YouTube after just a couple of years at the top. Ethan Klein and his wife Hila have been running h3h3Productions since 2013. While this is pretty late in the game by the community’s standards, h3h3 has still garnered a huge and active audience. But this was something they were almost willing to give up in light of constant de-monetisation of their content.
At the moment, just searching “Goodbye YouTube” yields multiple results per day from creators ranging from ten subscribers to tens of thousands – and not all of them are clickbait.
So why do YouTubers burn out so fast?
When you look at how much people today still worship rock bands of the 60’s, or an actor whose filmography stretches back over five decades, it almost feels ridiculous that some YouTube creators seem to hang up their camera after just a few years. Even after a decade, YouTube is still in very early days as an artistic medium; and it looks as though there are definitely plenty of huge creators who won’t be going away any time soon. But is it truly sustainable?
In every artistic medium, the rule of thumb seems to be that you are as good as your last piece. For musicians, this can be an album every 2-3 years. Filmmakers, anywhere from 6 months to 5 years between projects is acceptable. But thanks to the faster-moving nature of digital content, YouTubers are expected to have something rolling out at least once a week to remain relevant. Can someone truly manage this level of output for 20, 30 years? Should we accept that many creators are just living the full length of an artistic career in a much more concentrated amount of time, retiring before they turn 30? Or the biggest question of all: should we really be treating “YouTuber” as a career at all, when one business decision could end it completely?
YouTube, for all its glory and everything it has given the world, is a platform first and foremost. It has maybe been a mistake to allow it to become so heavily associated with “online video content”; to the point where this genre feels impossible to successfully replicate anywhere else. But after 12 years, and with YouTube’s volatile business decisions of late impacting creators in ways nobody can predict, it might be time to see how this artform truly evolves outside of the website. It may very well be that it’s only without YouTube that we’ll be able to see just how sustainable being a “YouTuber” really is.