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Sarah Lawrence for Vox

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Inside Venezuela’s YouTube prank economy

Why some people are paying strangers on Fiverr $5 to slime themselves.

Betsy is absolutely drenched with pink slime in her ad on the online freelance services market Fiverr. The 22-year-old stands, mouth agape, holding her shoulder-length hair in both hands against a white background, like someone who was just pranked by a rascally preteen in a Disney Channel sitcom.

”I’m here to make very funny videos!” she writes in her best English. “Pie in the face, slime or gunge [sic], water, jokes and funny videos for you. … Fun for your YouTube channels.”

By day, Betsy works as a dentist in her native Venezuela. By night, she freelances in Fiverr’s surprisingly lucrative stunt economy. The gig emporium has traditionally facilitated extremely utilitarian, identifiable demands — like, say, graphic design or audio transcription. But more recently, a generation of workers have realized they can get paid to do gross or messy things on camera. The philosophy is simple and sinister: “Pay up and I’ll do whatever you ask.”

Today, there are enough people advertising these “services” (as much as you can call them that) that Fiverr offers a subcategory in its search section called, simply, “pranks and stunts.” Scroll through and you’ll see a lot of profiles very similar to Betsy’s — young men and women, smiling brightly, covered in slime and pies. I contacted three of these workers over Fiverr for interviews, and, yes, I paid them.

”I’ve made many crazy videos, to be honest,” says Betsy, who answered my questions with the help of a translator. “Throwing a cake with cream, or shaving cream on my face; I’ve broke eggs on my head. I’ve covered myself from head to toe with slime. Liters and liters of slime. With chocolate. With canned food and beans. Those are the things I have the courage to perform.”

The appeal of the $5 sliming

A customer might hire someone like Betsy for a variety of reasons, but by and large, this is an industry that’s powered and influenced by YouTube.

Here’s the calculus: Kids love mess, kids love slime, and kids love internet videos. If you’re a YouTuber, you can pay strangers to perform the same oozy pranks that Nickelodeon perfected in its prime and curate the results on your channel. With luck, you’ll rack up hungry clicks from bored grade-schoolers in the back seats of family vans all over the world.

Search “Fiverr reactions” on YouTube and you’ll quickly bear witness to the fruits of this gambit. Here’s Ricky Dillon, a YouTuber with more than 3 million subscribers, accumulating 500,000 views on a video called “Paying Strangers to Do Weird Things.” Here’s JackSucksAtLife blowing $500 on aimless Fiverr gimmicks, which earned him a whopping 289,000 views.

The most infamous incident in the genre happened back in early 2017, when the Swedish YouTube megastar PewDiePie ran headfirst into a career-altering controversy after he paid a pair of Indian men on Fiverr to hold up signs that said “Death to all Jews.” (PewDiePie was subsequently dropped from his contract with Disney.)

Still, the ritual he popularized — watching people on the internet debase themselves for your money — persists.

Some of these Fiverr performers go viral and are able to transmute the radical silliness of their craft into a legitimate career, outside of someone else’s viral videos. There is the famed pottymouth Jesus Christ (who now runs a successful YouTube channel), the dapper announcer turned Fortnite meme-kingpin VoiceoverPete (who was just banned from Fiverr), and Tyrone and Rog (I previously wrote about them for The Verge, as they were emerging as the dueling pianos of the anime community).

But those performers are the exception; most people on this beat are fighting for scraps. The majority of the ads I saw in Fiverr’s “pranks and stunts” section belonged to Venezuelans. (The ones who weren’t were usually from Nigeria, Eastern Europe, or the Philippines, with very few Americans in between.)

Betsy tells me she averages about $15 per customer, which scales upward depending on how laborious the stunt is. (Her highest-grossing order was $100, but that was mostly because she needed to recoup expenses for the materials required to complete the video.)

Another Venezuelan, who posts as Rosauzcategui, cited a similar range: between $5 and $50 over the course of 83 orders. Juan Arvelo, 22, says he tops off at $65 for fully customized videos. Like Betsy, he has been on Fiverr for less than a year, after a friend recommended the service to make extra cash. “What if I can make people happy with pranks or jokes videos and earn real money for it?” he explains. “So I looked at many people’s [Fiverr profiles] and I started my own.”

Why Fiverr is so popular in Venezuela

Venezuela makes sense as the epicenter for paid pranks. The country is in shambles — saddled with a rapidly atrophying economy and a penniless government. Inflation has risen by an incomprehensible 833,997 percent in the past 12 months, and the commercial consequences are outright dystopian. For instance, the Guardian reports that a chicken in the country currently costs about 14 million bolívares.

Naturally, some Venezuelans have turned elsewhere — like the loose pockets of bored American teenagers — to make ends meet. Slime stunts and pie stunts don’t require a ton of overhead, and Betsy doesn’t hold back when I ask her how Fiverr contributes to her overall livelihood.

“It’s difficult to explain to people outside of this country. I’m a doctor, I work in a clinic, and at the same time, I do these [stunts.] I can tell you that I earn more money [on Fiverr] than in the clinic where I work,” she explains, adding that she’s completed about 20 orders thus far. “However, between these two jobs that I have, it’s not enough to live comfortably.”

Arvelo echoed the same sentiment: He’s both a medical student and an employee at a pest control company, and while he says he’s lucky that he makes more money at his job than others in Venezuela, he maintains that “working on Fiverr always gives me more money than working in my country for a salary.”

This is a phenomenon that becomes clearer, and more tangible, when you consider the emergence of the American dollar as the colloquial currency of record people use on the streets in Venezuela. The Washington Post laid out the particulars of the math in August: A dozen eggs in the country currently cost 2.6 million bolívares — equal to about two weeks’ pay at minimum wage — but the black market exchange rate of the US dollar prices those same eggs down to about 60 cents. Since Fiverr facilitates orders exclusively through dollars, it’s become an effective way for people living under weak currencies to get paid.

Unfortunately, the volatility of those unlicensed valuations still puts people like Betsy at risk. “Things sell in dollar prices,” she says. “But even having dollars, it’s expensive. The products have tripled price, or up to five times the value. It’s madness”

Obviously, Venezuelans aren’t exclusively selling pranks and stunts on Fiverr. When I reached out to the company for comment for this story, they said that in recent months, they’ve seen “far more Venezuelans offering services in the Graphics and Design category, along with Writing and Translation.” They also cited their Learn From Fiverr program, where you can pay for courses in various digital trades like Adobe Illustrator in order to “help people anywhere and everywhere build long-term skills,” in the hopes of “upskilling” their workforce.

That diversity is clear from Betsy’s Fiverr profile — alongside her stunts, she offers modeling services and logo design, though her prank work has garnered the most reviews by far. For her, that $6 I paid for the interview was just another piece of the puzzle.

Reporting ethics dictate that you do not pay your sources. It can skew the information you get, and it compromises your role as an objective observer. But within Fiverr’s culture, it made sense. I was initially taken aback when Betsy made her offer, but I quickly realized that it was difficult to communicate through the platform in a non-transactional way. Answering my questions was a small task, and small tasks cost a few bucks.

For a reporter, it’s less than taking a source out for a drink or spotting them for a shared cab. But due to the exchange rate, as well as the direct nature of the payment, it’s much more fraught than paying for those incidentals. Professionally it made me feel a little queasy, and personally, it was overwhelming to know that I was capable of adding significant value to someone’s income at such a small price.

Things are not going to get better anytime soon, says Asdrubal Oliveros, head of the Venezuelan financial advising firm Ecoanalítica. Prices in the country are doubling every 23 days, and the economy is finishing its fifth straight year in contraction. For now, Fiverr is the norm. “Any source of hard currency is considerably more attractive than any income in bolívars,” he says. “Whether it be from freelance jobs, working for online outsourcing firms, or even grinding for virtual items in online games to sell later for hard currency, it enables them to barely withstand an economic catastrophe, and soon may be their only means of payment.”

To be clear, neither Betsy nor Arvelo says they feel like they’re being demeaned or exploited by the work they do on Fiverr. If anything, they seemed genuinely thrilled that they could turn around quick, lighthearted jobs that slip through the realities of their homeland’s barren commerce sector. “I love to do this,” says Betsy. “It’s a way to make money, and have fun at the same time.”

However, these workers do sometimes deal with requests that are either mean-spirited or manipulative. I have found at least one YouTube channel that pays women to stuff their heads into cakes for fetish purposes (“Great ex-Fiverr girl gets a few pies in her pretty face,” reads one description), and there are many videos of female Venezuelan Fiverr contractors showing off their feet for the camera (though the specifics of those arrangements aren’t clear).

Betsy mentioned that in the past, she’s been hired to go “barefoot” in public, and while she didn’t have any issue with that performance, she does say she has her limits. “I’ve gotten proposals in bad taste, or that were really difficult, that I have to decline,” she says. “Value and professional ethics have to matter.”

Arvelo says the same thing: “Things that I don’t feel comfortable doing, I just won’t work on them and let them go.”

Rosauzcategui concurs. “I do not do anything that goes against my moral principles,” she says. “I am very grateful that [Fiverr] has allowed me to work.”

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