Warning: this post is long and navel-gazing.
Last week I made the decision to end the video series which grew my community to its current size. Since 2012 I’ve uploaded a regular video blog to my YouTube channel, either weekly, monthly, or somewhere in between. Starting during my undergrad at Oxford, carrying on through my PhD at Exeter, and finishing during my time as a full-time science communicator, I documented my life in a long form video. It’s evolved over the years from a five minute video to 30+ minute video, and from a regular audience of dozens to an audience of tens of thousands. My decision to end the series has been met with dismay by some members of my audience, and with some derision by others.
This hasn’t been an easy decision, and to be completely honest the circumstances of it have not only forced me to cull one of my favourite projects, but also forced me into something of a depression.
By means of explanation, let me say something that may seem terribly callous: everything I do online must either make me money, or help me make money in the future.
‘How horrible,' you might say. ‘What a horrible way to look at something you love doing.’
I’m afraid I agree with you. But allow me to explain a little further.
I have always viewed making YouTube videos as an artistic activity. I’ve viewed the filming and editing process as having the end goal of making something with artistic value. The video may also be educational or entertaining, but it must also have intrinsic merit. It must stand on its own feet as something that is good. After watching it, I wanted people to sit back and say something like “man, what a good video”. Making money from something that I made was nice, don’t get me wrong, but not a bottom line of what I did. However about 18 months ago I realised that the popularity of my channel might allow me to make a go of creating videos as my full-time job after finishing my PhD. Instead of half-heartedly starting a post-doc, or working for a bland big corporation, I could be my own boss. I could do what I loved doing as my full-time job. And so, my audience teetered around the 100k subscriber milestone, after submitting my thesis I took the plunge.
Now my videos had to pay my bills. By Google Adsense, by sponsorships, by Patreon, by brand deals, by Amazon affiliate links, by whatever means possible and necessary. (I will almost certainly do a post soon talking about how I actually make money from YouTube, which is way more complicated than most people seem to think.) Just making whatever I thought was cool or interesting now wasn’t good enough - an additional bottom line was introduced to my production process. This isn’t to say that as soon as I went full-time, financial pressures forced me to renounce my desire to produce videos with artistic merit - far from it. I still attempted to make videos which were interesting and good on their own terms, but that also had a broad enough appeal to generate sufficient revenue. The economic bottom line guided the way in which I framed a topic, but not the content I covered per se.
But what did I make? For the past several years I have made three kinds of videos: book videos, wherein I talk about my latest reading, science videos, where I highlight an interesting case study of a physical phenomenon, and video blogs. And before going any further, let’s be very clear about something: video blogs are what grew my channel to its current size. My PhD vlog series chronicled the ups and downs of researching and writing my thesis over 70 videos, and, in fits and starts, generated a regular audience of tens of thousands every week. While my book videos and science videos have/had their own dedicated audience in my gross audience, the vlog was the thing that people came to my channel for. But there was a problem.
Obviously, in finishing my PhD I could no longer vlog about doing it. And while audience members did associate themselves with me rather than what I was doing, I understood that the motivation of watching someone struggle with the monumental task of researching a PhD was what mostly attracted them to watch. This in itself didn’t concern me. I knew that the PhD would eventually finish, and that my content would have to adapt. I always knew that my vlog was going to drastically change as my life became, in brief, less interesting. But the bigger problem was this: when I was vlogging, I was the product. By that I mean that my lived existence on Earth was a commodity. Something to be bottled, refined, and sold. All vloggers do this - they take their daily lives, document it, and put it on YouTube to make money. Some do so actively, forcing themselves to live a life that merited a camera constantly documenting it, altering how they live to make a more popular (read: profitable) vlog. Others do so more passively, simply observing what they are doing, often with very little comment, and uploading.
While I was studying, I was very much the latter. Frankly my life was interesting enough - I didn’t need to inject any extra content to get views! This is something that all student vloggers, including the current wave of studytubers, enjoy - their lives are sufficiently interesting that people will watch without any extra provocation. Other vloggers however must alter how they spend their days in order to make their lives interesting enough to get people to watch. Now, I am not saying that I stopped vlogging because I didn’t want to become a new Jake Paul. He is at the very extreme of the vlogging spectrum that ‘lives out’ in a ridiculous manner. But I didn’t want to change how I lived my life in order to keep an audience. I grew my audience slowly, organically, authentically. The idea of changing my life to keep them around left a foul taste in my mouth. It felt decidedly artificial. At the end of the day, I didn’t want to change who I was, the way I lived my life, in the pursuit of money.
Because remember: when you become a full-time YouTuber you are a one-person startup. Your company is your YouTube channel, and your sales are your viewing figures. Like all startups you work tirelessly, day in, day out. Every hour of the day must in some way contribute to your company’s success, or you will fall beneath the waves. And when your business is making videos about your life, the success of your business rides on how you live that life. And the simple fact is that since finishing my PhD, my life wasn’t interesting. Almost every hour was taken up with video writing, shooting, or editing. I didn’t have any dramatic problems with my code, or fun trips with my friends. Suddenly I was living life as an editing hermit, not a stressed-out student. And my vlogs made almost no money.
A typical vlog might be watched 20,000 times in a week of release, not substantially less than during my PhD, and earn me around $20-30. Even factoring in the traffic that was driven to my Patreon, that simply wasn’t enough to keep my business afloat. In my PhD I didn’t care about this when vlogging, because economics wasn’t an issue. But after I graduated I was forced to care. Now, compare this to a science video, which would get approximately the same views but would earn me anything from $500 to $1000. And had the potential to go mildly viral, earning anything up to $2000. Even my book videos would earn up to $100 in a week or two. But more than this, as I said in my initial statement everything I do has to either make me money now, or in the future. The vlog would be worth maintaining if it continued to grow my channel, bringing in new viewers to my actually profitable content. But sadly this isn’t the case - vlogs didn’t bring in new subscribers. In fact the science videos did that more effectively too.
So I was faced with a choice - do I change how I live my life to drive more traffic to my vlogs? Or do I focus on the videos which I enjoy making and are making me money, both now and in the future? To me the choice was obvious.
But what about keeping vlogging ‘on the side’ as a purely artistic expression? This is how many of my subscribers reacted. And if vlogging was a simple thing to do then I would love to do this. But producing a vlog - as I want to produce them - takes a long time: hours of filming, and nearly a whole day of editing and tweaking. In other words the same amount of time and effort as it takes to produce a science video. And when my margins are as tight as they are (spoiler: very tight) I really don’t have the time to spare. A regular vlog simply doesn’t check out in a cost/benefit analysis. For now at least. I would love to come back to vlogging, and I fully plan on doing one-off vlogs when particularly interesting things happen to me (and there are several things coming up which will merit their own vlogs). Maybe a regular series will become feasible again, even if just when my other videos become profitable enough that
As I said to begin with, I only want to make stuff that I’m proud of. And the only way that I could justify continuing the vlog was to change how I lived my life, in the hope that it would bring me more revenue and channel growth. This would have resulted in videos that I didn’t think had intrinsic worth, because they would have been false. They would have been an insult to my initial intention with the vlog, to provide an honest depiction of student life. In the end, this decision, while difficult, has freed me. I have long resented being the product, my face being the reason that people came to my channel rather than how I talked about things. Introducing a bit more distance between me and my ability to earn a living is definitely going to be beneficial for my mental health, and I think also beneficial for my other content.
If you’ve made it this far then well done. This probably read as the ravings of a mad man. But if you take nothing else away from this post, know that I’ve thought about this a great deal. I care about the stuff that I make, and the community that I’ve built. This wasn’t an easy decision, but sadly a necessary one. To those of you who watched my vlogs, no matter when you started, thank you for keeping me company during the long months of my PhD. You were more comfort to me than I think you know.