July 06, 2020

YouTube, Upward Mobility, and Inequality

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

These days, much of my “television” watching is on YouTube. I’m not unique—according to Google’s CEO (Google’s parent company owns YouTube), about 2 billion logged-in users use the site each month. As of 2018, there were an estimated 23 million channels. All this got me thinking about how news of YouTube fortunes may make many of us think that our financial future is online, especially during tough economic times.

The channels I watch most feature what seem to be ordinary people who have somehow found a way to monetize their skills: a fitness channel I use to work out has more than 6 million subscribers; two channels I am using to learn German have over a half million subscribers each, and one of the creators had been traveling the world and made her videos from wherever she happened to be at the time. I watch a lot of travel videos as well, including some by people who had been able to travel full time, thanks to YouTube success and sponsorship deals.

I’m not sure how much the creators of the channels I watch earn—or even if most of them have other jobs to pay the bills—but the paydays can be huge. This seems to be an exciting new world of entrepreneurship.

In 2018, a 7-year-old boy earned approximately $22 million reviewing toys on his channel. The top ten earners that year featured things like video game instruction, make-up tips, and other content that I don’t even know how to describe. Can we do it too?

Probably not. According to a study reported on in a Fortune article, “Why ‘Success’ on YouTube Still Means a Life of Poverty,” even channels with a high number of hits don’t necessarily earn very much money:

Breaking into the top 3 percent of most-viewed channels could bring in advertising revenue of about $16,800 a year... That’s a bit more than the U.S. federal poverty line of $12,140 for a single person. (The guideline for a two-person household is $16,460.) The top 3 percent of video creators of all time … attracted more than 1.4 million views per month.

Fortune also noted that YouTube has increased the number of hours viewed that would allow creators to generate ad revenue. It’s also likely that YouTube’s algorithm promotes some videos heavily while most see little in the way of promotion on the suggested videos portion of a subscriber’s home screen. That’s how I found nearly all of the channels that I watch regularly—they were already very popular and came up as suggested videos based on my prior viewing habits.

Inc. also reported on the study, suggesting in its article, “You should probably buy a lottery ticket instead.” They note that the top 3 percent of all YouTube channels generate 90 percent of the hits, and as noted above, even those 3 percent don’t necessarily earn a living.

The platform likely funnels viewers into a small number of channels to please advertisers. Think about it from an advertiser’s point of view: why post ads on small channels when you get more for your ad dollars by posting on fewer channels that have a higher numbers of views?

Advertisers also likely post ads on channels that offer some synergy with their products (the toy reviewer channel, for instance, can appeal to children, their parents and anyone else interested in shopping for any product for children or people with families). Take my travel and fitness channels: lots of products can appeal directly to people with my interests (like fitness trackers, food, fitness gear, tourism ads, clothes, and many other products).

Even channels promoting minimalism often indirectly promote products (“the only camera you need” or “the only clothes I travel with” or those related to cleaning and organizing). I’m not sure that a channel that doesn’t also have strong options for selling things would be heavily promoted or provide options for much income.

The promise of making it big with a YouTube channel reminds me of the findings I wrote about in my book Celebrity Culture and the American Dream: Stardom and Social Mobility. In researching and analyzing narratives of celebrity stories from fan magazines dating as back to 1911, I found that one pattern persisted over time: the promise that being famous was a ticket to upward mobility. Even—especially— during difficult economic times, the notion that anyone could make it big with the right amount of luck and talent was reflected in the stories about fame.

YouTube fame appears to be an extension of this narrative, that something as mundane as sharing the details of your life can reap millions of dollars. That seemingly ordinary people can quit their jobs and be on a permanent paid vacation, courtesy of YouTube, highlight the notion that upward mobility is possible for anyone.

The realities are not so rosy. Median household income has remained relatively flat, even when unemployment rates were low. As noted above, most YouTube content creators do not earn very much money. Those that do often invest in highly sophisticated video and computer equipment, are skilled at using editing software, and have access to reliable high-speed Internet service with ample bandwidth to upload large video files regularly. Race and class play a role in who has the means to create content, and who can attract viewers that advertisers are seeking.

While YouTube provides a platform that gives millions of people the opportunity to create and share content, it both reflects and reproduces various forms of inequality. This doesn’t mean that content creators might not reap other, non-monetary rewards from sharing videos, or that viewers shouldn’t enjoy using the platform, just that we should think critically about narratives of easy fame and fortune.

How else might YouTube and other content-sharing platforms reflect and reproduce inequality?


Great stuff! Nice to see someone writing about this in an easy-to-read format. Here's some more on the subject of YouTube from the perspective of labor sociology.

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