Why Are So Many Influencers Quitting YouTube?

Why Are So Many Influencers Quitting YouTube?

If you’ve been on YouTube at all in the past couple of weeks, the algorithm has more than likely served you up multiple videos of powerful influencers announcing that they are “quitting” the platform. While each person has their own reasons, I think there are a few common threads that we can all learn from.

Okay, let’s establish a baseline. I am not an influencer. At best, I might be able to talk my sister into trying a new laundry detergent. But I am, by no means, one of those new-era online celebrities that have come to the fore in the last decade and a half, capable of moving hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of followers to purchase everything from high-end camera gear to puppy food.

I have no intention of disparaging influencers. In fact, there are some decided benefits in the current world of taking this career path. I just wanted to establish that I’m not one. Instead, I am, like most of you, an artist who has discovered various influencer channels over the years, either while trying to learn a specific technique or simply engaging in some high-quality time wasting during the day rather than doing the actual work of promoting my career. I’ve got my own handful of YouTubers that I enjoy watching, a few more that I hate watching, but watch anyway because I find the information useful. And, as is the case with “fame” in the current age, there are a million and one more influencers with massive followings that I, because the algorithm hasn’t deemed to put them in my orbit, don’t even know exist.

Influencers aren’t a new thing. I mean, the term “influencers” is definitely a child of the 21st century, and the way influencers operate in a social-media-driven society is a sign of the times. But there’s nothing really new about the concept. In the early days of radio, programs would be funded by sponsors. You’d have the Mr. Happy Radio Hour brought to you by the nice folks at Gigantic Toothpaste, and, every so often, the star of the show would pause the entertainment to read a bit of copy to convince listeners that Gigantic Toothpaste is the only toothpaste you should have in your medicine cabinet. Very similar to the way a modern-day influencer on YouTube will pause mid-video to give a shout out to Storyblocks, Squarespace, or some other company with an interest in reaching that influencer's viewership base. The economics of the old approach worked. The producers of the shows got the necessary funding and profit from their work. The sponsors got access to customers.

After the heyday of radio, we moved into the age of network television. Brands might still sponsor an entire show, or they would purchase full advertisements during the planned commercial breaks of the latest episode of Friends or Law & Order. This model allows broadcast stations like NBC or ABC to sell advertising space. The more highly rated the show, the more the station could charge for ad placement. This scenario rewards producers for delivering high-quality programming. It could also, it must be said, both reward and restrict artists. If you were one of the six friends on the TV show Friends, for example, you could demand a massive salary because NBC and Warner Brothers were making such a massive amount of money that those big salaries would just be a drop in the bucket. At the same time, there are some creative limitations. For instance, if you wanted to do an entire episode on how long-distance telephone service is awful, but your number one advertiser is the Western Telephone Corporation, you might quickly find your show off the air. So there were certain built-in gatekeepers that aren’t there on social media. Well, they’re there, they just take a different form, which we’ll get to in a second.

Like most things, when social media came along, it brought with it massive opportunities along with hidden unforeseen circumstances. Originally, social media was sold as a way for people to connect, a new platform for us to expand our friend network and share information. These were the days long before the word “misinformation” became part of the common lexicon. And, of course, just like the first day of junior high school, it very quickly became clear that certain people were going to have a lot more friends than others.

Using social media to gain friends quickly transitioned to using it to gain followers. A semantic difference but an important one. Those with the personality to attract perfect strangers to want to watch their videos or read their posts every week started to take on a certain amount of social currency. Having a large number of followers became the new status symbol. And while, at first, this came with little more than bragging rights, marketers soon took notice. After all, why were companies sponsoring radio shows in the early 20th century? To reach captive listeners. Why were companies spending billions of dollars to advertise across television networks’ primetime schedules? To reach captive viewers.

Social media is the same concept, but on hyperdrive. It offers something that even the best ad placement at the Super Bowl cannot. It offers a personal relationship, or, at least, the perception of one. When we watch an influencer’s videos week after week after week, it can start to feel as though we know them. This bond is further strengthened by the fact that, unlike movie stars or TV celebrities, we can actually reach out directly to our favorite influencers in the comment sections or DM them on the platform. It makes the transaction feel less like a brand breaking into our favorite television program to force-feed us a new low-calorie beer. Instead, our connection to our favorite influencers feels more like a good friend you get to catch up with once a week and chat about your favorite shared topic.

As I mentioned at the top, I am not an influencer. I am an artist. I make my living through commercial work, bidding on campaigns for various brands. But, as anyone in this section of the business knows, in recent years, more and more clients’ advertising dollars have shifted towards social media instead of traditional media. Ad budgets haven’t increased to accommodate the various new platforms. Rather, ad budgets that previously may have been evenly split between print and broadcast are now split between print, broadcast, and social, both in the form of influencer sponsorships and paid posts.

It makes sense. If I’m Coca-Cola, and I want people to try a new version of my product, which approach do you think would be more effective? Having an ad on a network television show in the days of streaming and dwindling network viewership, or having a YouTuber, whose audience already views them as a quasi-best friend, tell their “friends” directly how much they like the product? And, mind you, reach that personal connection for a fraction of the price of a traditional ad campaign. (Although it should be noted that many top influencers are quite well paid, and those cost savings may not always be a factor).

Now, let’s look at that same equation from the standpoint of the influencer. You could either go through the traditional grind, move to LA or New York, get an agent, try to get into commercials, movies, etc., try to survive the grind that artists have been doing for over a century, and you may or may not succeed. Or, you can start a YouTube channel from the comfort of your own hometown, work hard to build up a following, and then monetize that following in the form of sponsorship, ad revenue, and free gear/trips/etc., all without having to deal with the usual studio gatekeepers or executives micromanaging what you shoot. I don’t mean to suggest that it is easy to become a successful influencer. In practice, it’s a great deal of time and work. It’s part of the reason I never sought to become one. I wanted to put my time into my art rather than building a presence on social media. Not that one can’t be both an artist and a social media influencer, but the two things are distinctly different careers which require different skill sets.

As an artist, your value is in your unique artistic voice and your ability to share that voice with an audience. If you’re a commercial artist, you need to be able to translate your own artistic voice into a language that supports the brand you are promoting. Your value to the brand is the art itself and your ability to dependably produce it.

As an influencer, your value is in being able to engage with an audience on a personal level. You are a spokesperson for all intents and purposes. If you are one of the best influencers, you likely have your own unique personality and way of engaging with your audience. But if, for example, you are a photography influencer, that big camera company sponsoring your show isn’t doing it because you’re the next Ansel Adams. They are doing it because you have a million followers who have a verified interest in photography and being associated with you will help them sell new cameras. Again, this is not to say that an influencer can’t also be the next Ansel Adams. Only that the value of an influencer to brands specifically lies in their personality and presentation, not in their ability as an artist.

All of which brings me to what I think is behind the recent rash of influencers calling it quits on YouTube. Rather than being a cynical ploy for money, I think most people who end up as technology influencers start down the path because they love the artform. I think many of the biggest photography influencers, for instance, started their channels because they love photography. And they want to share that love with the world.

While I’m not an influencer, I can somewhat relate to this idea. When I started writing for Fstoppers, it was because I loved photography and thought it would be fun to share my own journey with those who might be on a similar path. Of course, what will quickly become apparent to anyone whose financial rewards are directly tied to the number of people who click on their posts is that certain types of posts do better than others. What type of posts do better? Anything and everything related to new gear, and why you should or shouldn’t buy it. What doesn’t do as well? Almost anything related to the actual artform of photography.

Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating by a little bit. But not by much. We now live in a world where many of us have been tricked into believing that the quality of our art is a direct result of the amount of money we spend on new gear. Why do we believe that? Because marketers have spent very wisely over recent years putting the “gear means everything” bug into our ears via our trusted social media influencers. We’ve come to internalize the idea that keeping track of tech specs is actually what it means to be a photographer, not the actual photographs we produce.

Not that I’m blaming anybody for this, by the way. Of course, marketers want potential buyers obsessing over every product release. So, job well done. Nor do I blame influencers for devoting so much time to discussing product rumors or making hour-long think pieces on the benefits of the global shutter. I can tell you from experience that gear-focused content is what is going to get the most hits. And, as I said before, an influencer's primary job is to influence. That influence is only valuable if you get eyeballs. Like NBC being able to charge more for ad space on Friends than on a lower-rated show, influencers need clicks in order to appeal to advertisers, gain more followers, and factor into the all-mighty algorithm. So, of course, a large percentage of influencer videos will be focused on gear. They are only doing their job.

But here is where I think the problem comes in. If you start a YouTube channel because you love photography, then, in order to grow the channel, it seems almost inevitable that you will start to focus more and more of your videos on gear. That’s what people click on. Those clicks increase your viewership numbers. Those viewership numbers attract money. So you follow the money. And pretty soon, your love of photography channel becomes little more than an online version of the Home Shopping Network.

Which, by the way, is perfectly fine if your objective is to build the biggest influencer career that you can. But, if your goal is to spend your life creating art, and instead you spend 70 hours a week discussing new camera technology, eventually you are going to burn out. As someone who has written hundreds of articles for a technology site, I can confirm that, when it comes to articles about the exposure triangle, there’s only so much that needs to be said. When it comes to new advancements in camera tech, after you’ve been doing reviews for a few years, it becomes painfully clear that almost none of it actually matters in practice to a working professional artist. Sure, it’s fun to talk about. But when that’s all anyone wants to talk about, it can get a little tiring. It’s like junk food. Sure, it tastes great and is fun to indulge in once in a while. But if you have it for every meal, you’re only going to end up polluting your system.

I think this is what is at the root of so much burnout among influencers. Around a decade since the first crop of influencers rose to acclaim, those same folks who started their channels out of love for photography have now found themselves as little more than radio pitchmen for new products. It’s nobody’s fault. It just happened. You followed the money, and this is where it led.

Again, even though I’m not an influencer, as someone who has access to the number of people who view my articles each week, I can confirm that endless discussion of gear is what gets you the clicks. But, as an artist, I can also confirm that focusing too much on gear is one of the quickest ways to lose your passion and perspective for your art form. You start doing stupid things like planning your photo shoots around the strengths of a camera system rather than picking the right tool for a job. You end up spending money you should be spending on personal projects on new cameras instead because you’ve caught the fever of what’s trending online. Both of those two mistakes are ones that I have made personally.

Or, in the case of influencers who often must rely on getting the gear they review from manufacturers or vendors, you also have to start watching your step in terms of your evaluation. Not unlike the television show that can’t talk about poor long-distance plans because they are sponsored by the telephone company. You need to watch your step.

So why are so many influencers “quitting” YouTube? I don’t know. As cynical as I am, a very large part of me thinks that many of these “I’m quitting YouTube” videos are just a result of influencers, who regularly check what’s trending on Google, seeing other videos about people quitting YouTube getting a lot of clicks, and promptly adding their own because they know it will get a lot of hits. But an even larger part of me can sympathize with having a pure love for an artform and having it gradually transform without your noticing into a non-stop focus on the least important but most lucrative part of the process.

I don’t know what the solution is to the problem. Algorithms focus on what people actually click on, not our highest ideals. So, if it is constantly serving us gear reviews instead of insights into how to become a better artist, it’s because we keep clicking on the gear videos instead of the latter. And as long as we keep clicking on them, advertisers are going to continue to favor those videos. And, as long as advertisers keep paying more for gear talk than actual art, influencers are going to continue to produce more and more gear-centric material. Who can blame them?

But, at the end of the day, being an artist has less to do with what you can buy and more to do with what it is that you have to say. It’s not the type of thing you can learn by watching a five-minute video on YouTube promising to make your videos “cinematic” in three easy steps. Instead, artistry is something you learn over time through hard work. These influencers understand that. The algorithm just doesn’t reward talking about it. So perhaps taking some time away from the algorithm is the best choice after all. Take a little time to reconnect with why you fell in love with art in the first place. Influencer or not, that’s the type of advice that we can all use.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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Christopher, we got it after the 1st time, you're not an influencer. You don't need to remind everyone....unless?

That's why I only provide photography and no video and certainly no YouTube. I just don’t want to multitask and add equipment to do it properly.

I go along with the reasoning in the last few paragraphs...both the probability that it has become a bit of a trend to quit...they see others do it and listen to their reasons and say "Yeah, that applies to me too"...and that the reasons for quitting do align with the fact that it must become all consuming chasing views...turning something they once loved doing into a very demanding chore but also an addiction to the popularity it gives them...most will be back in some form or another

They are quitting for these reasons:

- After so many years of gaming the algorithm system, Youtube is now prioritizing shorts and these legacy users can't compete. This means lower views for their traditional videos and lower monetization.

- Youtube changed how and which channels can be monetized. Now people need lower subscriber counts and uploads, which means more channels are monetized. Saturating the market.

- Legacy Youtubers are tired of being "camera personality fake" and uploading on a schedule.

- Youtubers creating "I'm Quitting Youtube" in the hopes that their video catches "the algorithm" for views.

Don't those shorts also reduce quality of content? more superficial?

Absolutely. I refuse to watch shorts. I don't like the superficiality and I don't like the user interface for shorts - I can't jump inside the video, it immediately switches to the next video when I happen to try to scroll by accident.

If there's a option to leave out shorts from my search i would sure choose it.
Or if Youtube keep pushing those useless crappy portrait videos enough i might leave.

"Why Are So Many Influencers Quitting YouTube?"

That's good news, right?

Wow but you're verbose. The whole article could've been cut down to the last few paragraphs. Good thing I know how to skim, continually saying "get to the point".

The problem with a lot of photography YouTube channels is that they are all trying to tell us variations of the same subjects. I also can't imagine how difficult it must be to have to constantly come up with new subjects to talk about so you do end up with people telling you how to up your game in a five minute video or why you shouldn't use manual mode (and variations on that theme). I can imagine trying to keep up with the ever changing algorithm an trying to stay relevant must be very time consuming. Also as people grow older and their life evolves (possible they become a parent with a family), they likely don't have as much time to devote to making videos anymore.

In short, it seems like the real reason influencers are quitting YouTube is that it's becoming more work and less profit. Creating those YouTube videos take a substantial amount of time, scheduling and repetition. Time that could be used towards making money elsewhere. With YouTube's constantly changing algorithm, the money making aspect is super unreliable. Even with a growing number of viewers, the amount of income continues to decrease. There's also the fact that many influencers are losing credibility in this pay-for-positive-reviews" scheme. See Tony Northrup for example. Every item he reviews *free* gear that he gets from major brands, he gives an in-depth bulls**t review. When in reality, most of that gear is garbage or overhyped and doesn't live up to expectations.

Yes, it’s the same as those “multimedia” jobs where they expect someone to have their own gear, do video, photography and many other duties but the pay is miserable with absolutely no chance to make a proper living at it. “Disposable media person” should be the official title.

But you DID move me to buy puppy food. Because it reminded me of you. Ba-dum-tish! Just kidding you're alright.

Youtube has been prioritizing Shorts for a while, and I'd also blame our shortening attention span for it, haha! Tiktok did us no good.
As someone who'd rather read a written manual than watch a how-to video, I'm forever thankful for the written guides Photoworks has, but I don't think video tutorials or lenghty videos in general are going to just disappear. Also those influencers aren't going anywhere for sure, so idk if it's really something to be worried about. These guys will always find their way lol.

the reality is that the world of influencer is changing a lot. Take Ferragni for example, after the scandal will be quite impossible for her to recover.
and most of others are finally facing the problem of popularity/time spent/money gained and in particular an engagement that is dropping drastically

Why would anyone even aspire to be an "influencer"? Does anyone dream of being a "pusher" or a "shill"? Thankfully the market is devaluing this "service".

After reading the whole article that contains repetitive content, in the end, you wrote: “ So why are so many influencers “quitting” YouTube? I don’t know.” Seriously?