YouTube Economics: What Creators Deserve

Caroline Peng, Stewart AM, Honorbound

As of today, three million people around the world have at some point chosen to watch a woman test the intelligence of her Chihuahua against her hamster. 99% enjoyed the experience, and the remaining 1% disliked the video and most likely belong to the outspoken disdainers of YouTube careers.1

People like Jenna Mourey, owner of both the Chihuahua and the hamster and of the YouTube channel JennaMarbles, make an unconventional living off of monetized videos. With YouTube as pervasive and influential a part of our news distribution, education, and entertainment as it is, the most popular YouTubers have become multimillionaires and popular icons.2 A Variety survey found youth more influenced by YouTubers than conventional celebrities, citing greater attachment and relatability to people freer from the constraints of media and socialite life.3 From an economic standpoint, these YouTubers have brilliantly maximized their utility, as defined by Charles Wheelan to mean “make themselves as well off as possible”—in regards to their place in the market.4 To the audience-based community of YouTube they supply primarily themselves, selling their personalities and content that is most often a personal passion so that they as resources are allocated where they are most fully utilized.

But it is exactly this livelihood that draws disparaging comments from young and old alike about the “worth” of YouTubers. The personal, nontraditional, and even enjoyable element of their work and the fact that a few make it to salaries far above those of doctors and lawyers without using college degrees reject, everything around which American society has been structured since nine-to-five jobs became the norm. Traditional maximization of utility seemingly should require years of schooling and sacrifice, the opportunity cost of which are the hobbies off of which YouTubers so flippantly get rich. Among top-earning YouTubers in 2015, as reported by Forbes, are those who focus on video gaming, makeup tutorials, music, pranks, and baking.5 These are not significantly entrepreneurial products that we expect to create a fortune or that can make everyone better off as the ethical and economic dimension of society would encourage. Can we still continue to responsibly support and massively reward YouTube stars for what seems to be self-service?

The answer is much more complicated than just addressing an issue of disproportionate earnings. YouTube, after all, isn’t a regular market, where according to Wheelan we would expect prices and not popularity to allocate resources,6 government regulation and not private direction, and income to flow from consumers instead of business partners.7 Additionally, the process and requirements of monetization are complex and inconstant, with new rules blocking advertising8 and a threshold of views for approval9 introduced earlier this year. About as much work goes into navigating YouTube and creating sufficiently high quality content for advertisers’ satisfaction as does a typical office job, requiring about five to ten hours of work per short video.10 Creators must upload several times a week for years before their efforts are lucratively profitable, and even then they only receive on average a dollar of revenue for every twenty-five views.11 For YouTube to be an employment creators commit full-time and face difficult market decisions, meanwhile significantly impacting youth—so since YouTubers definitely do work hard and do improve society with the maximization of their utility, perhaps the stigma really surrounds the change they represent.

1 “Who’s Smarter: Chihuahua Vs. Hamster,” published June 01, 2017, YouTube, accessed June 19, 2017,

2 Madeline Berg, “The World’s Highest-Paid YouTube Stars 2015,” Forbes, October 14, 2015, accessed June 19, 2017,

3 Stuart Dredge, “Why are YouTube Stars So Popular?” The Guardian, February 03, 2016, accessed June 19, 2017,

4 Charles Wheelan, Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010), 6.

5 Berg, “World’s Highest-Paid.”

6 Wheelan, Naked Economics, 20-25.

7 Wheelan, Naked Economics, 65-79.

8 Garrett Sloane, “As YouTube Tinkers with Ad Formula, Its Stars See Their Videos Lose Money,” AdvertisingAge, March 20, 2017, accessed June 19, 2017,

9 Ben Popper, “Youtube Will No Longer Allow Creators to Make Money until They Reach 10,000 Views,” The Verge, April 06, 2017, accessed June 19, 2017,

10 Alistair Jones, “YouTube: A Viable Career?” The Boar, November 20, 2016, accessed June 19, 2017,

11 Baghdig Balyan, “A Look into the Lives of Full-Time YouTubers,” The Link, October 28, 2014, accessed June 19, 2017,

Image Citation: “YouTube Open for Business.” 2014. Tubular Insights. Accessed June 19, 2017.


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