When it comes to the subtle hierarchies of the world of online video stars, YouTubers are the cream of the crop. The site, with its nearly 2 billion monthly active users, is the largest online video platform in the world. Its top names generate tens of millions of dollars in revenue and wield enormous cultural capital. “YouTubers are today’s celebrities,” said Justin Cadelago, the senior vice president of partnerships at Studio 71, an agency that works with social-media stars. “Gen Z is not looking at your traditional celebrity as someone they look up to—they’re looking at these top YouTubers.”
But becoming one is harder than ever. The market is saturated, and for every big name like Logan Paul, PewDiePie, or Lele Pons, there are thousands of young wannabes competing for their big break. And while they wait, they still need to pay the bills. Some work day jobs to stay afloat, but more have begun to partner with small-scale video apps for supplemental income and a leg up on the competition.
It’s a mutually beneficial setup. By working with these mid-level creators, new apps struggling for market share can tap into new audiences, get higher-quality content, and theoretically attract new users. Meanwhile, the creators get the chance to get their name out to potentially millions of new people in a far less crowded market, and make some money from well-funded start-ups thirsty for content. The creators want to make it on YouTube, and the apps want to become YouTube. Together, they’ve created their own self-sustaining economy of strivers, with both groups using each other to tread water until their big break.