YouTube Is Facing An Identity Crisis As Its Creators Burn Out

As the platform’s stars pivot or quit altogether, what does the next generation of YouTube creators look like?

For six years, Catherine and Austin McBroom have horrified, shocked, and entertained audiences with their family vlogging YouTube channel, the ACE Family. But now, they are preparing to move on.

In a video posted March 19, the McBrooms announced to their 18.9 million subscribers that 2022 would be their last year on YouTube. Citing a desire to spend more quality time with their kids and to travel, the couple said that they may post sporadically from time to time, but plan to quit as full-time creators at the end of the year.

“I feel like the pressure that we’ve had has just been really unhealthy, and I think traveling and spending time with our family, doing all the things that we really wanna do, the things that we wanna focus 100% on, I think that that will bring us a lot of joy,” Catherine says in the video. “And I think that when we do film and make our video you’ll see and feel that energy, and feel good when you watch us.”

The McBrooms are packing it in at an interesting time. For years, they reigned as one of the top vlogger families, reportedly making more than $6 million a year, though not without controversy. The couple sought YouTube notoriety with shock videos (“I PUT PERIOD BLOOD ON MY HUSBANDS FACE!!!”), kids content (“ELLE LOSES HER FIRST TOOTH! *EMOTIONAL REACTION*,” “STEEL GOT HURT BAD ON CAMERA!!! **SO UNEXPECTED**”), and clickbait titles for mundane content (in “WE HAVE TO LET OUR DOG GO…” the dog just went to a training camp).

Any controversy they attracted just seemed to raise their clout even further. In 2018, racist and sexist tweets from Austin made headlines, and in early 2019, Austin drew backlash for a video where he took a young girl, who some people online suspected to be a relative of his wife’s, to a sex shop and bought her a lollipop shaped like a penis. Later that year, a fellow YouTuber accused Austin of raping a friend, allegations that he denied. The list goes on and on (the couple didn’t return a request for comment).

The McBrooms were one of the kingpins of a generation of YouTubers who didn’t simply survive a litany of scandals but thrived on them. In the latter half of the 2010s, to be a prominent YouTuber was to consistently push the envelope of what you could create without getting banned, chasing the glorious high of a video that would get tens of millions, or even hundreds of millions of views. YouTube financially rewarded creators who went viral. So creators pushed themselves to do bigger stunts, pull off weirder or more outrageous pranks, and became embroiled in seemingly constant hostile feuds with one another.

Creators pushed themselves to do bigger stunts, pull off weirder or more outrageous pranks, and became embroiled in seemingly constant hostile feuds with one another.

This created one of the most toxic cultures on the internet. Prank YouTubers would do anything for views. Logan Paul filmed a dead body, Michael and Heather Martin of DaddyOFive allegedly neglected their children, and David Dobrik allegedly idly sat by as sexual assault occurred in his presence. They have been accused of faking weddings (Jake Paul and Tana Mongeau), miscarriages (Sam and Nia), and 911 calls (Jason Cid) for clout. The biggest YouTubers made headlines by creating scandals, drama, and feuds with one another, pitting their stans against each other in volatile internet battles that lead to extreme bullying on both sides.

Recently though, things seem to be shifting. While no huge YouTuber has ever been truly canceled, it’s clear there’s change coming. Are YouTubers finally ready to grow up and evolve?

Take David Dobrik. The 25-year-old was long the king of YouTube with more than 18 million subscribers, where he became known for his prank videos with his crew, the Vlog Squad (including one where he married his friend’s 75-year-old mother). His videos have brought him fame but also made him very, very rich — at his peak, Dobrik has claimed he was making $275,000 a month from ads on YouTube alone. His net worth is estimated at $20 million to $30 million.

But since last March, Dobrik has been dealing with the aftermath of an allegation, first reported in Insider, that after a member of his squad allegedly sexually assaulted a woman, Dobrik uploaded a video with footage from the night as “a ‘threesome’ plot."

A new documentary by former YouTuber Casey Neistat, which premiered this month at the SXSW film festival, followed Dobrik as he navigated the initial fallout from the incident. As my colleague Kelsey Weekman reported in her review of the film, Dobrik has apologized for his role in the video but also doesn’t really seem to get what he has done wrong, often complaining that he has been “canceled.”

“He might have lost friendships, been dropped by more than a dozen sponsors, and stepped away from some business ventures, but Dobrik’s ‘cancellation’ has not made him any less influential than he was before the backlash,” Weekman wrote, noting that while Dobrik lost 600,000 YouTube subscribers, that number is a minuscule fraction of his audience of more than 18 million.

What Weekman also notes, though, is that Dobrik has been working on a pivot. It seems he may realize that being the face of a channel known for pranks, which Rolling Stone has described as “turning trauma into content,” is bad for business. It’s clear he is slowly trying to shed his “frat boy image,” as Weekman described it. In 2021, he hosted three different family-friendly projects with Discovery Channel and its streaming service Discovery+: a Shark Week special, a dodgeball competition show, and a travel series.

Dobrik isn’t the only YouTuber who became famous through toxic prank culture and now appears to be moving on. Jake and Logan Paul were some of the most notorious YouTubers of the genre, with Logan reaching a level of previously untapped internet infamy after posting a video featuring the body of a man who had died by suicide on his channel. His younger brother, Jake, was actually the more controversial of the two, with a list of scandals, feuds, and allegations so long, it is impossible to mention them all without going off on an impossibly complex tangent.

The Paul brothers’ YouTube brand, though, seems to be slowly dying. That’s not to say they have lost their audience (the brothers have more than 40 million subscribers on YouTube combined), but neither is focusing on the platform that made them famous. Instead, they have turned to boxing. In a 2021 profile with ESPN, Jake said he no longer felt fulfilled by the content game and wanted to diversify his income to ensure his continued relevance and wealth.

“An influencer, take away their Instagram, take away their TikTok, take away their YouTube, they’re f---ed,” he told the reporter. “What are they going to do? That’s an influencer. If you could take away all their social media profiles and they can still do whatever it is that they do, they’re not an influencer then. They’re a celebrity.”

Diversifying their revenue streams is something that many major content creators in every industry have been attempting over the past few years. Many are doing so not just because they are frustrated with the platforms, as some influencers described to me earlier this year, but because they are tired of the content creation grind. YouTubers, many of whom felt pressure to share every facet of their lives for years, are hitting a level of burnout that feels unsustainable.

YouTubers, many of whom felt pressure to share every facet of their lives for years, are hitting a level of burnout that feels unsustainable.

YouTube star Emma Chamberlain has been vocal about the mental toll her career has taken on her and has pursued new ventures like a podcast, Anything Goes, and a coffee brand over the past few years. In 2021, she took a hiatus from her YouTube channel, citing burnout, and in a recent interview with the Cut, she spoke candidly about her struggles balancing her career with her personal life.

“Sometimes I feel like a zoo animal with everyone looking at me,” she said. “It’s intimidating, uncomfortable, and everyone has something to say. And half of the time, the things they say aren’t very nice. People want to know about parts of my life that I don’t want to share and you feel like there’s nowhere to run. But there is a place to run: You can quit! But you don’t want to quit, because it’s your dream and there are so many beautiful and amazing things about it. I love this and I wouldn’t want to do anything else, but fuck it’s hard.”

I wouldn’t be surprised if in the years to come Chamberlain abandoned YouTube altogether. Other old-school YouTubers are also making big changes. After a messy feud with James Charles, Jeffree Star, and Shane Dawson that led to an extended hiatus from YouTube, beauty guru Tati Westbrook announced on March 21 that she is moving to a farm in Texas after leaving Los Angeles and being spotted in Washington state last year.

“This is a huge new chapter and new adventure,” she said, saying she may even end up vlogging more because she will want to share her new life.

These examples, when taken together, seem to note a change in the winds of YouTube. Many of the old guard seem burnt out and tired of the demands that this online form of celebrity has put on them, and seem to be moving on from the days of pushing the limit for wilder and more shocking videos, or toxic drama, for clicks. And while it’s made them a lot of money, it seems more and more of YouTube’s biggest stars are facing personal reckonings about whether or not it’s been worth it. Or, at the very least, if it’s sustainable as a long-term career.

So is a new, more wholesome YouTube on the horizon? Or is the toxic culture so entrenched that creators need to move to new platforms altogether for their rebrands?

While YouTube’s revenue continues to grow year over year, most of the creators who are considered the biggest and most influential stars have been on the platform for years. No new stars have really risen on the platform since the mid-2010s, at least none on Dobrik’s or Chamberlain’s level. For up-and-coming and younger video talent, we must turn to TikTok, which began minting a new class of video-based creators near the end of 2019.

At first, it seemed TikTok stars like Chase “Lil Huddy” Hudson, the D’Amelio sisters, Bryce Hall, and Addison Rae were going to repeat the culture of the YouTube stars before them. They moved into content houses and squads, which were popularized by Jake Paul and Dobrik, and soon began a cycle of feuds, romances, breakups, pranks, and manufactured drama.

TikTok culture is also slightly more chill than YouTube. 

However, this model has kind of sputtered out too. The Hype House and other content houses turned out to be duds, and many of these early stars, like Rae and the D’Amelios, have been focusing on their careers in Hollywood. Hall has even in recent months turned to, you guessed it, boxing.

TikTok culture is also slightly more chill than YouTube. Of course, there’s still drama and feuds, like the “womblands” saga from earlier this month, but on the whole, TikTok creators focus more on entertainment and are less likely to incite a feud for virality. The platform’s sophisticated algorithm makes it so if you want to avoid any part of the app, it’s relatively easy to do so.

For a long time, I was convinced that there was no way to make video content online without resorting to insensitive at best, toxic at worst, content. But now, I have hope. The next generation of video creators, who can leverage both TikTok and YouTube in their careers, seem to be more focused on audience building and less on notoriety. And they don’t need to stoop to the same levels as YouTube creators of yore to get clicks.

It’s less clear what will happen to creators like the McBrooms, whose entire business model was built on the old way. They have been promoting a festival they are calling “Disneyland meets Coachella” — and yes, Austin has also been boxing. But even as the old, bombastic ways of content creation continue to fade, it’s likely kinder, gentler videos won’t be able to pay the bills like they used to.

So where does that leave YouTube? I think its days as the biggest star-maker on the internet are over. Entire news cycles will no longer be driven by manufactured drama between creators, and the platform may become just one of many where the top online stars upload content.

That’s a good thing! By utilizing different revenue streams and not tying themselves so wholly to one platform, creators can both reduce the burnout that comes from being dependent on one algorithm and can interact with all different types of creators in a less toxic way. I can see this being healthier for everyone involved and creating a more sustainable creator economy. ●

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