It’s been a busy workday for 19-year-old Ashish Kashyap, a construction laborer in Neemrana in Rajasthan. But just after a short break, he forces himself to step out again. He’s going to find a local attraction to make his next YouTube video. He’ll do his research, film himself at the place, edit and upload the video on YouTube, all before going to bed. Tired as he is, he must force himself to do what’s a lot like a second job, because he’s in dire need of additional income. And he believes YouTube will drive his success story.
Ashish, with 334 subscribers, and a combined 32,157 views on the 229 videos on his channel ‘BLOGGING KASHYAP 0.1’, gets an average of about 30 views per video. He has had a four-year-long relationship with YouTube, trying different things with the goal of making money
While there are YouTube stars there are also wannabe YouTube stars- most of them from tier 2 cities who have dreams but their aspirations are muddled in the web of algorithms.
Originally a resident of Ranchi, Jharkhand, he and his family were troubled by an alcoholic, abusive father. After years of dealing with that, Ashish, along with his mother, younger brother and younger sister moved to Neemrana. He didn’t have the opportunity to complete his class 12 exams and is now the sole breadwinner of the family. The job he has pays him enough to cover rent, his siblings’ educations, and daily expenses. There’s nothing left over for him. The dream of making money online sprouted from watching the videos of Jharkhand-based creator Manoj Dey, who’s making a living off the platform. “I was very inspired by his videos,” says Kashyap. “I saw how he was earning money from YouTube and running his house with those earnings. That’s why I decided to try YouTube myself,” he adds.
He started by making comedy skits but his friends couldn’t be relied upon. Sometimes they showed up and other times they didn’t. So he moved to making singing videos, indulging in a longstanding passion of his. But he wasn’t really getting any response from people. He decided to jump on the current trends wagon, making videos that updated viewers about the releases and other news related to famous Bhojpuri stars. The response was still underwhelming.
About a year ago, he decided to pivot again and started making content about himself.
He makes videos about his life as a labourer, and earlier a shop owner, his visits to nearby attractions like a Hanuman temple and the Bawdi Deep Water Step Well, and shares updates about things like buying a bike and getting deliveries like a new stove. “I was getting around 100 views in the middle, but now it’s close to nothing again,” says Ashish.
Haunted by a lack of views, he’s tried different tactics like talking about trending topics and using engaging thumbnails. “YouTube doesn’t send my videos to strangers. So how will it work out for me?”
Ashish doesn’t know some crucial information about the way the algorithm works: watch time, or the amount of time a viewer watches a video for. “If the watch time is more, engagement will be more, and YouTube will recommend that video to other users. Even if it’s a new creator with zero subscribers, but they’ve created quality content, the algorithm will push the video,” says social media marketing consultant Kiran Voleti.
“If a viewer comes to a video but leaves it in a few seconds, YouTube won’t consider that video worth pushing. Audience retention decides how much attention the video gets,” adds Voleti.
Not just the content, but the quality of the video also plays a big part in determining how long a viewer engages with it. But smaller YouTubers like Kashyap have to face logistical challenges, since they often cannot invest in expensive equipment like fancy cameras and lights, affecting the quality of their videos. For instance, Ashish has a OPPO F19 Pro phone on which he does all his shooting and vlogging. He holds the phone up in his hand and records his vlogs, leading to some inevitable unsteadiness and shakiness, creating a disturbance and affecting the process of watching his videos.
And if they’re just starting out, they probably have another job or other things to focus on, and not being able to do YouTube full-time means they also won’t be as consistent in uploading content as bigger creators. This leads to limited visibility meaning they often don’t meet the eligibility requirements for monetisation.
The quality of smaller creators’ content will often also be average at best, since they normally won’t be as well versed with editing and audio production, and won’t be comparable with bigger creators who’ve spent years learning on the job. Getting discovered and building an audience can often take years, since views are few and engagement in terms of likes and shares is even lower.
Success is often a combination of consistency, adapting to the rapidly evolving social media landscape, engagement with audiences, and continuously learning and growing one’s skill set. “There’s a promotional aspect as well,” says Voleti. “They need to research the trending keywords in their particular niche. And they need to create related content, rather than creating content about random topics. But even if they have the correct keywords, if watch time isn’t great, the algorithm won’t push it. It will only work if the quality is good,” he explains.
But without awareness of this basic principle, creators continue putting in effort and making videos, hoping for views and monetisation.
There is, for instance, Haryana-based Rashmi Saini, who’s also looking to make money from the platform. “I don’t want to be dependent on anyone. I want to earn and manage my own money. Our shop doesn’t get as much business as one would think. Only the daily expenses are met. But I want to give my children the best life possible,” says Rashmi.
But a majority of the videos on her channel ‘Rashmi lifestyle vlog’ have less than 100 views and the channel isn’t monetised yet. “I feel bad sometimes, since I’m putting in so much effort and getting no response [from YouTube].” As a way of coping, every few days, Rashmi goes through an emotional cycle. She’ll feel bad about the low view count on her videos and decide to stop, stepping away from YouTube. After a day or two, she’ll think to herself that stopping was the wrong thing to do since it’s only through continuing that her views will increase, and then she returns to creating content.
This dejection is further fuelled by the fact that her family, especially her husband, isn’t supportive of this endeavour, although she informs me that he doesn’t go so far as to stop her either. Rashmi is hopeful that the day she gets financial returns, he’ll come around.
Like Ashish, Rashmi has also tried different formats, hoping that something will stick. The 35-year-old started by making videos about cutting and stitching fabric, and then moved to tutorials about making clothes for god’s idol. Noticing that these formats weren’t garnering much attention, she decided, about a year ago, to pivot to vlogs.
In one vlog, titled ‘morning routine: working mom's tips to start the day,’ she’s jumping on a rather popular trend. She places her phone in appropriate spots to film herself as she goes about her morning. It starts with her waking up at 6 am. To face the wintry morning, her head is wrapped in a red shawl and she puts on shoes as soon as she’s awake. Rashmi goes to the kitchen, warms her hands against the gas, and heats up some milk. Her fridge is mostly empty but she manages to scrape together a brinjal, two tomatoes, some peas, and a small section of cauliflower. That’s going to be their lunch for the day.
In one video she’s burying rotten tomatoes in her plant pots and in another she’s showing off the small tomato plant that’s grown from it. One video sees her worrying about the lack of customers at her husband’s general convenience shop, ruminating on how most buyers have moved to online shopping. In one she’s laughing at herself because the besan ladoos she’s making aren’t perfectly spherical. In another, at her younger son Hunny’s request, she’s making ‘finger chips’ for the first time. And in one she’s seen applying aloe vera on her face as a form of skincare while another sees her drinking a milk, protein powder, sugar, and chia seed mixture to achieve better skin.
Her tone is welcoming and friendly, and she interacts with her viewers as though they are friends sitting besides her, chatting about the work she has to do or other things on her mind. Watching her videos is like being guided into her unique world. But from impromptu plans to make french fries to concerns about skincare and weight, the characters populating Rashmi’s world are relatable.. “I love watching vlogs. Seeing someone’s lifestyle, their eating and drinking habits, how someone is living, how their family is, gives an idea about how we should also live. Everyone’s life is different and it’s fun to watch,” says Rashmi.
It was through being a viewer that Rashmi decided to start making her own videos. “With vlogs, we don’t have to do anything separately. We just have to show what we’re already doing.” She has 536 videos and a total of 102,775 views across them, with 1340 subscribers.
Her most popular video is from the stitching days, where she shows how to make a sleeve design in a 6:29 minute video, which has 539 views.
In the face of these unsteady numbers, one of the things that’s motivated her to continue is everything she’s gained from the platform. There’s the fact that she’s acquired knowledge about shooting and editing videos, received mostly supportive comments from viewers, felt the excitement of being technologically competent, and gained the confidence to appear on screen. “Earlier, I used to be very shy, worried about what someone will say when they see me on their phone. I didn’t watch my own videos. But now I’m not embarrassed at all,” she says proudly.
As a creator, theoretically, Rashmi is doing everything right. She’s dedicated to making videos, ensuring that the small and big moments alike are available for her viewers to watch. She uploads regularly and responds to the comments she gets, engaging with her audience. She’s taught herself how to shoot and edit and her more recent videos also see her adding background music, and she’s invested in upping her skills.
But still, her views are few.
One reason for this is that with the overwhelming amount of content available online, viewers are being more strategic about what they watch. “Audience expectations are evolving, pushing the boundaries of what entertainment can be,” says Ishan John Chatterjee, Director, India, YouTube.
“Viewers increasingly expect personalised experiences, and use different formats to meet different needs. That is why, today, a sustained career as a creator requires more intentional engagement. With today’s crowded content marketplace, creators are being more strategic, and agile using the vast array of tools to deliver the content viewers want no matter their screen, tastes, or time available to watch,” he adds.
While the platform is actively providing creators the toolkit they need to succeed in different formats, understanding audience expectations and creating quality content are paramount.
But without this awareness, creators like Ashish and Rashmi continue making content with the hope of monetisation. This is, in part, because YouTube certainly seems like a glamorous, and convenient, job to have. You get to choose your hours, do things that interest you, have fun collaborations, get people’s love and adoration, and above all, earn fame and money. It seems like a luxurious life.
Watching big creators spend the money they’ve earned through YouTube on extravagances like outrageously expensive cars, shoes, watches, gadgets, and other material things is now a growing trend. Such videos are a vlogging sub-genre that allows viewers to live vicariously and they often get millions of views. Comments under such videos range from being proud of the creator for hitting this milestone - exhibiting an intense self-identification with the creator - to thanking the creator for spending so much just for their entertainment, and generally being supportive and expressing a familiarity with the person on screen.
Ashish and Rashmi can’t offer that extravagance.
Purely in terms of numbers, there’s a lot of potential to become big. As of March 2023, there are 2.51 billion monthly active users on the platform. Two hundred and fifty million hours of video is watched on YouTube every single day. The average user spends 40 minutes on the platform each day. India has the largest YouTube audience with 467 million users. YouTube provides one with the possibility of a ready and willing audience. Many have found stardom and success on YouTube.
“Today, In India, the number of YouTube channels making 100K or more in revenue (INR) is up 20 percent year over year (a/o Dec 2022),” says Chatterjee. And these successful creators come from all corners of the country. “At YouTube, we’re seeing that the simplicity of creative tools is democratising creation and creativity is no longer the bastion of urban creators and artists. Regional creativity is as much about authentic expression as it is about creating a unique differentiator for creators, in a land as culturally diverse as India. It isn’t simply about localising language but about localising the culture,” adds Chatterjee.
But what’s important to consider is the tilt of the numbers. Dreaming of becoming a superstar on YouTube is a lot like wanting to become Bollywood’s next Deepika Padukone or the business world’s next Ambani. There are over 51 million channels on YouTube, with 15 million channels belonging to active content creators, uploading over 7,20,000 hours of content on the platform daily. That’s 500 hours of video every minute. It would take a user 82 years without eating or sleeping to watch the content uploaded on the platform in one day. That’s a lifetime. But viewers aren’t watching all of it.
According to a Zippia report, the top 10 percent of creators with high subscriber counts are also getting 79 percent of all views. Success is not a given. Becoming the next MrBeast (153 million subscribers) or PewDiePie (111 million subscribers) is not going to happen for the vast majority of YouTubers. Indian vloggers like Sourav Joshi Vlogs (20.9 million subscribers) and edutainment channels like Technical Guruji (22.9 million subscribers) are also a faraway fantasy for most. While several creators have found success on YouTube, many more have not.
Even if one’s goal isn’t superstardom but the wish to eke out a comfortable living for themselves, things are bleak at best. There’s also a lot of opacity to wade through when trying to figure out how one can make money through YouTube. As of September 2023, new guidelines apply. Among other considerations, a creator must have at least 500 subscribers, upload at least three videos every ninety days and have 3,000 watch hours in the past year to be eligible for monetisation. The number of views, location of viewers, and the category one is creating content in all affect how much a creator earns. Based on these variations, estimates suggest that for every 10,000 views, a creator in India will earn between Rs 200 and Rs 500. For a million views, one will earn between Rs 7,000 and Rs 30,000. YouTube pays per 1,000 views and for every 1,000 ad views, the company which is advertising will give YouTube a previously agreed upon rate. YouTube keeps 45 percent of this revenue for itself and gives the rest to the creator.
The one number all of this boils down to is that an Indian YouTuber will, on average, and with all requirements met, earn Rs 0.053 per view.
While both Ashish and Rashmi are looking to provide better lives for their families, their videos are lost in a sea of content. In this crowded space, the algorithm has no time for creators with average quality content, whose videos rarely appeared in my recommendations even after weeks of watching such content. In my autoplay, after suggesting one or two videos by that particular creator, the algorithm realigns with its original plan, offering videos about whatever’s trending that day in the categories I’ve historically watched.
Working through such an algorithm, and the intense competition on the platform is a lot like finding oneself between a rock and a hard place. Without an intimate understanding of how the platform works, if not for those big dreams, how would such small creators sustain themselves?