Today in Things I Could Have Written, Get rich or die vlogging: The sad economics of internet fame

Today in Things I Could Have Written, we have Get rich or die vlogging: The sad economics of internet fame.

It was all so painfully awkward. That night, Brittany Ashley, a lesbian stoner in red lipstick, was at Eveleigh, a popular farm-to-table spot in West Hollywood. The restaurant was hosting Buzzfeed’s Golden Globes party. For the past two years, Ashley has been one of the most visible actresses on the company’s four YouTube channels, which altogether have about 17 million subscribers. She stars in bawdy videos with titles like “How To Win The Breakup” or “Masturbation: Guys Vs. Girls,” many of which rack up millions of views.

The awkward part was that Ashley wasn’t there to celebrate with Buzzfeed. She was there to serve them. Not realizing that her handful of weekly waitressing shifts at Eveleigh paid most of her bills, a coworker from the video production site asked Ashley if her serving tray was “a bit.” It was not.

“Why would someone with 90,000 Instagram followers be serving brunch?”

Because they don’t know how to monetize.

When I was informed that at the end of my program I would not have a job at Reason anymore my plan was to take Sex and the State and make it my full-time job. I’d figure out how to make my hobby pay, and in the meantime I’d write for other sites in order to eat. This was, in many ways, an overcorrection to my experience at Reason, where I couldn’t get published. “Fine, fuckers,” I thought. “I’ll publish my own damn self.”

A few months, and a lot of thinkpieces leading to moderate libertarian internet fame later, Clark Ruper at Students For Liberty reached to me about being the first hire for a new media project they were launching where I’d be writing and editing libertarian op-eds all day long for a steady paycheck.

What I don’t usually tell people is that the lucrative freelance gig that allowed me to eat had recently all but dried up. The money had mostly stopped but the come ons from the editor in chief hadn’t. This is one of those things I wouldn’t even think to include in the story except that in her memoir that I’m reading now, Molly Crabapple keeps writing about the casual sexism she encountered trying to make it as an artist and it’s reminding me of mine trying to make it as a writer.

This plus the fact that I still wasn’t any closer to figuring out how to make Sex and the State make money meant I took a significant pay cut to join SFL from what I was making at Reason.

I left SFL for a sales job, another overcorrection for getting an insult of a raise at a job I was already ridiculously underpaid at even though I by-all-accounts rocked the shit out of it. I’m not even mad at SFL. I love SFL. I appreciate that they gave me the job, the most fun job I’ve ever had. I appreciate that they gave it to me, a controversial figure in liberty, because to them being explicitly anti-racist and anti-sexist should not be controversial. I appreciate all the latitude they gave me in that job. But for whatever reason they didn’t want me fundraising for that program and if you don’t raise money for your work at a non-profit, and no one else is raising money for your program, you don’t get paid.

Which brings us to the issue at hand, which is that if you are a creator of anything, if you don’t raise money for your work you don’t get paid.

I’m embarrassed to admit this, but two and a half years into Sex and the State, I still don’t make any money from it. I tried banner ads, but only halfheartedly because my pageviews never stayed consistently high enough to merit a payout. I did contextual ads as well, but same problem.

I’ve never had a moral problem with shilling. I started my career shilling and I’ll die with marketing speak on my lips.

It’s not just that I’m a greedy capitalist attention whore (I am) but that I want creators like myself to get paid, directly and in direct proportion to how much people want our work. I support brands supporting creators directly because two sets of gatekeepers (editors and brands) IS NOT better than one.

Again, Molly Crabapple has done a great job living the way that the art world is closed off to people who aren’t from means. Journalism is the same. All the Vox-ers have Ivy League degrees.

Resistance to content marketing comes partly from steadily employed creators being a little too wedded to the “nobility” of their professions. After all, once you break in what use do you have of acknowledging the privilege and connections that got you there? It’s easy to dismiss content marketers as base if you never had to pose naked to pay for pens. Plus these creators lean on the nobility of their jobs to justify the gap between their brilliance and their paychecks.

My mother once told me that if I was going to whore around I might as well get paid. And I think if journalists are going to suck the President’s cock as he bombs American citizens to death in Pakistan they really shouldn’t look down on content marketers because they get a paycheck for their trouble.

So yeah, no moral qualms about content for money. What I’ve had is a practical problem with shilling. As in I can’t figure out how to do it.

I know the starving content creator struggle (or rather the day-job having struggle, since I’m more than willing to shill full-time). I didn’t learn until I went full content marketer that on the other side marketers and brands are dying for talent. It’s so funny watching marketers try to be writers. My Content Marketing Twitter list is chock full of posts about how to get ideas and how to make yourself write. If you’re a writer this isn’t the advice you need. Marketers write posts saying you should be spending twice the amount of time promoting your writing as you do writing it. First, if that’s true your writing sucks and you should stop doing it. Second, if you have to make yourself pimp your own writing your writing sucks and you know it and you should stop writing.

Marketers, in general, should stop writing. They should pay writers to write and instead act as the conduit between writers and brands. That’s a full-time job, one that no one is doing, judging from the content creators who are starving and the brands who are starving for content.

The last thing I’ll do is address this: “Failing to talk about money hurts our bottom line. The most Allison and I have made combined on one deal is $6,000, and 30 percent of that went to our multichannel network, Collective Digital Studios. I’ve learned that others with fewer subscriptions make twice that. A lack of communication leads to a lack of standard pricing.”

And this: “Fans don’t want to see that you’re explicitly on the hustle.”

This is so true. And so sad. I remember someone, I think on Slate, writing a review of Lena Dunham’s memoir. The reviewer noted that Dunham wrote about all these embarrassing things, being fat, bad sex, etc. But she conspicuously left out the one thing that makes Lena Dunham Lena Dunham and not every other Millennial with a high BMI and mediocre coitus: Her ambition.

The one thing it’s still absolutely not okay to be as a woman today is nakedly ambitious.

Those fans are wrong. They are stupid. They are probably a little misogynistic. Fuck them. I am explicitly on the hustle. The fact that you haven’t seen advertising here (or very little) isn’t because I have some kind of purity hangup, but because I am too stupid to figure out how to turn writing about my failures as a woman into an income stream.

I mean if I’m going to talk about crying over a stupid boy or having to leave another stupid boy’s apartment after midnight I can talk about my business failures too.

But now I have a plan. It’s a plan so simple I’m embarrassed to not have thought of it sooner. It goes like this. A. Start aggregating so I have content every day for my newsletter. B. Build my list. C. Sell ads in my email newsletter. BOOM. If not profit, at least experience.


  1. Justin

    I like the new format of the email. I’m going to forward to my wife and see if she’ll read too. Keep up the good work.

    • cathyreisenwitz

      Thank you so much! I’ve already lost some subscribers but hopefully I replace them with more and better ones, like your lovely wife.

  2. Michael Crump

    I guess I’m a subscriber for life. I’ve read your writings before this blog started. I would like to e considered for a “grandmothered” in option when the time comes. I look forward to more of your sayings. ^.^

  3. Henry Vandenburgh

    I’m so rude I don’t expect anyone to pay. I think I offer useful ideas, but they may not be recognized as such at first.

  4. Matt B

    Hi Cathy – no more writing for other publications or appearing on TV? I assume that brought in some email subscribers / increased social media following?

    • cathyreisenwitz

      I definitely want to get back into that. Thanks for the reminder! I need to follow the same process I did before, but this time with less focus on politics generally and more focus on sex and relationships.

Comments are closed, but trackbacks and pingbacks are open.