Kids at work: a YouTube vlogger
‘The fact that the current system has failed so much in our lifetime means that a university degree means bugger-all now,’ Jake Edwards says. ‘Nothing is guaranteed anymore so if you have something special that people want to pay you money for, you should just sit back and take it.’
‘Vlogger’, ‘YouTuber’ and ‘content creator’ are all terms that Jake uses to describe his uniquely millennial career, though none quite seems to fit. The 21-year-old flits between the three, nervous that his line of work doesn’t qualify for a title.
‘I don’t know if you can call it a profession,’ he muses, sweeping a green shock of fringe from his forehead. ‘Sometimes it feels like a hobby that I’m accidentally earning money from.’
Jake makes videos. In some, he sings. In one, he tries baking with his boyfriend. In others, he discusses gender dysphoria and his hard-fought transition. (Jake is transgender: assigned female at birth, he now lives as a man.) With over 145,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel and a newly minted record deal, the lack of a job title seems unimportant.
Jake started YouTubing aged 16. His gender dysphoria had spiked when he transferred from an all-girls school to a co-ed sixth-form college and, a few months in, realized he was a man. YouTube was an escape, a hobby pursued without an eye to any long-term success.
Sixth-form didn’t work out. He eventually dropped out without any formal qualifications. He maps his difficulties with full-time education directly onto flashpoints in his transition. ‘I just didn’t care,’ he recalls. ‘Being queer and trying to find my place in that community was the most important thing at the time.’ While he regrets not getting any A-levels, it was during his struggles at college that he realized the value of his online following.
Jake’s transition caused ructions with his family and he was about to become homeless. In the hope of avoiding destitution, he set up a project on Kickstarter – an online crowdfunding site. His followers delivered: people he had never met in person donated enough to keep him off the streets. ‘That’s when I realized what I do matters to people,’ he says.
It has taken three years of graft to build his six-figure following. But after hundreds of videos, collaborations with other YouTubers, and appearances as a speaker at events to increase his fan base, cash-flow remains an issue.
‘I still have to work in a petrol station,’ he’s quick to point out. ‘Matched with my green hair, the purple and orange uniform makes me look like a fucking carrot.’
For now, part-time retail work (and a 10-per-cent discount on meal deals) keeps him going. YouTube doesn’t yet pay the bills and it’s getting even harder to make a living from videos alone. Like most online media producers, from fellow vloggers to newsrooms, Jake has fallen prey to the unintelligible whims of digital advertisers.
‘A while back, I would make decent money from ad revenue,’ he remembers. ‘But then the “ad-pocalypse” happened.’
In short, advertisers became wary that their brands were popping up on videos showing ‘inappropriate content’, including YouTube’s growing swarm of fascist-leaning commentators.
In response, YouTube started ‘demonetizing’ certain videos. The process is carried out by an algorithm, and many rule-abiding vloggers saw their incomes decimated by its miscalculations.
The nature of Jake’s content poses other difficulties. Videos categorized as ‘gay’, ‘trans’ or ‘queer’ are regularly registered as restricted content, despite YouTube’s supposedly progressive ethos. Under-18s are sporadically blocked from seeing his videos, making ad revenue even less reliable.
Despite being at the mercy of a company like YouTube that some analysts have valued at over $70 billion, Jake seems too grateful for his popularity to dwell on the precariousness of his situation.
‘I still find it baffling that people want to watch my stuff,’ he says, grinning.
That said, he hopes weekend shifts at the petrol station will soon become a thing of the past. ‘I don’t know how long that will last, but even if it’s only a few months that I can give up retail, I’ll be happy.’
Edward Siddons is a freelance journalist whose work has been published by the BBC, Newsweek, The Guardian, The Times and The Independent. He currently works as the Lead Writer on Violence Prevention at Apolitical, a policy platform for public servants.