Striking a balance between a relationship that's both sustainable and commercially beneficial is something all creators should consider deeply. Increasingly YouTube creators are non-controversial, jolly and relatable which acts as a death trap for misunderstanding and disappointment for beloved fans.
I would never dream of underestimating fans. Not all fans are devoted, mindless, high-pitched consumer children. Although millions of young women tune in, they're not all fangirls. In fact the majority are just ordinary girls of a certain age, it's the vocal women we hear the loudest. I commonly hear creators belittling fans, generalising and assuming that they're all mindless vessels that will buy everything you tell them to. But that simply isn't the case. One exceedingly successful YouTube Creator I researched (who doesn't need to be named) received over 620,000 views on a video. That's a lot of fangirls, right? Well no, actually. The comments ranged from statements of devotion, multiple personal plugs and of course the odd proposal. Overall about a quarter of the 3200 comments are in plain, good coherent English. Eloquence and decency aren't attributes attributed to raving fangirls. For the sake of argument lets assume all fangirls comment. That's a fair assumption, right? 3200 people commented out of 620,000 meaning less than 0.5% of viewers cared enough to comment. Some views may be repeats, but commenters often write multiple times, too.
Who are the other 99.5% of the viewers? On Twitter, a similar relationship can be found between the amount of followers someone has and their interactions. The aforementioned YouTube Creator has millions of followers but receives thousands of interactions. The same paradox has occurred. Maybe there aren't so many fangirls as suspected after all?
The point is this. As creators we see thousands in mentions, merchandise sales and ad revenue and it seems unbelievable that that many people could take an interest in us. But we forget about the other 99% who are quietly watching without engaging. They could just be passers-by on the long ring road that is the internet, but a lot of them are just normal people who enjoy a bit of light entertainment fed to them via their PCs.
YouTube creators are beginning to focus their efforts, quite sensibly, on the more devoted fans (male and female). Merchandise has always been a key income stream for people in the public eye with creators cutting costs and raising prices. Nowadays there's no cost and low prices in some deals. Recently traditional merchandise has taken a back foot, the new currency is Direct Messaging (DMs). Creators will offer follows and DMs on twitter in return for the sharing of their content. i.e. ad revenue and increased subscribers are earned by typing a simple message to a devoted fan.
DMs for retweets and follows is fine: fan mail and responses have been in existence for years. But there is a duty of care that creators must be wary of. Devoted fans can be young and often attracted to the creators in a way that they're not mature enough to control or understand. When a creator sends a direct message he's making personal contact - it is private and direct, the opposite to a youtube video which is public and indirect.
Recently I was Snap-chatting away, and I opened a message from a young man who needed advice on coming out as gay. On my channel I offer support in the form of vlogs, spoken word and poetry. I reply to most of my comments and have a professional relationship with my younger audience. The majority of my audience is 18-24 so I'm lucky enough to be able to have frank and honest discussions without misunderstanding or disappointment for anyone who might expect more than a creator/viewer relationship. When the person messaged me, he seemed distressed, and I was very stressed as well - I had my crisis to deal with at that time. As I always do if a situation like this presents itself, I gave him the details of the relevant charities that provide support for people like him. He got incredibly frustrated that I couldn't personally be there for him, and he claimed that I was cold and contradictory to my personality online.
"You're nothing like your videos in real life, are you?"
It hurt because I pride myself on caring for others and not being able to help him was hard. I chose not to invest time in helping him because I could tell from the outset that he was looking for a much stronger friendship than I deemed possible or fair to other people who needed help.
A friendship is a two-way street. When a 'fan' contacts me asking if we can be friends, I have to decline that request. How could I possibly be a fair person and lead them on like that. I attempted to explain to the boy, but he was having none of that, and that's a shame. Today I received another message from him. He's still bitter, and he told me that the charities I suggested were 'relatively unhelpful.'
I'm a minuscule creator in comparison to others. If I've managed to upset one person in the small number of people who watch my shit, how many must other creators upset? DMs from YouTubers that read "I love you" or "You're the best <3" might put the wrong idea in their heads. Is that something we want? Is that pain worth one retweet? I've experienced unrequited love at an older age, and I still found it heartbreaking. Having it at a young age must be destroying, but they still go back for more.
YouTubers have a duty of care, by all means offer your fans DMs but remember that every single one you send will brighten their day like the first high on a hard drug! They'll never get that same high again, but they'll keep coming back for more until it either destroys them or until they grow out of enjoying your content.'