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The YouTubers are not okay

Prominent YouTubers keep quitting the platform and then coming back. Call it the result of YouTube brain.

Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

For three years, Dan Howell didn’t post anything on YouTube, and for his 6 million subscribers, this was a very big deal. As one half of the longtime vlogger duo Dan and Phil, he was known for writing and performing sketch comedy, internet culture commentary, and occasionally more serious vlogs about mental illness. A typical Dan and Phil endeavor, be it a book or a world tour or a series, might be called something like “The Super Amazing Project” or “Interactive Introverts,” nodding to early memes associated with “smol bean” culture. Naturally, they became superstars, particularly among teenage girls.

But after posting a coming out video in 2019 called “Basically I’m Gay,” Howell went completely silent on the platform. That was until last week, when he returned with a feature film-length monologue on why he quit YouTube in the first place.

For years, digital creators have been trying to convey the ennui of this supposed dream job: they’re lonely, they’re burnt out, they’re built up then tossed aside by unfeeling algorithms and corporate bureaucracy. They feel stuck between the kinds of content that makes them money and the content they actually want to produce.

Howell enumerated these reasons and more, all of which are good reasons to quit a job you hate. Another, less discussed one, however, is something I’ve come to call “YouTube brain.” Compare it to “Twitter brain,” in which spending too much time on Twitter results in someone becoming argumentative and perpetually outraged, or “Instagram brain,” (image-obsessed and overly materialistic), or “TikTok brain,” (unquestioningly devoted to the latest slang or trend before moving on to the next one). YouTube brain, from the perspective of the YouTuber as opposed to the viewer, is what happens when you are both creatively and financially subject to the whims of other people’s attention spans for years at a time, weighed down by neverending demand for more content for dwindling returns.

Chronic YouTube brain can land you in some bizarre circumstances. Take Michelle Phan, the longtime beauty YouTuber who last week claimed that she had “healed a man who had been in a wheelchair for years” through the power of “Divine Love.” This supposedly took place at a retreat in San Diego hosted by influencer Joe Dispenza, who’s best known for falsely presenting himself as a medical doctor while peddling vague “healing” workshops. It’s only the latest in a long history of Phan amplifying pseudoscience: In 2010 she claimed that a “sign from God” saved her from being murdered by a homeless man; she’s previously hired employees based on their astrological sign. While not exactly “pseudoscience,” she’s famously done things like use (clean) cat litter as a facial mask, which I would argue is the perfect manifestation of YouTube brain: unconventional thinking amped up by shock value.

The YouTube celebrity pipeline typically looks something like this: A creator might start out within a particular niche (gaming, makeup, daily vlogging, sketch comedy), and through their onscreen charisma, develops a following made up of fans who come less for, say, the games, and more to feel as though they’re hanging out with a friend. At this point, at least one of three things will happen: Either the creator will achieve such a level of success that they’ll no longer feel “relatable” to audiences and must reckon with their persona (see: Emma Chamberlain), the creator will be subject to some level of cancellation for past actions (see: basically all of them), or the job will create such a pressure-cooker environment that the creator quits altogether — but only for a while.

Consider Shane Dawson, the controversial vlogger known for his popular conspiracy theory videos and “documentaries” about fellow YouTubers, who was quasi-canceled along with many others in June 2020 for past racist slurs and offensive jokes. After a 15-month hiatus, he returned in October 2021 with a 40-minute video called “The Haunting of Shane Dawson” and has since followed it up with other personal updates and ghost story theories. 2020 alone saw so many creator reckonings that Vulture compiled a list of 16 of the most notable; it’s become such a standard rinse-and-repeat cycle that the YouTuber apology was skewered by SNL.

There are anomalies, of course. Having grown an enormous cult following from her comedic Vines (“Merry Chrysler!” is her doing) and later her YouTube channel, Christine Sydelko left the internet in 2019 and hasn’t looked back since. “I just don’t like being famous,” she told NBC News earlier this year. “You’re lying to people to try to make them seem like you’re their friend for the sole purpose of selling things to them.” Another anomaly is Jenna Marbles, who apologized for old videos in which she wore blackface to impersonate Nicki Minaj and rapped in an offensive parody of an Asian accent in June 2020. Her account, which had 20 million subscribers, has been dormant since then.

For the most part, though, once a YouTuber reaches a certain level of success, they’re a YouTuber for life. I’m less convinced this has anything to do with the platform itself and more about the kind of person it attracts and who ends up succeeding. In my years of interviewing them, I’m always struck by the way YouTubers — and creators writ large — make sense of the world, which tends to be fervently individualistic and, at times, a little bitter. This is an understandable attitude to have when your livelihood is dependent on the creator economy, in which individuals compete against one another for the most attention possible.

Vloggers tend to be keenly, almost freakishly attuned to the in-depth analytics YouTube provides for them. “It is brilliant and terrifying how much information YouTube gives you about your content and your audience,” explains Howell. “If you’re making a video from the heart, truly expressing yourself … you are greeted with a wall of red lines saying ‘Sorry, nobody likes this, sweetie.’” He makes an apt comparison to children’s programming: Public television, for instance, can put out shows like Arthur or Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood not because they’re cash cows, but because they provide a service to the public. Meanwhile, the most popular kids’ programming on YouTube seems to be a mess of LOL Surprise or Kinder egg unboxings and glitter slime ASMR videos.

Most of all, I’ve found that YouTubers tend to view other people and situations in black and white, divided between what’s good for themselves as individual creators and outside forces that wish them harm. They are often distrustful of institutions and organizations, particularly the media, whom they feel antagonize creators because newsrooms are scared they’ll be replaced by them (though PewDiePie is known most for this belief, Howell’s latest video also includes references to it). In this, they are not dissimilar to the attitudes of the wider public, who are increasingly skeptical of established institutions but quick to believe that Satanic forces are present at music festivals, for instance, and that despite evidence to the contrary, they will be among the 1 percent who makes money from joining an MLM or, say, an NFT project.

Fittingly, Phan has become something of a crypto evangelist over the past few years, shilling for an industry best known for its sky-high promises and unpredictable outcomes. After all, this isn’t so different from YouTube, where the chance to become a famous millionaire is vanishingly small but exists nonetheless. It’s such an alluring fantasy that even the YouTubers who have experienced (and been a part of) the ugliest aspects of it — Jeffree Star, James Charles, Shane Dawson, Tana Mongeau, Trisha Paytas, Gabbie Hanna — can’t truly log off. The same is true for Howell: At the end of his 90-minute monologue, in which he describes his experiences with YouTube as traumatic and terrifying, he announced he would continue to make videos, and that he would be going on a world tour called “We’re All Doomed!”

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