For three years, Dan Howell didn’t post anything on YouTube, and for his 6 million subscribers, this was a major problem. As one half of longtime vlogger duo Dan and Phil, he was known for writing and performing sketch comedy, internet culture commentary, and the occasional more serious vlog about mental illness. A typical Dan and Phil venture, be it a book or a world tour or a series, might be called something like “The Super Amazing Project” or “Interactive Introverts”, nodding to early memes associated with “smol bean” culture† Of course they became superstars, especially among teenage girls.
But after posting a coming out video in 2019 called “Actually I’m gay”, Howell went completely silent on the platform. That was until last week, when he returned with a feature-length monologue on why he quit youtube in the first place.
For years, digital creators have tried to convey the boredom of this supposed dream job: they are lonely, they are burned out, they are built up and then pushed aside by callous algorithms and corporate bureaucracy. They feel trapped between the types of content they monetize and the content they actually want to produce.
Howell listed these and more reasons, all good reasons to quit a job you hate. Another less discussed one, though, is something I’ve come to call “YouTube brain.” Compare it to ‘Twitter brain’, in which spending too much time on Twitter leads to someone becoming argumentative and constantly outraged, or ‘Instagram brain’ (image-obsessed and overly materialistic), or ‘TikTok brain’ (undeniably devoted to the latest slang or trend before moving on to the next). YouTube brain, from the YouTuber’s perspective, not the viewer’s, is what happens when you’re both creatively and financially subject to the whims of other people’s attention spans for years on end, weighed down by the never-ending demand for more content for diminishing returns. back.
A chronic YouTube brain can put you in bizarre circumstances. Take Michelle Phan, the longtime beauty YouTuber who last week claimed she had “heal a man who had been in a wheelchair for years” through the power of “divine love”. This supposedly took place during a retreat in San Diego hosted by influencer Joe Dispenza, who is best known for falsely presenting himself as a doctor while giving vague “healing” workshops. It’s only the last in one long history of Phan reinforcing pseudoscience: In 2010, she claimed a “sign from God” saved her from being killed by a homeless man; she is earlier hired workers based on their astrological sign. While it’s not really “pseudo science”, she’s done famous things like use (clean) cat litter like a face mask, which I’d say is the perfect manifestation of the YouTube brain: unconventional thinking enhanced by shock value.
The pipeline of YouTube celebrities usually looks like this: A creator can start in a particular niche (gaming, makeup, daily vlogs, sketch comedy), and develop a following through their on-screen charisma that consists of fans who come less for, say, the games and more to feel like they’re hanging out with a friend. At this point, at least one of three things will happen: either the creator will reach such a level of success that they no longer feel “related” to the audience and have to consider their persona (see: Emma Chamberlain), the creator will be subject to some amount of cancellation for previous actions (see: basically all), or the job will create such a pressure cooker environment that the creator stops altogether – but only for a while.
Consider Shane Dawson, the controversial vlogger known for his popular conspiracy theory videos and “documentaries” about fellow YouTubers, who along with many others were quasi-cancelled in June 2020 for racist statements and insulting jokes from the past† After a 15-month hiatus, he returned in October 2021 with a 40-minute video called “Chasing Shane Dawsonand has since followed it up with other personal updates and ghost story theories. In 2020 alone, there were so many maker reservations that Vulture compiled a list of 16 of the most notable; it’s become such a standard rinse-and-repeat cycle that YouTuber’s apology was pierced by SNL.
There are of course deviations. She has gained huge cult following from her comedic Vines (“Merry Chrysler!” is she doing?) and later her YouTube channel, Christine Sydelko left the internet in 2019 and hasn’t looked back since. “I just don’t like being famous,” she says told NBC News earlier this year. “You lie to people to try to make them seem like you’re their friend for the sole purpose of selling things to them.” Another anomaly is Jenna Marbles, who… apologies for old videos in which she wore blackface to impersonate Nicki Minaj and rapped in an insulting parody of an Asian accent in June 2020. Her account, which had 20 million subscribers, has since been inactive.
But for the most part, once a YouTuber reaches a certain level of success, he is a YouTuber for life. I’m less convinced that this has anything to do with the platform itself and more with the kind of person it attracts and who it ends up being. In the years I’ve interviewed them, I’ve always noticed how YouTubers – and creators write big – understand the world, which is fervently individualistic and sometimes a little bitter. This is an understandable attitude when your livelihood depends on the creative economy, in which individuals compete against each other for the most attention possible.
Vloggers tend to be sharp, almost erratic attuned to the in-depth analytics YouTube provides for them. “It’s brilliant and terrifying how much information YouTube gives you about your content and your audience,” explains Howell. “When you make a video from the heart, really express yourself… you’re greeted with a wall of red lines that says ‘Sorry, nobody likes this, honey.’” He makes a striking comparison to children’s programming: public television , for example can put out shows like Arthur or The Neighborhood of Mr. Rogers not because they are dairy cows, but because they are providing a service to the public. Meanwhile, YouTube’s hottest kids’ shows seem to be in a mess LOL Surprise or Kinder egg unboxings and glitter slime ASMR videos.
Most of all, I’ve noticed that YouTubers tend to see other people and situations in black and white, divided between what’s good for themselves as individual creators and outside forces that want to harm them. They are often suspicious of institutions and organizations, especially the media, which they say oppose creators because editors fear they will be replaced by them (although PewDiePie most famous for this belief, Howell’s latest video also contains references to it). In this they do not differ from the attitude of the general public, who increasingly skeptical of established institutions but quick to believe that satanic forces are present at music festivals, for example, and that despite evidence to the contrary, they will be among the 1 percent who make money by participating in an MLM or, say, an NFT project.
Fittingly, in recent years Phan has become something of a crypto evangelist, shilling for an industry best known for its sky-high promises and unpredictable results. After all, this isn’t all that different from YouTube, where the chances of becoming a famous millionaire are negligible, but still exist. It’s such a seductive fantasy that even the YouTubers who have experienced (and been part of) its ugliest aspects – Jeffree Star, James Charles, Shane Dawson, Tana Mongeau, Trisha Paytas, Gabbie Hanna — can’t really log out. The same goes for Howell: At the end of his 90-minute monologue, in which he describes his experiences with YouTube as traumatic and terrifying, he announced that he would continue making videos and that he would go on a world tour called “We are all doomed!”
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