CreditCredit...Illustration by Zisiga Mukulu/The New York Times; photographs by Elle Mills/YouTube
My life so far has often been distilled to numbers: 1.7 million subscribers, 1.8 million total followers, 155 million views. At 12 years old, I started posting videos on YouTube. In November, at 24, I quit.
When I tell people about my videos, I often say, “imagine if Ferris Bueller had a YouTube channel.” I used the style and conventions of nostalgic teen films to romanticize what was otherwise an ordinary life. On YouTube, a romanticized life is also, paradoxically, a deeply personal one. My channel was as raw and honest as I would have been in my diary. That’s part of the culture. Being known as you are — and praised for it — lures in those of us with a deep desire to be seen.
But another part of the culture is to make yourself into a product and figure out how to sell that product. Success is measured in views and subscriber counts, visible to all. The numbers feel like an adrenaline shot to your self-esteem. The validation is an addicting high, but its lows hit just as hard.
The career I built on YouTube is one of which millions of young people still dream. Many of them start making videos to share themselves with an audience that actually wants to listen. And then, at 1,000 subscribers, YouTube can send that first check; if subscriber counts grow, so do the brand deals and collaborations that often lead to fame and fortune. When done right, YouTube can quickly become a lucrative career. But maintaining it is a delicate balancing act; sometimes, as it was for me, the sacrifices required are too dangerous to be worthwhile.
The peak of my YouTube career didn’t always match my childhood fantasy of what this sort of fame might look like. Instead, I was constantly terrified of losing my audience and the validation that came with it. My self-worth had become so intertwined with my career that maintaining it genuinely felt life-or-death. I was stuck in a never-ending cycle of constantly trying to top myself to remain relevant.
YouTube soon became a game of “What’s the craziest thing you’d do for attention?”
My answer? Legally marry my sister’s boyfriend. (It was meant to be a lighthearted joke. Our union has since been annulled.)
Nearly three million people have watched that video; by the numbers, I should consider it and others like it as successes. But there’s an overwhelming guilt I feel when I look back at all those who naïvely participated in my videos. A part of me feels like I took advantage of their own longing to be seen. I gained fame and success from the exploitation of their lives. They didn’t.
Even so, I was also a teenager, making decisions based on the visibility that our culture teaches us to desire. I knew that my audience wanted to feel authenticity from me. To give that to them, I revealed pieces of myself that I might have been wiser to keep private.
We place such a high value on visibility, so isn’t it only natural to feel as if our vulnerability is the price to pay to be validated?
But when metrics substitute for self-worth, it’s easy to fall into the trap of giving precious pieces of yourself away to feed an audience that’s always hungry for more and more.
Documenting my darkest moments began to feel like the only way people would truly understand me. In 2018, I impulsively released a video about my struggle with burnout, which featured intimate footage of my emotional breakdowns. Those breakdowns were, in part, a product of severe anxiety and depression brought about by chasing the exact success for which many other teenagers yearn.
My burnout video didn’t end my career; it brought me even more attention, from both the wider YouTube community and the news media. Sharing it meant that I was seen authentically, but it also meant that I had made a product out of some of the most devastating moments of my life. In its aftermath, I felt pressured to continuously comment on problems in my private life that I didn’t know how to fix.
And yet, I kept making videos. In hindsight, the videos I made during that time lacked the passionate spark that had once been key to my success. It had begun to feel as if I was playing a version of myself I’d outgrown. I was entering adulthood and trying to live my childhood dream, but now, to be “authentic,” I had to be the product I had long been posting online, as opposed to the person I was growing up to be.
Online culture encourages young people to turn themselves into products at an age when they’re only starting to discover who they are. When an audience becomes emotionally invested in a version of you that you outgrow, keeping the product you’ve made aligned with yourself becomes an impossible dilemma. Changing an online persona is something at which few have been successful, so most are too scared to risk their livelihoods and try. Staying unchanged brings its own challenges — stagnancy, inauthenticity, burnout. The instability brought by growing up is what commonly makes this career path short-lived.
As it did for many, the pandemic marked a turning point for me. There was never a definitive moment when I decided to quit YouTube, but for a year, I didn’t post. Eventually, I knew I wouldn’t return.
Sometimes, I barely recognize the person I used to be. Although a part of me resents that I’ll never be able to forget her, I’m also grateful to her. My YouTube channel, for all the trouble it brought me, connected me to the people who wanted to hear my stories and prepared me for a real shot at a directing career. In the last year, I’ve directed a short film and am writing a feature, which showed me new ways of creating that aren’t at the expense of my privacy.
There are many who have made a career online and found happiness doing it. Many more young people still strive for that kind of success, and the validation that it brings. But to those who will walk the path I did, I hope you will learn from my experience. Not everyone deserves your vulnerability. Use these platforms to open opportunities, but not at the cost of giving all of yourself away.
Elle Mills (@elle.mills) posted on YouTube as ElleOfTheMills from 2012 to 2022. She is the writer and director of “Reply,” a short film.