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Are YouTube’s Algorithms Fueling Creator Burnout?

Alisha Marie hit the breaking point once she realized she was lying to herself.

The 25-year-old YouTube star had been posting videos to her channel at least weekly for a solid eight years. This spring, after enduring months of misery, the lifestyle vlogger, with more than 7 million YouTube followers, finally had to admit she was burned out: exhausted, creatively stuck and unhappy but afraid of jumping off the wheel. Finally, Alisha told fans in a tearful video in May that she was putting her channel on hold to recuperate.

“I started falling out of love with YouTube,” she says now, “which broke my heart.”

The problem? According to Alisha, she started feeling more stress last fall after YouTube made changes over the past year about how it recommends videos to users. The platform’s algorithms increasingly reward channels that post more frequently, have higher engagement (such as through “likes” and comments) and have longer average watch times. To stay ahead, Alisha felt under the gun to produce more content — or risk losing her audience and seeing her earnings drop.

“When your whole career is based on an algorithm, it’s this spiral effect,” she says. “The fear was: You will totally fall off the map if you take any kind of break from YouTube.”

Alisha, whose full name is Alisha Marie McDonal, is one of a growing number of digital creators who, in order to find a sustainable life-work balance, have taken a hiatus from the crushing, nonstop pace of producing and posting content. Some have even retired from being full-time internet personalities.

YouTube’s platform changes have exacerbated the problem, according to industry execs and creators. Its recommendations are critical traffic drivers, leading to approximately 70% of overall watch time on the service. The updates in how the Google-owned video platform recommends content have spurred creators to work at an even more feverish pitch — some clocking 80- to 100-hour workweeks just to maintain their status, according to one talent agent. Others have turned to ever-crazier stunts to get clicks, with a few abandoning the bounds of good taste. And the amount of content uploaded to YouTube keeps growing, making competition for eyeballs even more intense.

“The algorithms dictate where talent ranks,” says Lisa Filipelli, a partner with Select Management Group, a talent agency specializing in digital influencers whose clients include Tyler Oakley and Ingrid Nilsen. “You’re told, ‘If you take a break, you’re going to take a hit.’”

In recent months, multiple big-name digital creators — including the Dolan Twins, Jacksepticeye (game vlogger Seán William McLoughlin), David Dobrik and Jake Paul — have stepped back temporarily from the regular grind. A common thread: the need to physically and emotionally recover from feeding their fans new content. “I will be putting my mental health first for a bit,” Elle Mills, who skyrocketed in popularity after one of her YouTube videos went viral last year, told her subscribers in a May 18 video (“Burnt Out at 19”).

“Creator burnout is a real phenomenon,” says Tim Sovay, chief operating officer of CreatorIQ, a vendor of influencer-marketing software. Career YouTubers have the impression that “regular cadence always beats quality in a world where there is pressure to succeed.”

YouTube has recognized the problem. In June, it launched a new course in the YouTube Creator Academy tutorial series titled Staying Well and Avoiding Burnout, providing tips for “staying healthy, balanced, safe and efficient with your time and channel, so that you don’t burn out.”

YouTube declined to make execs available for interview for this story. A rep for the Google service said that while it doesn’t “program our systems to favor more frequent posters,” in certain categories like news or vlogs “viewers may prefer channels that post more frequently” — and that does influence YouTube’s content rankings. “Competition for viewers is very high and especially in some topics viewers may be more apt to follow those who post more frequently,” the YouTube rep said. At the same time, the rep added, many successful YouTube creators post only every few weeks, such as Veritasium and Liza Koshy, or even every few months.

For a user-generated-content platform like YouTube, ensuring the well-being of the millions of independent video creators in its space could become a bigger business issue if the burnout trend escalates.

So far, Michelle Phan is the highest-profile star to make a complete exit from the influencer career. She was among the first YouTubers to post beauty and makeup tutorials, joining the then-nascent platform in 2006. After reaching nearly 9 million site-wide subscribers, she posted her final video on YouTube last year, in which she explained why she quit the platform after more than a decade.

“It just took a toll on me,” she says now. “I didn’t have the bandwidth. I just didn’t have the passion for it anymore. And I was depressed — I was getting so many hate comments.”

What’s important to note: Phan had already amassed a fortune through Ipsy, the beauty-sample-box subscription company valued at $500 million that she co-founded in 2011. She exited Ipsy about a year ago, taking with her the Em cosmetics line, originally formed in partnership with L’Oréal, which she has since relaunched independently. Phan acknowledges that Ipsy “was my golden ticket to buy myself some time to take a long, meaningful hiatus from YouTube.”

But Phan, 31, echoes the feeling of immense fatigue and spirit-sapping effort required, even with production assistance, to maintain her YouTube channel, which at its peak generated $60,000 per month in advertising revenue, not including direct brand-sponsorship revenue. She invested countless hours not only making videos but also interacting with her millions of fans.

“Creators are increasingly incentivized to upload as much as they can,” she says, “and that’s why the burnout rate is really high.”

Of course, neither YouTube nor social media invented work-related burnout. The pressures of hitting deadlines and maintaining high productivity have long been major sources of stress among Americans.

About 46% of HR execs in the U.S. said employee burnout accounted for 20%-50% of their annual workforce turnover, and nearly 10% estimated it caused more than half of their staff attrition, according to a survey released last year by research firm Future Workplace and software vendor Kronos.

“The algorithms dictate where talent ranks. You’re told, ‘If you take a break, you’re going to take a hit.’”
Lisa Filipelli, Select Management Group

But unique among digital creators, compared with the way Hollywood traditionally operates, is that they’re all-in-one media producers: They typically conceive, write, edit and star in their videos. It’s a lot of work. A 10-minute video can take upwards of three days to make.

“It’s like five jobs in one,” says Michael Wayne, CEO of Kin Community, a digital entertainment network. “And there’s a pressure to make sure you’re super-serving your audience all the time.”

Moreover, unlike the marketing of a TV show or film, digital influencers are brands unto themselves. They’re the stars and production teams behind what amounts to a show that needs never be canceled and never takes a break between seasons. “If your channel is your name, you and the brand are synonymous,” says Wayne. “It’s impossible to take a step back.”

Digital creators who experience lightning-in-a-bottle success have had a more difficult time adjusting to the demands of working life as an influencer, says Filipelli. The internet has created a shortcut to stardom that can be intensely fast and overwhelming. “On Tuesday, you release the video, on Thursday you’re on the front page of Reddit and on Friday you’re on ‘Ellen,’” she says.

That almost-overnight success is what happened to Mills. The vlogger from Ottawa saw her YouTube followers explode from 15,000 at the beginning of 2017 to more than 1.4 million after a year and a half. Her popularity spiked after her heartfelt “coming out” video in November in which she revealed that she’s bisexual, and she signed with Fullscreen Live to do a multicity tour.

“The YouTube thing was so important to me because it was my childhood dream,” says Mills, now 20. “But having that pressure, 24/7, to continue to try to top myself and keep growing my numbers had a snowball effect.”

She took five weeks off YouTube and social media, spending time with friends and family, and sprang for a vacation to London. Over the summer, she’s slowly introduced social media back into her life, but says that she now makes videos for the fun of it instead of trying to drive up her viewing and engagement stats.

About her emotional crisis, Mill says, “This is an occupational hazard.”

hould YouTube — or Facebook and other internet platforms — be doing more to tame the insatiable content-consuming monsters they’ve created?

Phan, for one, doesn’t lay blame at the feet of the tech giants. “It’s not YouTube’s fault,” she says. She takes no issue with Google engineering YouTube to favor high-output content creators because, she says, “at the end of the day, they have to make money.”

But creators have been upset that YouTube often makes updates without warning. “It feels like a kick in the face when they make changes and don’t tell anyone about it,” PewDiePie, the hugely popular video-game vlogger, said in a 2016 video. PewDiePie claimed he was going to delete his channel because of YouTube’s changes to the video-recommendation algorithm at the time — but that turned out to just be a joke. PewDiePie, who lost major business deals last year after he was called out for anti-Semitic content he said was meant as humor, is still the most-followed YouTuber, with more than 65 million subscribers.

Creators calling it quits permanently, like Phan  did, have been a rare occurrence. Many stars on YouTube and other platforms who have walked away have later returned. In fact, about half of YouTube creators who have quit (or said they planned to) have resumed making videos after taking a creative break, according to an analysis by CreatorIQ.

If they do return, however, it’s not always at the same level of vigor. Issa Tweimeh, a comedy/music creator who goes by the internet handle “Issa Twaimz,” was a Viner who had garnered more than 2 million subscribers on YouTube for his channel by early 2016 — and then, with no explanation, he disappeared from the internet. For 16 months.

What happened? “Once I started struggling with mental health and depression, it set me off. It was very difficult for me to put on that facade,” Tweimeh says. “It became very toxic.” He returned with a comeback video in August 2017, in his first scripted episode, which was made to look “like a crappy horror film” in which he explained his mental health break. Like other creators who have taken a hiatus and returned, he says he’s less obsessed with tracking statistics and more interested in spreading positive creative energy.

With the psychic reset, the fire in Tweimeh’s belly to achieve internet superstardom has gone out: The last video he shared was more than nine months ago. “I don’t really have a schedule,” he says. “It’s a matter of when I get that inspiration.” He says his dream is to record a comedy rap album.

On July 25, after two months off the site, Alisha Marie returned to YouTube. In the interim, she spent time traveling in Greece and at home in Los Angeles, “figuring out what my life was without YouTube.” She says she’s reenergized with new ideas and says the drop-off in traffic on her channel was not as drastic as she had feared when she was away.

She’s ready to love YouTube again, but she isn’t driven by the need to stay ahead of YouTube’s algorithms anymore.

“Before, I would say, ‘What do these 7 million people want to see?’ We live in this click-bait world,” she says. “Now I just want to genuinely do stuff I’m proud of.”

 

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