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Don’t Blame Gaby Dunn for “Selling Out”: Internet Fame Does Not Equal Financial Stability

Gaby Dunn is not into it.

Gaby Dunn is not into it.

It’s easy to dismiss a YouTuber’s request for donations, or pooh-pooh an internet star who does sponsored videos and product placement as a “sellout,” but these things are often necessary, as content creators on YouTube can’t live on views and clicks, ads don’t pay very much, and internet fame does not equal financial stability. In an illuminating piece for Fusion, writer and YouTube star Gaby Dunn dissects just how deceiving looks can be in the world of social media stardom.

She starts by telling the story of Buzzfeed’s Brittany Ashley, the popular star of such videos as “How to Win the Breakup” or “Masturbation: Guys vs Girls,” who also happens to be a server at a restaurant. That server job is her primary source of income. And yet, because she’s well-known, customers who recognize her are often shocked to see her at work. Things can get especially awkward when her Buzzfeed cohorts come in to eat while she’s working:

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.

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?

People who create content online are often not as appreciated as they should be. Viewers love and come to expect the content, but there’s a disconnect as to how that content creator is expected to make a living. This has been a problem for artists forever, but it’s a particular problem for social media celebrities, whose entire persona is based on the notion that they’re just like you. So…people expect them to look broke (like their fans), but not be broke (so why would they look broke?), and then get upset if they dare ask for money for the work they’re producing or if they try to earn money via sponsored videos (You’re such a sellout!), even though they “love” their videos (OMG, I’ve left 200 YouTube comments! I love you so much!).

Dunn shares some of the flack she’s received from viewers who were not happy whenever she tried to make money via her YouTube channel:

[F]ans don’t want to see that you’re explicitly on the hustle. Whether they realize it or not, they dictate our every financial move. Every time Allison and I post a branded video—a YouTuber’s bread and butter—we make money but lose subscribers. A video we created for a skincare line, for instance, drew ire from fans writing “ENOUGH WITH THE PRODUCT PLACEMENT,” despite this being our third branded video ever. One dismissively chided us, “Gotta get that YouTube money, I guess” with no acknowledgment of the two years of free videos we’d released prior. Another told us they hated ads because they had “high expectations of us.”

You should definitely check out Dunn’s full piece over at Fusion. It’s illuminating, and will give you a behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like for “middle class” YouTubers who are too well-known to hold down a 9-5 job because they’re too busy making videos, but too broke to not work at all, or monetize their videos in some way.

I often wonder about our entitlement as fans. We would never expect Ford or Chevy to build cars and not charge money for them. We would never expect a contractor to build us a house and not get paid. And yet, creators of all kinds are often expected to “suffer nobly.” Creativity is engaged in for the love, you see.

Well, love don’t pay the bills, and those YouTube videos you expect to flow forth forever come from living, breathing people who need to eat, pay rent, and possibly hold down other employment to bring you the content you love. Maybe think about throwing them regular donations, or find out if they have a Patreon page. At the very least, don’t give them shit about gettin’ dat paper. They expect no less than what you expect when you do your job.

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Teresa Jusino (she/her) is a native New Yorker and a proud Puerto Rican, Jewish, bisexual woman with ADHD. She's been writing professionally since 2010 and was a former TMS assistant editor from 2015-18. Now, she's back as a contributing writer. When not writing about pop culture, she's writing screenplays and is the creator of your future favorite genre show. Teresa lives in L.A. with her brilliant wife. Her other great loves include: Star Trek, The Last of Us, anything by Brian K. Vaughan, and her Level 5 android Paladin named Lal.