Thousands of women try to make a living blogging and vlogging. Most fail.

I was working as a freelance reporter when my comedy partner Allison Raskin and I started our YouTube channel Just Between Us in the spring of 2014. The show is a twice-weekly odd-couple comedy sketch channel that operates a bit like a short sitcom. I had no knowledge of how to make money off YouTube or what kind of labor went into maintaining programming twice a week for a channel where you’re the directors, editors, writers, producers, and stars.

After a couple of years doing steadily well on the platform with 755,000 subscribers, we still weren’t making very much money. I was confused. None of my fellow YouTubers were openly discussing how they were sustaining themselves, and the implication was that YouTube had made them all, if not rich, then financially stable. But I knew that wasn’t true for me — I still took freelancing gigs, borrowed money from friends, and worked as a delivery service courier despite having hundreds of thousands of fans.

I started asking questions, which led to finding out that many of the successful YouTubers visibly killing it online were also working regular day jobs at places like Starbucks or local museums. I wasn’t the only one. So I wrote an article about the disparity between online fame and wealth for Fusion, breaking down the assumption that all YouTube “stars” were millionaires. It went viral.

From there, I launched a podcast called Bad With Money to explore my own biases and issues around finances.

The Fusion article also led to me being interviewed for Brooke Erin Duffy’s new book (Not) Getting Paid to Do What You Love: Gender, Social Media, and Aspirational Work, which explores the problem women content creators have in gaining respect, and money, for their intense labor of love. Duffy is an assistant professor researching social media, gender, creative labor, and tech at Cornell University, and her book looks deeply into the lives and mindsets of fashion and beauty vloggers and bloggers in particular for a breakdown of why feminized online labor is often sidelined or diminished.

In our interview, we discussed women’s invisible online labor, companies and consumers who continue to undervalue women-driven content, the importance of salary transparency for online work, and what it means for a woman on the internet to “be a bitch.”

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Gaby Dunn

You primarily talked to women for the book, right?

Brooke Erin Duffy

Yeah. Part of my interest in the social media economy is seeing it as part of a long lineage of women’s work as underrecognized, undercompensated, invisible, and so forth.

I don’t know if you’ve read a piece by Alana Hope Levinson that came out years ago, “The Pink Ghetto of Social Media Editing”?

Gaby Dunn

It was about how social media editors are basically all women.

Brooke Erin Duffy

They’re women, and it’s this invisible labor. They’re essentially running the Twitter feeds and the Instagram feeds for various companies. And it’s completely invisible labor because there’s no byline or credit. But increasingly these companies are now relying on interns to do this because then you have a completely free source of labor and young people today know social media better than any senior executive.

Gaby Dunn

There’s this weird thing where beauty and fashion bloggers are very successful, but they get looked down upon as, “Well, of course women are going to be doing that, so it’s not that interesting.”

I watch Chef’s Table, which is about cooking. And on Chef’s Table, these men that are good at cooking are like, “Wow, they’re good at cooking. This is so crazy.” And then they will show someone’s grandma, who’s been cooking for 30 years, and they’re like, “Yeah, yeah, but that’s what she’s supposed to be doing.” Female labor is seen as obvious and what you are supposed to be doing and not special.

And any men — the three or four men who really have gotten into the makeup blogging world have just immediately skyrocketed because they are doing something different.

Brooke Erin Duffy

I couldn’t agree with you more. Yes, as soon as it becomes feminized it’s devalued, both in terms of socially devalued, but also in terms of —

Gaby Dunn

Monetarily devalued!

Brooke Erin Duffy

The money! Yes!

Gaby Dunn

I almost compare it to this: Women’s interests are inherently stupid, but then sports is written about in this very elevated way. Obviously, it’s very gendered to say that women care about makeup and men care about sports — I get that. But why is sports allowed to be viewed as an intellectual pursuit but makeup is not?

Brooke Erin Duffy

It’s the long history of this patriarchal culture that values certain activities and renders others completely valueless despite the money that goes into them.

In terms of gender, a key difference on YouTube is how the audience responds to the content creators. Misogyny is pervasive, and research suggests that the underrepresentation of women on YouTube could be linked to the hostility of commenters. But across platforms, misogyny is framed as something that “comes with the territory,” a narrative which, unfortunately, rationalizes this type of behavior.

Gaby Dunn

At VidCon there was this panel called Women Online, and a bunch of fucking douchebros showed up to it and were like, “Why isn’t there a Men Online panel?” Which, PS, if you want a panel at VidCon, you have to submit to get that panel. So what they could have done is put together a packet and submitted to have their own panel, and they probably would have been approved. But instead of doing what everyone else had done, they felt entitled to their own panel without filling out the paperwork. And so they came and tried to disrupt the Women Online panel, which is just classic.

Brooke Erin Duffy

Oh, god.

Gaby Dunn

You could have filled out a form and had your own panel in two seconds, but that doesn’t get you views. They were filming themselves doing this confrontation, and a video of you filling out paperwork and getting your own panel is not going to get the amount of views as you yelling at some women. It’s just so funny. They were like, “Well, men get the same. … It’s all harassment. Men get the same level of harassment.” And I was like, “This is the most disingenuous and hilarious thing I have ever seen in my life.” “Men get the same harassment,” they yelled, at group of women who would never come to their panel and yell at them.

Brooke Erin Duffy

Oh, my god. Exactly.

Gaby Dunn

It was just one of the funniest things. I can’t. There’s this thing where, not only did these women have to do their job but they also have to do their job under duress.

Brooke Erin Duffy

You’re absolutely right.

Gaby Dunn

What did these fashion bloggers and beauty bloggers and these other people that you talked to, what did they have to say about the disparaging of their work?

Brooke Erin Duffy

I think in a lot of ways they were very cognizant of it, especially thinking about how brands saw them as free brand advocates. The expectation that various retailers and companies had was … I think the quote from one was, “Here. Do us a solid and show this to your Instagram followers.” The woman would ask about payment, and if you’re not at a certain level there, there is no payment.

It’s very exploitative the way companies have these expectations. Reading through advertising presses and so forth, it’s kind of attributed to the fact that women are inherently social, and women love social media, and they love sharing products and so forth. So why wouldn’t we be able to expect the same of a blogger or Instagrammer? For these corporations, it’s, again, devaluing the work and not recognizing this as work and something that takes strategy and purpose and time and energy and investments [and] that needs to be adequately compensated.

Gaby Dunn

And there’s a thing that, “Oh, we’re paying you in exposure.” Or, “we’re paying you in clothes,” rather than in —

Brooke Erin Duffy

Actual material compensation.

I conclude the book tying this into larger changes in this whole independent economy. These narratives of paying in exposure, paying in visibility, certainly this is what sustained the freelance economy and the internship economy for decades. But it’s become so pervasive on social media, and what’s different is the audience is there. So when companies are reaching out to bloggers or Instagrammers with these expectations, they realize they have a lot of followers, and also they realize that it’s a very, very saturated market. And so even if some of the young people say, “I can’t afford to work for free,” there are a lot of people that can. It’s incredibly lopsided when you look at the larger system.

Gaby Dunn

Did you have any conclusions on how we can fix this or how we can sort of fix some of the bigger problems that were expressed?

Brooke Erin Duffy

There’s various stats, and I have to look up the one I used in the book, but I think it’s maybe 15 percent of content creators make more than $100 a year. It’s a huge disparity. In terms of fixing it, one of the problems, again, is that people who already come from a position of privilege can afford to work for free, just like unpaid internships. So I think the most important resolution is one of two things. One is collective advocacy in recognizing this as a profession rather than a hobby, and also, calling attention to who pays and the amount. And so there was that … I don’t know, it was Who Pays Influencers website? Do you remember that? That was maybe a year and a half ago? I loved it, and it kind of disappeared.

Gaby Dunn

Oh, yeah!

Brooke Erin Duffy

It’s so unfortunate that it did disappear because I think that’s so crucial. And what sparked it was an article where somebody was saying that we’re overpaying these young Instagrammers who are getting these huge salaries to post one thing — these stories of people getting so much money to do a single post. The whole debate focused on that and not the entire class of people who are making nothing or barely nothing for this.

There’s also been an emergence of these influencer talent agencies who serve as brokers between the brands and the retailers and the content creators. I haven’t quite figured out where I fall on that because I think getting the representation and the information is crucial, but at the same time there’s still a lot of concealment in terms of what the rates are and what the cut is for these agencies and who they’re willing to work with, because usually it’s the people who already have a built-in audience.

I was at a BlogHer conference and people were talking about how to monetize. This was a few years ago, but I think they said the baseline for making anything is 10,000 followers. You think about again, the time and energy that goes into getting that many followers. It’s a lot of content creation and building relationships and so forth. So we need to think about how do these other tiers of content creators get the same kinds of representation and visibility?

Gaby Dunn

I was in a car with a friend of mine who’s a YouTuber, and this company called her directly and was yelling at her about doing this thing for them for free. They were guilting her, being like, “Well, you have to put us on your channel. Blah, blah, blah.”

I kept saying, “Hang up. Hang up.”

She’s new, so she didn’t know what to do. When she hung up, I was like, “You are never to answer a call from those people again. You are never to speak to those people.”

She just got a manager, and I was like, “If anyone talks to you…” For me personally, if someone reaches out to me directly and I send them to my manager and then they go around my manager again to me, they’re done. They’re cut off. I will not work with them. There’s this lack of respect for YouTubers where brands and people [and] companies that want to work with you have this inherent disrespect where they think you’re just stupid … they think you’ll just do anything for free.

I was telling this to a guy who’s a comedian friend of mine, and I was telling him about what happened with my friend. Before I could even say anything, he went, “You know they called her and yelled at her because she’s a woman, right?”

I was like, “What do you mean?” He was like, “They would never call a male YouTuber and try to go around his manager and get him to do things and guilt him to do things for free. They’re only doing that to you guys because you’re women.”

Brooke Erin Duffy

Yeah.

Gaby Dunn

Then there’s all this stuff about such-and-such celebrity is such a bitch. You have to be, because otherwise they’re going to treat you like shit. I’m just teaching my YouTuber friend to be a bitch.

Brooke Erin Duffy

I think you have to.

Gaby Dunn is a writer, comedian, actress and podcaster living in Los Angeles. Her YouTube channel is Just Between Us, her podcast is Bad With Money, and her book (available for preorder) is I Hate Everyone But You. She is not fun.

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