Some content creators on social media platforms like TikTok and YouTube report making millions of dollars for videos on subjects like eating the spiciest foods, dancing to popular music or doing something potentially dangerous but somehow hilarious to millions of viewers.
“You know, everyone wants to make a lot of money doing something that they love to do. It's like a dream job,” said Max Reisinger, a recent high school graduate from Chapel Hill High School in North Carolina who has attracted nearly 400,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel.
“That's how I viewed it when I started,” he said.
In his second year of high school, Reisinger spent seven months in Aix-en-Provence, France, while his mother, a French professor at Duke University in North Carolina, conducted research. Reisinger thought he’d document life abroad to share with friends and to look back on later, he said. He has not stopped creating videos since.
For the 2021-22 academic year, the University of California-Santa Clara student is taking a gap year, or year off, to create content full time, making videos that show a day in the life of an American teenager, including the reverse cultural shock of returning to the United States after living abroad.
The work is hard, the videos and photos are highly staged and produced, and the competition is fierce, say many young people trying to make it on TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram. Reisinger, 18, has spent up to 50 hours meticulously producing one video using effects, sound and music.
YouTubers and others who start social media channels create, edit and post content, trying to amass a following so sponsors will pay to place their name or product on that person’s site or account.
But it’s not as easy as it looks.
“Right now, my income is split up between ads on my YouTube videos, sponsorships, and then Patreon income,” Reisinger explained. Patreon is a membership platform that allows content creators to build a subscription service and in return, members gain access to exclusive perks and behind-the-scenes viewings.
“But most of it is sponsorships. They pay a lot more,” he continued.
Competition grows as more entrepreneurs try to monetize their content. But algorithms, or online calculators, help predict the time and effort needed for an account to take off. Lickd.co, a music publisher based in London, England, created a “social income calculator” that computes followers, views and sponsorships needed to achieve a financial goal.
Views are counted every time someone watches 30 seconds of a video advertisement, or its entirety if it’s shorter, or if they click through to an advertisement on the account.
But the calculators cannot measure how challenging it is to meet those factors. On YouTube, for example, only 3% of the content creators make up 90% of the traffic on the platform, and even this top percentage of creators averages $17,000 a year, according to a study by Mathias Bärtl, professor at Offenburg University of Applied Sciences in Germany.
Htoo Ray, a third-year student at Manchester Community College in Connecticut, started using social media to connect with friends and family. Ray was born in Thailand and moved to the United States in 2008. Relatives and childhood friends are still in Thailand.
Ray has more than 10,000 followers on TikTok, where he posts clips from popular video games while he plays them.
“At first I was just posting on TikTok for fun, but since I have built a community and support system, I am taking content creation more seriously,” Ray said.
Tiktok requires about 10,000 followers and 100,000 views for creators to apply for the Tiktok creator fund, which rewards regular posters and allocates revenue based on metrics such as number of views.
“On YouTube you need at least 1,000 subscribers and a certain amount of watch time to monetize content,” Ray said.
Even meeting these standards does not mean a content creator will find success or brand deals. Reisinger explained that a channel’s subscriber count can help the page’s overall image, but views are what brands focus on.
“You’re typically paid based upon where your audience is from,” Reisinger stated, giving the example that American views can be worth more than views from India if the brand is trying to sell a product or service in the United States.
“Then brands look at the average views that you get on your channel and base it upon that,” he continued.
Reisinger declined to say how much income he has made from his channel but offered these observations.
“A channel like mine can make over $100,000 a year,” he stated, noting that $200,000 is reachable with his subscriber count with other streams of income, like selling channel-related merchandise to fans. Niche YouTube channels can pay more than others as well, such as informative videos about finance.
In a video Reisinger made in July 2020 to celebrate reaching 200,000 subscribers, he answered questions from his fans, including one on the stress level of being a YouTuber.
“Everything I do is a net positive. I know my videos are probably helping people out,” he said to a fan who asked about the stressors of being a YouTuber. “Everything I’m doing comes from a good heart.”