The True Cost of Internet Fame
I wrote this piece for my weekly newsletter, Thinking Out Loud. I send emails out weekly and they are always pieces of original prose formulated from my overriding thought of the week, hot off the press of my busy brain. I don't usually share my newsletter essays as blog posts , but this particular thought is something I return to OFTEN and wanted to immortalize it here on for a wider audience. A lot of people ask me what it was like to have worked on a YouTube channel. That is a LONG conversation, which is why I have written a book about it, but this post offers a shred of insight into how things are for me now.
To sign up to my weekly newsletter (they also always contain a cocktail recipe!) click here.
"I was 26 when my life took a weird turn and I ended up walking down a curious path of internet fame. I accepted a job as a host on a YouTube channel because it sounded cool and then I just kept moving in the direction it took me. Like a lot of people, I always knew I wanted to “do something exciting” with my life. I didn’t know exactly what that might look like, I just knew it wasn’t shaped like a 9-5 office job. So, there I was, in my mid-twenties, bright eyed and newly delivered into Canada faced with the opportunity to front a growing platform. I thought that was the “something exciting” I had been envisaging. Caught up in the jet stream of enthusiasm, I didn’t stop to evaluate whether or not I liked what I was creating and where it might all lead me. I could never have predicted the channel “blowing up” the way it did and the implications that would have on my life as I got older. Here I am six years later knowing that regrets aren’t helpful, but at the same time wishing my stepping stones could have disappeared behind me, rather than be tied to me with a bright red string for all to see. There are past eras I wish people couldn’t replay now that they’re over, but unfortunately they are committed to the internet indefinitely. I can’t control that. I can’t clear the cache. So now what?
It was more of a tidal wave than a whirlwind. I got swept up, and only when I came up for air did I realize that I had been carried a little far out of my comfort zone. I had seen the way YouTube had the power to change people’s lives and I thought maybe I could play that game, but it really wasn’t for me. I am an oddball, an enthusiast, a gin swiller, a book reader and all-round moon eyed dreamer, but for a while I tried to mould myself to be like the people who were "hitting it big". The shift in my public persona was to my detriment, to my embarrassment even. Up until I landed that job I had always been unashamedly “me”. I had been fine with not being everyone’s cup of tea, I just wanted to do my thing. Suddenly, though, there were quite literally millions of eyes on me. I was at the mercy of hundreds of thousands of comments on every aspect of my body and personality. I struggle to find a sentence to summarize what that did to me, which is why I’ve written a whole damn book about it.
I don’t YouTube anymore, or I didn’t until last week. Outside of my old job, I also ran my own channel for a while and actually it made me a little bit of pocket money. Again though, I was uncomfortable with the sacrifice I felt I had to make with my “real” self and real interests to keep up the momentum and make a decent profit. I knew what type of video would “go big”, but it never sat right with me so I walked away from that too. I didn’t want to be a loud human with overt facial expressions. I didn’t want to play to the gallery so intently that I could no longer hear myself when I paused to consider if I was actually happy. It scared me that, for a while, I had stopped writing. I had even stopped reading. I can’t believe I let that happen.
After quitting my job, I now focus on Instagram as my digital platform of choice. The social app gets a lot of criticism, but I have always liked the ‘gram because it feels far more personal and surprisingly more genuine to me. Obviously there is still a pretty major performative layer, but it has always been a space where I share what I am actually interested in; drinking elaborate cocktails, eating delicious food and adventures both big and small. Somehow being me was not only easier, but oddly seemed to be more "successful" on Instagram. I guess I was also “successful” on YouTube, but my feelings about it were entirely different. It wasn’t ever fun, so I never saw it as progression. On the flipside, I actually take a lot of joy from Insta and these days I allow myself to play around with it (have you met my sassier alter ego Miss Rebecca J? She love's a hair toss and a gin sour).
Until last week I had left my personal YouTube channel to die. It was too tied up in my past-era so I had planned to slowly shut it down when videos stopped generating revenue. To my surprise, though, quite randomly an old video of mine went viral and it made me pause for thought. The upload was actually one of my more recent and was decidedly more “me-like" than the others - it was about moving to Canada and why I love it here so much. There were no gimmicks, no stupid shocked faces and clickbait thumbnails, just me having a chat. It led to a bunch of new people following me because they wanted to see more and I thought for the first time in years that maybe I could actually give them that… but in my own way this time.
I have had to do a lot of growing the fuck up over the past couple of years. I realize now that I have to release the drama I have stored up over my past association with YouTube. Whatever happened to me as a result of my exposure, at the end of the day it is just a video hosting site. There are 126,000 people subscribed to me, and as an evolving business woman I would be remiss not to use my audience to help accelerate the things I do care about; my book, my sassy Instagram pursuits, and my little newsletter. I know now that being a “YouTuber” isn’t my ladder to climb; it will never be my full business strategy (thank fuuuuuck). Knowing that is quite liberating because I feel like I can firmly stick two fingers up to the algorithm and just ...um...be myself?! That sounds painfully simple now that I say it outloud.
Taking better ownership of my online presence is a great place to start, but it doesn’t solve the problem of my past. It doesn’t remove the content I would rather not associate with. And, actually, the videos really aren’t as bad as some of the commentary viewers shared across web forums; for example there’s a subreddit in my honor dedicated to faking naked pictures and writing perverse fantasies about me. Again, a single sentence to summarize how sad and violated that makes me feel is impossible to muster. I despair.
So...my main question is...errr...where do I go from here?! How do I...um...explain all of this to new people in my life? I am constantly terrified a person I am at risk of caring about will Google me before getting to know me and be put-off by my batshit crazy past life. If it wasn’t for the crushing reality of the pandemic, I could actually be feeling the best I’ve felt in years… but despite living in a new era, I still wonder if I'll carry my past with me forever? I know I can’t take it back, so what happens now? Is this something I have to learn to live with? The only solution I can see is ensuring what comes next is much more noteworthy. I am working to re-write the first page of my search engine results; I know what I want to see listed first, so I work tirelessly to bring about future me. I AM doing something exciting with my life. And this time I am behind the wheel. Woosh. "