Two weeks ago PewDiePie, the world's most popular YouTuber, announced he was quitting the service. Four days later Casey Neistat, one of the fastest rising stars over the last two years, said he was ending his daily vlog. Imagine Beyoncé and Taylor Swift both declaring in the span of a few days that they were taking a sabbatical from music.
PewDiePie's retirement from YouTube was very short-lived. Turns out he was just off shooting his web series, Scare PewDiePie. He wanted to practice kung fu and ride a motorcycle instead of making dick jokes, and who can blame him? Meanwhile Neistat — along with his crew from Beme — collected a cool $25 million to build a new digital venture with CNN; he isn't letting the cable news network take over his YouTube channel and he plans to continue posting videos. He even posted one this week, a travel vlog of his time in Vietnam with his son.
Quitting YouTube has become a genre of video unto itself. It's sort of like the band that breaks up every time it's sick of touring, only to come back for one last run. Or the pro wrestler who announces his retirement for the umpteenth time, only to step back into the ring when the moment is right. It's such a trite ploy, and at this point it has become fodder for parody.
That isn't to say this is all manufactured drama. Neistat and PewDiePie don't have the problems of a middle-class YouTuber, those with a few hundred thousand subscribers, who find themselves simultaneously famous and broke. These two genuinely struck it rich and have publicly talked about making millions. But the paradox of vlogging stardom is that making it to the top doesn't change the work. Success is predicated on the intensely personal. You still have to pump out a video every day, and it has to feel intimate. You could afford to hire a crew to come document your life, sure, but fans expect you to be holding the camera, sharing your secrets, and opening up every facet of your life.
"YouTube can be a bit of a treadmill," says Derek Muller, who has a popular channel exploring topics in science. "Once you have some success you feel compelled to stay on it, churning out videos. But this doesn't necessarily mean they are creatively fulfilling, especially when you have clear time constraints."
Neistat, in quitting, talked at length about feeling bored and stifled by the terms he had set for himself, and many who work in the same mold agree. "Making a good full-time living anywhere on YouTube is gonna be difficult if you're not willing to 'play the game,' so to speak," says Connor Manning, a full-time vlogger we profiled last summer who's still struggling to break into the big time. "Clickbait titles, catchy thumbnails, and shareable content are necessary if this is something you want to do as a job. But not everyone wants that."
Vlogging, as a format, is hardly on the wane. But in many ways it's now recognized as a means to an end. "Brand revenue and business opportunities are flooding into the influencer space from the video and display advertising markets," says Jonathan Katz, an entertainment attorney who represents a lot of YouTube talent. "By its nature, daily vlogging is not a scaleable business model, and once a creator has developed an engaged audience, there are much more valuable opportunities for the creators to pursue."
A video declaring you've quit YouTube is kind of the ultimate clickbait, a way for the artist to stage their own death and return refreshed. Making it to the top means finding a way out, or at least space to breathe. "Because of that, they have the financial security and opportunity to leave something that is undeniably lucrative to pursue endeavors they find more creatively fulfilling," says Muller. "In a way I view their choice as a sign they are doing really well from YouTube."