The Lonely Life of a Professional YouTuber
You might have a million subscribers online, but the trade-off is spending most of your time alone, in front of a computer – as WillNE knows all too well.
Will Lenney, AKA WillNE
Two years ago, Will Lenney quit his holiday job at a dinosaur-themed crazy golf course in his seaside hometown of Whitley Bay, North-East England. At the time, his boss called him a "lazy twat". Now, Will sits in his bedroom six days a week, staring at his computer and looking at his phone. But when he turns on the camera in the corner of his desk, over a million people tune in. They all want to hear what Will Lenney has to say.
YouTubers are no new phenomenon in Britain. You don't need to be a sociologist to understand the colossal influence of YouTube-born celebrities like Zoella and Pewdiepie. Just a few weeks ago, a boxing match between two British YouTubers – KSI and Joe Weller – attracted more viewers than the FA Cup final. But just how deep-rooted YouTube culture has become in society is something we are still only beginning to understand.
There are more professional YouTubers than ever before. Britain now boasts over 250 YouTube channels with over one million subscribers – channels most of us have never heard of – averaging weekly views that could rival any episode of The Apprentice or Love Island, and dwarf those of a hit children's TV show like Horrible Histories.
Two months ago, Ofcom released their "Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report" for 2017, and it contained striking revelations. Among 12 to 15-year-olds, YouTube was the most recognised content brand, ahead of ITV, Netflix and the BBC. Ninety percent of them use it, and the majority prefer it to watching a TV set.
Over in Davos, Switzerland, at January's World Economic Forum, a report titled "Drawing the Future" was presented by the Education and Employers Taskforce to senior business leaders from around the world. In a survey of over 13,000 British primary school children (one of the largest of its kind), kids were asked to draw a picture of the job they want when they grow up.
The fourth most popular job across all children was "social media/gaming". For boys, it was now second, ahead of policeman, scientist, doctor, teacher, firefighter and any form of military employment. Being a YouTuber, the report explained, has all but replaced the classic childhood fantasies of becoming a famous film or TV star. More people than ever are tuning in and desiring the life of a YouTuber. But what is the life of a YouTuber?
It's 11.25AM and I'm in Canary Wharf, the dark heart of London's turbo regeneration. Security eye me up as I wait in the pristine ground floor lobby of a 43-storey tower block. They know I'm not a resident. After ten minutes, Will Lenney comes wandering out of the lift. He's wearing a baseball cap from Drake's OVO label and a Supreme hoodie. "Y'arite mate!" he says with a cheery Geordie accent and a massive grin.
Will moved here from his parents' house in Whitley Bay in January of 2017, as his YouTube career exploded. His channel, WillNE, now has over 1 million subscribers. He also has a second channel with nearly 500,000 subscribers, as well as a fast-selling line of merchandise featuring pictures of his dog Darcey and his tongue-in-cheek marketing slogan "subtoWillNE". At 21 years old, he is a self-made entrepreneur.
"They hate me," he laughs, pointing at his neighbours' door on the way into his. He's never spoken to them, except for an official noise complaint letter that came through his letter box via their lawyers after a house party. Inside, the flat is plush and minimal. There are strips of sparkling pink plastic hanging from the wall, sequins draped across lamps and a pint glass filled with glitter on the dining table. "That isn't me," says Will, clocking me as I look around. "My flatmate is a YouTuber too, and she sells glitter." Another YouTuber, Memeulous, lives on one of the floors below.
Sliding glass doors open out onto a vertigo-inducing balcony, where there is a sweeping view of the Canary Wharf business district and the flickering lights of Barclays, HSBC, Citibank and One Canada Square. It's the kind of view a movie would use as a panning shot to ensure the viewer knows for sure that we are in London. It is very unlike a dinosaur-themed crazy golf course.
Will's entire career hangs on the balance of one tweet, and it wasn’t even his. One day in 2016, he was sitting in his student halls at Loughborough University, scrolling through Twitter and getting ready to head back to the North-East for the summer. It was the end of his first year studying a degree in automotive engineering. He'd hated it.
Someone had retweeted a link to a YouTube video into his timeline. It was a freestyle rap called "Road Rage" by a 13-year-old boy from Blackpool. The boy called himself Little T, had a thick Lancashire accent and opened his freestyle with the line: "Yo, yes, light the bifta, I'm gonna rape your little sister."
Will had been making videos in his spare time since he was 14, and had a modest 15,000 subscribers. He'd grown up during the early era of YouTubers – before ad revenue and monetisation became as big as they are today – and had always dreamed of becoming one.
He survived his first year at uni on around £10 a week, using £600 of his student loan to buy a Nikon camera, £400 for other equipment and £25 on a large photo canvas of Alan Shearer, which he put in the background of all his videos (he likes to reference the North as much as possible). His videos had a simple formula, and one quite common on YouTube: he filmed himself taking the mick out of the weirdest and most shocking stuff he could find on the internet. He called it, "This Week on the Internet". Little T’s freestyle was going to be gold dust.
The freestyle came from a channel called Blackpool Grime Media (AKA: BG Media), and it turned out Little T wasn't the only child rapper from Blackpool. There were more. Soph Aspin, Clarko, Shelton and older MCs called Afghan Dan and CallyManSam. They were all sending for each other in the most brutal ways (the scene was later documented in the 2016 VICE documentary, Blackpool Grime). Will stayed an extra day at his halls to film and edit a video about them all. He published it with the title "World's Cringiest Children Ever Make Grime", and then left for Whitley Bay. The clip struggled for views.
Having quit the crazy golf course, Will had plenty of time to kill. One night, he was out playing Pokemon Go with his mates. It was 1AM and they were parked near a lighthouse called St Mary's, on a beach just north of Whitley Bay. After around five hours of chasing Pokemon across the sand dunes in the dark, Will opened his phone to check his YouTube analytics. The graph looked like a heart monitor in cardiac arrest. Thousands upon thousands of people were flocking to his channel. The algorithm gods had gazed upon him; his video was going viral. It was the best feeling he'd ever had in his life.
He spent the coming months making more videos in the back room of his parents house, taking the opportunity to film whenever they walked the dog. A style evolved – a sort of Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe for teenagers hyper-literate on internet culture. The editing got sharper, and so did Will's knack for writing jokes. Every video was packed with self-referential humour and moving parts – visual gags made from pixelated stock images with comic sans captions would flash on the screen for two seconds then disappear.
The tone became more and more ironic and self-deprecating (fans would comment on the square-ness of his head, and Will would play semi-offended to spur it on), yet he somehow retained a bit of that old school YouTuber hyper-sincerity when encouraging people to like and subscribe. The first time I watched one of his videos, via my teenage brother, it was overwhelming and frenetic – like peering into an alternate reality, where the influential figures of the day weren’t the Kardashians or Taylor Swift, but Danielle Bregoli, Jacob Sartorius and the guy who sang "Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen".
Will followed up his Blackpool grime video with one about an overzealous middle-aged watch salesman called Archie Luxury, who mostly uploaded videos of himself reviewing luxury goods, but also occasionally and candidly revealed himself to be an alcoholic with a thing for Thai sex workers. Then he made another about people who make ASMR videos. But beneath his new output there was always a torrent of comments asking him to talk more about Blackpool grime. "BG media", "BG media", "BG MEDIA". He posted a picture of his dog on Instagram. Somebody commented: "fuck your dog bgmedia".
Will acquiesced and made another video about Little T, and then one about Little T’s sworn rival, Soph Aspin, a young female MC who Will sarcastically dubbed the "Queen of Grime". Suddenly, real-life grime MCs Jammer and JME were talking about Little T and Soph Aspin on Twitter. Thanks to his obsession with YouTube, Will was shrewd about how he wrote titles for his videos and what tags he put on them. Whoever was managing Blackpool Grime Media was not. Whenever people looked for Little T or Soph Aspin, or anything to do with the topic, Will’s videos dominated the search results.
Little T saw one of Will’s videos, and replied by threatening to "stab his nan". So Will made a video about that. Another Blackpool MC called Afghan Dan made a diss track that heavily referenced Will’s YouTube channel. So Will made a video about that too. From the comfort of his parents' backroom, he was orchestrating an all-out internet war, and his views were exploding. "If I was a musician," he tells me, "then BG Media would have been my debut album."
By the time he was due to come back to his automotive engineering degree in September, he'd amassed over 250,000 subscribers and his channel was averaging around 200,000 video views per day. His mum, having been reticent about how much time he would spend at the computer, now saw the potential. She sat him down one night. "You don't enjoy uni," she said. "Take a year out and do YouTube. See what happens."
People started to recognise Will in the street, usually young kids. At 5AM on Christmas morning, someone started throwing stones against his bedroom window. Will slept through it, but his mum didn't. When she answered the door, there was a young guy there. "Can I speak to WillNE please?" he said. "Well... no," she said, shutting the door. As they ate their Christmas dinner later that day, a bunch of kids peered at them through the front window.
Above the desk in Will's bedroom in London there is a whiteboard listing all of the ambitions he had for 2017, with a huge black tick pasted across it. He wanted to get verified on Twitter (he still isn’t), he wanted to begin an intensive daily gym workout routine (he didn’t). But right at the top of the list, written in red marker pen, is "1 million subscribers".
He spent every waking hour trying to make it happen, working 16-hour days in a state of miserable obsession. He achieved it just after 1.30AM on the 22nd of December, 2017, and tweeted: "WE DID IT! From the bottom of my heart – thank you. Never wanted something as much as I wanted this. Love the lot of you to fkn bits," followed by a heart emoji. But the feeling disappeared within minutes. Then he re-opened Adobe Premiere Pro and got back to work. He had another video to upload in 48 hours, and it was already making him anxious.
He’s never really stopped since. He was up until 4.30AM this morning working on a video, and then he got up at 8AM to work some more before I arrived. He has bags under his eyes. His sleeping patterns blur. He pulls all-nighters to finish videos, and doesn’t really know how much it has affected him until he’s lying awake at 5.30AM two days later. In the winter, there were days when he only saw two hours of daylight. His flatmate is away a lot, and the most face-to-face contact he has during the week is with the woman who works in the coffee shop downstairs.
"Is that a joke, though?" I laugh. I want to give him the opportunity to tell me that was an exaggeration.
"No, I’m deadly serious. I’d consider her one of my better mates," says Will.
His work happens in the same place as his rest: his bedroom. There’s a swegway collecting dust in the corner, and the Alan Shearer canvas is by his bed. On his desk there's a desktop Mac, a camera on a tripod and a mounted microphone. Either side of the desk are two soft box lights. When he films, he closes the curtains and switches them on. And that's basically it: that is the entire backline of thriving YouTube channel WillNE. I've seen small town nightclub photographers with more equipment.
For a seven to eight-minute video, Will spends around nine to ten hours doing research, two hours writing a script and then 45 minutes of filming. Research usually involves trawling through Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. "My favourite type of craic is on Twitter, but when you're taking the mick out of stuff you find the real weirdos on Facebook or the dark corners of YouTube."
What is research and what is procrastination is constantly up for debate. Is watching news story after news story about a man cementing his head into a microwave procrastination? Not if he can turn it into a ten-minute video with four ads.
"How long do you spend on the internet?" I ask.
"I'd say, actively, over 12 hours per day. I don't take days off. And even when I do, I just wish I was working. In the morning I get up, check my phone, then I commute three yards to my desk."
When I ask about the last time he cooked a meal, he cringes and asks if tomato pasta counts, before admitting he survives mostly on the Deliveroo app. He used to love reading, but tells me he hasn’t read a book in six or seven years, and doesn’t know if he could anymore.
"Now all I read is either 140 or 280 characters of pure drivel. I don’t know what type of tests you’d need to do, but I think it’s changed my brain a lot."
"So," I say, "I guess your social life is…" But he doesn’t let me finish.
"Non-existent," says Will. "I spend six days a week in here," he explains with a dry grin. "That's a lie. It's seven."
"Is it not quite a lonely job?" I ask.
"Hugely," says Will. "With my flatmate working away a lot, the only real interaction you can have sometimes is with yourself on the other side of the screen. You’re like, shit. It can be lonely. I could force myself out more, but I get so focused on what I’m working on that I block out everything else."
"Do you cope well with being alone?"
"I’ve always been OK in my own company..." He pauses for a second and thinks about how he wants to phrase this to me. "It can have its effect on you, though. Long dark nights can wear you down. But you have to look after yourself, because if you get run down and feel shit, it affects your videos. So you have to take care of yourself."
We all quantify ourselves via social media. As experts and journalists continue to explore the ways in which the internet affects us, we can be sure of some fundamentals: we can be made to feel good or bad by the way we’re interacted with (or not interacted with) on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. But Will – and I imagine many other YouTubers – seems to be experiencing it in the extreme.
He shows me a website called Social Blade, which he checks incessantly, where he (and anyone else) can see almost every statistic you could possibly want regarding his YouTube channel. It ranks Will based on his video views, his subscribers, his estimated earnings and the health of his channel in the last 30 days. It is a constant barometer of his perceptions of success, and it compares his success to that of his YouTube friends and rivals. It even gives everyone a grade: Will is currently a B+. It’s basically a live feed of self-worth.
"Do you enjoy this kind of pressure?" I ask.
"I've never loved anything as much as I love YouTube," says Will. "But I have started to realise how it affects me. When one of my videos has a good first hour, I get so happy and sometimes I step back and think: 'Hang on, these numbers on a screen are controlling my entire emotional state. Fuck, that's dangerous.' I feel good, but shit. It's like my generation's crack cocaine."
"Could you go a day without looking at your YouTube analytics?"
"I'd rather go without sleep," says Will, smiling, but in a "no, honestly" kind of way. "It's an obsession."
And yet, despite all the hard work they put in, YouTubers are constantly being reminded of how precarious their form of labour is. Will seems resigned to the fact that, at any point, this might all just go away. "We all have a sell-by date on this," he says. "There will come a time when people don't give a toss about my videos anymore. I'm just working on growing my skills in such a way that I can prolong that date."
Last year, there was a controversy surrounding how YouTube vets its content, after companies discovered their adverts were sometimes being placed next to extremist videos or hate speech. Advertisers pulled their money out of the platform en masse. YouTube responded by changing their rules regarding what types of videos could receive advertising and therefore monetisation, but they carried this out in a vague and unpredictable way.
The change hit medium-sized YouTubers hard. From March of 2017 to April of 2017, Will’s monthly income dropped by 85 percent. YouTubers dubbed it the "adpocalypse". He saw some channels flicker and fade away. "Your life and livelihood can just change overnight," he tells me. He made that month’s rent by selling fidget spinners, something he’s embarrassed by when I mention it. Now, he’s made sure that his income is spread across YouTube advertising, merchandise and sponsorships.
When the plug was pulled on Vine in 2016, a huge chunk of the platform's biggest names moved straight to YouTube. It became known as "the Viner Invasion", and brought with it names like Logan Paul, Jake Paul and Lele Pons. YouTubers were already in a constant state of trying to outdo themselves and each other on a platform that requires relentless creativity, but this increase in competition (and the disappearance of ad revenue) made the sheer desperation for views higher than ever.
Seven months before the now-famous Logan Paul controversy in Japan, a YouTuber was shot in the chest by his wife and co-star while trying to make a prank video. They thought if she shot him through a hardcover encyclopaedia the bullet wouldn’t get through. It did. He died. His wife, who was pregnant at the time, was sentenced to second degree manslaughter. When Will first watched Logan Paul’s video in the Japanese suicide forest, he wasn’t shocked. It seemed inevitable.
"If it will bring views, people are going to do it, because it brings financial gain, followers and fame. In this current climate, we’re all geared to think: 'What is the next big thing that can get views? What will shock people?' And obviously that goes too far. People’s minds are warped into thinking that the end goal is always content. That’s when moral compasses go flying out the window."
At the same time, these controversies fuel the YouTuber ecosystem. When Logan or Jake Paul do something terrible, or TGFbro cement one of their heads into a microwave and it becomes international news, a wealth of YouTubers thrive by commenting on it in their own videos. It’s a bit like in Blue Planet when a whale dies and its carcass feeds the ocean for days.
"What will you do if it all goes away?" I ask, "Would you go to TV?"
Will thinks in silence for a few seconds. "I feel like a lot of YouTubers would see TV as a step down," he starts. "Look at the first episode of the new season of The Apprentice – you'd expect that to be through the roof? It got less [views] than a video of my mate kicking a ball about with his little brother in his back garden. When you think about The Apprentice's budget, it really puts all that into perspective."
In some ways, you can see the YouTuber as the ultimate distillation of modern neoliberal culture: an entire community of self-promoting individualistic entrepreneurs, desperately battling each other for economic success, while their work simultaneously benefits advertisers and drives the success of a corporate monolith: YouTube.
But you can also see it from another angle: the mobility and opportunity that YouTube can give creative and entrepreneurial young people who don’t feel fulfilled or engaged in traditional education and career paths. Will was stuck in an automotive engineering degree he didn’t enjoy, racking up debt in a student flat in Loughborough, when YouTube changed the course of his life. Suddenly a chatty boy from Whitley Bay had the opportunity to be both fulfilled and successful. In an era of "bullshit jobs", when the radical idea of a post-work society is becoming more realistic by the day, the unconventional career of the professional YouTuber becomes inherently interesting.
"You should be proud," I say to Will. "You’re 21, self employed, living in London, and you’ve built a miniature empire."
"I’m lucky," he replies. "I think I put myself in the position to have the luck. But it’s also reflective of the times we live in. We’re living through one of the biggest social revolutions maybe ever. If you go ten to 15 years back, the way things happen now seems ridiculous. The opportunities we have because of the technology in our pockets is crazy. I thank being born in the time I was born."
At the end of our day together, Will walks me to the tube station. The streets are busy, but nobody looks twice at us. He mentions a YouTuber he admires and respects called Nathan Zed. The dictaphone wasn’t on at the time, and I forget about it completely until it pops into my head about two weeks later, just as I’m finishing the first draft of this article late one night. I search Nathan Zed on YouTube and find a video he’s just uploaded – it’s titled "Succeed by 25… OR FAIL FOREVER?"
"I’m 20 years old right now, coming up on 21," says Nathan in the video, "and I've always felt like I'm in a race to find success as early as possible. I think a lot of people around my age feel this way. We've got to make it in life, fast… It feels like everyone else around you is doing it quicker, and at a younger age."
It makes me think of Will, and then it makes me think about what I was doing when I was 21. I remember: I was sweeping up hair in a salon, discovering mephedrone and telling people I was into "aquacrunk". I don’t know which is better.
Special thanks to Zoe Glatt, a PhD researcher at LSE specialising in YouTube culture, who was interviewed during research for this piece
UPDATE 15:40, 22/02/18: An earlier version of this article stated Davos was in Greece. It is, in fact, in Switzerland. This has been corrected.