Behind the glamour of YouTube are wrung out stars

Shadma Shaikh November 27, 2018 12 min

“It’s a part of my job to hear people tell me to go kill myself,” says Lilly Singh aka Superwoman, the Canadian-born YouTube star, in one of her videos. With nearly 14.5 million subscribers to her channel, Singh, known to connect with her audience with honesty, was ranked among the top 10 of highest paid YouTubers in 2017.

In one of her more popular videos titled The truth about YouTubers in 2017, Singh does a hilarious impression of the struggles of a YouTube star. At the beginning of this video Lilly’s character, a YouTube content creator is frustrated and at her wit’s end to discover the theme for her new weekly video. She explains how YouTube algorithms, which determine the views a creator gets and how much they get paid, keeps changing all the time and is “one big secret”.

Under the funny wrapper, the video tells the story of the pressure YouTubers have to deal with to keep up with the demand for regular content and to stay relevant.

Snapshot of Lilly Singh’s video announcing a break from YouTube

It was not surprising then that Singh, who has been on the platform since October 2010, announced last fortnight her decision to take a break from making YouTube videos. In a detailed video posted on her channel ||Superwoman||, Singh tells her followers: “I am mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually exhausted.” She goes on to add that she feels she could be happier and mentally healthier than her current state.

Singh also iterates another fact that hits home in case of many content creators. She talks about the creative fatigue that feels like a constant burden. “The thing about YouTube is, in all its glory, it kind of is a machine and it makes its creators believe that we need to pump out content consistently, even at the cost of our life and mental health and happiness, because if you don’t, then you become irrelevant.” She ends her note with a promise to be back soon.

Earlier, this May, lifestyle content creator Alisha Marie, who counts a sizeable 7.5 million followers on her YouTube channel, also felt a creative burnout. In an emotional video, Marie announced to her followers that she’s known she needed this break for a while now but it terrified her. “I used to be so naive,” says Marie, tearing up. “I would see YouTubers stop uploading and I’d be like, ‘Oh shoot, they’re off their game. Let me hustle more.’”

Other popular YouTube stars in the West, including, The Dolan Twins and Logan Paul also announced such breaks earlier.

Race to the bottom

Singh’s and Marie’s videos say a lot about how the decision to take a break from YouTube channels that have made them stars might not have been the easiest for them.

But it was only a matter of time, say experts.

“We live in times when the culture of hustling and working 18 hours a day is romanticised,” says Pavitra Jayaraman, head of content at WhiteSwan Foundation, an organisation that offers knowledge services in areas of mental health.

The foundation that has been working in the area of mental health challenges at the workplace has seen many cases of burnout. And it’s not just limited to internet or movie stars, says Jayaraman.

“The concept of downtime does not exist,” she says, pointing to an area of concern for people who have a lot hinging on their virtual presence.

Back home, internet stars or famous personalities have also talked about challenges with creating entertaining content on a regular basis.

Amit Bhawani, the founder of channel PhoneRadar that has 730,162 subscribers on YouTube (top-ranked individual creators such as Bhuvan Bam’s BB Ki Vines have over 11.2 million subscribers), says that one of the challenges is that you need to don many hats: the creator, accountant, promoter, salesman. And, not to forget: compliance and copyright.

Amit Bhawani, founder of PhoneRadar

PhoneRadar’s content that is primarily famous for its gadget reviews falls under a cut-throat competition business. Bhawani says that if he falls sick and can’t post a video for three-four days, it’s not just viewers who notice. YouTube’s algorithms also push the content down in rankings if there’s the slightest drop in consistency.

“You cannot afford to fall sick in this business,” says Bhawani. YouTube analytics will tell you how you lost 16% growth on a Sunday when you didn’t post content on your channel.

Toll taken by trolls

Still, Bhawani is lucky that his content is relatively safe from trolling, unlike political content. Political satirist Akash Banerjee who nearly has quarter a million subscribers on YouTube is like a magnet to criticism and crass comments.

Banerjee, formerly a TV newscaster, says he has developed a thick skin. “I take abuse as a compliment. If you are abusing me and asking me to move to Bangladesh instead of giving an argument, clearly you don’t have a comeback and you haven’t been able to call me out.”

He, however, adds that he would be lying if he said he is not affected by the feedback he receives – be it in terms of trolling, calling him out or commentary on his content.

It’s taken a while to get here, says Banerjee who hosts DeshBhakt on YouTube, admitting he’s not always had this “superman avatar”.

While trolling is an altogether different battle, where tools provided by platforms such as Twitter and YouTube come handy, Banerjee says that a YouTube creator has a host of other challenges. There’s a huge set of expectations from followers. E.g.: “Why don’t you make a video on so and so topic?” In reality, no one has the bandwidth to cater to these demands.

Akash Banerjee, political satirist and YouTuber

Then, there is the production slickness to be paid attention to. Creating a professional YouTube video is more challenging than creating a video on your phone or on Instagram. As Lilly Singh explains in one of her videos that from deciding a unique, relatable and funny theme to shooting for a 10-minute video over three hours, sometimes all by herself, can be backbreaking.

But that’s still nothing compared to what happens after the video is uploaded.

“A YouTuber does nothing but monitor how (his or her) video is doing,” says Banerjee. The analytics on YouTube videos is crazy in its detail: it will tell you how your video is doing at an hour compared to last hour, compared to your last 10 videos, average view time, how many clicks happened on video after three hours, after five hours, average time spent, whether average view time it is going up or down, who is watching, where are they watching from…

“You don’t need a doctor to tell you that this extremely unhealthy,” he says. He explains a typical day: if your video does well, you are happy. If it didn’t, you start overthinking it: why did it not do well, did I upload at the wrong time, did I not tag it well, was the thumbnail not catchy enough, did I collaborate with the right people…? All this feeds into the question of monetization.

Social irreverence

Writer and film producer Nikhil Taneja, who in the past was the head of content and development for Y-Films and writer for Yash Raj Films, says his team was among the earliest to start putting content on YouTube in India.

Taneja says that Indian content creators on YouTube introduced a new genre. Taneja is referring to the social commentary on issues like patriarchy, sexism, superstitions, religion, and class stereotypes that opened up for discussion due to the influx of content coming from digital media houses such as ScoopWhoop, TVF, and Buzzfeed among others.

Nikhil Taneja, co-founder of Yuvaa, a Mumbai-based content company

In the beginning, when YouTube creators starting putting their takes on social issues or events, there was something about this content that stuck chord with the audience: the risk that movies did not want to take, a certain kind of irreverence, slick quality, and championing for social causes. But in the last two years, it has become a rat race, Taneja says. Marketers and brands have realised that this is the next big thing and everyone wants to do it.

It comes with immense pressure, says Taneja. Once you go from your first thousand to million followers, you hardly ever stop, think and reflect on yourself. It leaves you with no time for yourself, he says. Soon you are getting exhausted, your schedules are all over the place, you are doing crash dieting, you don’t have a routine… For bigger internet stars, goal posts are defined by brands or competitors. It’s a maddening race of who’s new video went viral, who got a new Amazon special, who got a new partnership.

Taneja says the new generation of creators with Instagram and YouTube channels are young and underprepared to handle the pressures that come with being an internet star. A champion of mental health awareness, Taneja quit his thriving career in February this year at YRF films and took a sabbatical for a couple of months to focus on self-care.

“I used to have major anxiety attacks over the minutest things like my Uber not coming on time,” he says. He says it is easier for him to talk about it today than, say, six months ago. He wouldn’t have the courage to talk about his problems earlier because he believed “men don’t do that”.

Taneja says he had to unlearn a lot to find mental peace. It is easier for him today to recognise YOLO (you only live once) and FOMO (fear of missing out), and how they can put you through the wringer.

Balance is key

It’s not that bleak for all YouTubers though. Archana Doshi, the founder of YouTube channel Archana’s Kitchen with a modest 67,190 subscribers, says her experience has been positive. Doshi, a software engineer until 2001 pivoted to become a yoga teacher, before founding Archana’s Kitchen in 2007.

The feedback she received from her viewers complimented her style of cooking videos with a personal touch. “Like your mother is sitting with you in the kitchen and instructing you,” says Doshi, talking about her video formats. While she says likes the pressure that comes as a part of her job, it has also helped her stand up to bullies and internet trolls.

Archana Doshi, founder of Archana’s Kitchen

Doshi recalls an incident last July when she was accused of plagiarism by a group on Facebook of stealing their “patented pressure cooking technique”. Negative comments on her page deeply affected Doshi. “When someone is trolling you like that, you can’t think straight,” she says, now laughing that someone could claim patenting a pressure cooking technique that’s been used for years.

But she’s more equipped to deal with it today. You get calmer with age, says the 41-year-old. Her only concern? The shortening attention span of internet users. Doshi says that her style of videos that come with a personal touch now have to compete against the short catchy videos that do rounds on Instagram.

It’s not just YouTube stars that are vulnerable to mental health issues. Teens and young adults who attach their self-worth to their YouTube channels and Instagram profiles are an equal danger.

Manoj Sharma, a psychologist at National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), in Bangalore says that there’s been an alarming uptick in the number of cases reported at SHUT (Service for Healthy Use of Technology) Clinic in NIMHANS where he helps people deal with technology-based addictions. “When we started in 2014, we got 3 to 4 cases per week. Nowadays, we get 8 to 10 cases per week,” he says.

There’s a growing demand among younger people to build cool virtual personalities, which many times creates conflict in their minds because they are trying to be something that they are not. Sharma says that among his patients who are addicted to social media a major issue is that they attach a lot of recognition, approval, self-esteem and validation to their online profile and personas.

YouTube algorithms

There are multiple articles titled ‘How YouTube algorithms work’ on the web. Each dated a different month, a different year. YouTube creators have expressed concerns over the company’s constant testing of new algorithms.

Originally, the YouTube subscription feed was a chronological list of videos from all the channels that a person had chosen to subscribe to. The system also let people curate a personalised feed of content from their favourite video-makers.

In a blog post in April this year, Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube said that the company was aware of the frustration among the creator community that came with the new eligibility criteria to monetize on YouTube.

“While we know some creators found this change frustrating, it strengthened advertiser confidence, making monetization and the broader community on YouTube stronger for creators building their business on the platform,” Wojcicki said in the post. “For those who have not yet met the new threshold, keep creating and building your audience.”  

In other words, the wheel just got faster for the hamster.

Wojcicki also said in her blog that in order to encourage wellness, the company launched a Creator Academy Master Class about creator burnout, and was hosting a talk at VidCon on ways creators can maintain well-being.

YouTube’s latest experiment, in April this year, which it said appeared for a “small number” of users, changed the order of videos in the feed. Instead of showing the most recent videos at the top, YouTube said the feed showed people “the videos they want to watch”.

“YouTube has changed and people have found a way to make it work for them, Singh says in her video announcing a break from the platform. “I’m not one of those people.”

Singh is referring to algorithm tests that the company introduced to make the videos more advertisement friendly. There’s confusion among creators as to what classifies as advertiser-friendly. In an incident last year, YouTube’s algorithm began demonetizing or limiting ads on their iPhone X videos, marking some new iPhone X videos as “unsuitable for advertisers”. Later classified as a bug that got corrected, the incident received a lot of attention in the YouTube community because it affected high-profile users like Neistat, MKBHD, and Justine Ezarik.

“A lot of YouTube work is now hit-driven,” says Banerjee adding that his political videos are pushed down and not referred to as advertiser-friendly. There will be even more YouTubers who will shed glamour for a less-stressed life in the times ahead.


Updated at 08:57 am on November 27, 2018  to add a snippet and assign a category to the story.
Updated at 09:51 am on November 27, 2018  to detail the plagiarism accusation against Archana Doshi and her response.
Updated at 12:58 pm on November 28, 2018  to correct BB Ki Vines' subscriber numbers from 11.2 to 11.2 million.

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