Staying relevant on YouTube without milkshake ducking yourself is a fine line creators walk every single day.
Entertaining people and pushing boundaries is part of the job, but go one step too far, and fans can turn. It’s happened before. Controversial YouTuber Leafy, 5 Second Films and Microwave This are series, channels or creators that became irrelevant as content became stale or died off after their videos became too obscene.
That’s what makes Bobby Burns’ real-time “transformation” so intriguing to watch play out.
Burns’ channel started off as one thing (album and movie reviews), morphed into something else (YouTube commentary) and became something completely different (vlogging) for a short period of time. Most videos starred Burns in front of a camera in his high school bedroom, echoing most videos seen during YouTube’s earliest days, when the focus was on a creator talking to their camera. He seems happiest in those first videos, and becomes visibly more stressed as his channel grew and people started paying attention to his work. This only became more accurate following a very public collaboration with Shane Dawson.
He later admitted he couldn’t keep up with the external and internal pressures that came with success on YouTube — the race to upload often and best his own work day in, day out. He experienced a major breakdown, and later visited New York in an attempt to try to figure out how to be happy again. He sat on a rock in Central Park, sitting in the rain, talking to a handheld camera about every major fear and anxiety wracking his brain, naming it as the same mental health lapse that so many other major YouTubers deal with. And then he went away.
Burns went back to creating YouTube videos after that breakdown confession was posted, but his channel changed again.
His account is now a living art experiment. Burns doesn’t vlog anymore, and isn’t reviewing movies. He’s not creating 10-minute commentary videos exploring YouTube culture. Instead, he’s shaping an alternate reality of sorts, starting with Nasty, a new character concocted by Burns that’s a personification of Burns’ worst anxieties about being a creator. Nasty drops SoundCloud rap mixtapes, and only cares about bringing in views and placating viewers. Nasty doesn’t care about Burns’ mental health, something the creator is open about on his channel, and doesn’t care about Burns’ wants and need; all that matters is what sells and staying relevant.
“Nasty’s been feeding you a lot of criticism,” Burns tells a past version of himself in the video above. “Some of it’s been good and useful, like going down the path that I did. But at the same time, he’s also been feeding you a lot of bullshit. Don’t stay in your comfort zone; that’s how art dies. If you only stick to what you know, you’ll literally never grow. Get out there, make stuff you love. You can do it. Don’t listen to Nasty. He just wants your channel to get views. He doesn’t care about your mental health, he doesn’t care about your life. He just wants your channel to make money. He’s not exactly the person you should be taking advice from.
“You have to find a balance of self-expression and consistency; you have to care for yourself, and the audience. That’s the only way this is going to work.”
The video is relatively short, but it’s framed in a disturbing way. Burns is presented as being held hostage by Nasty, a personified version of his worst fears. His eyes are black and swollen, his lip is bleeding and it’s made clear that he’s suffering at the hands of his own mind. The video transitions from Burns’ gloomy bedroom, wherein he’s trapped with nothing but his own thoughts, to a bright suburb, where he discusses his own mental health with a past version of himself.
Burns brilliantly uses the juxtaposition of his true self, Nasty and a past version of himself (prior to becoming relatively famous) to navigate his own anxieties. Every visual that appears on screen — from Burns’ beat-up face to the relaxed, glowing figure of his past self — reiterates the physical and mental toll that comes with being a creator. He’s not just talking about YouTube’s difficulties for creators, but acting each insecurity out in elaborate short films.
Trying to give viewers the type of daily videos they demanded while also taking care of himself almost ruined Burns, but his journey became an inspiration for other creators.
Vanilla Rice is a 17-year-old British YouTuber who started creating videos years ago. He wants to make it a full-time gig, but there is pressure to perform academically and to make time to hang out with friends. Between the constant pressure to create daily videos and still take time for himself, Vanilla Rice found himself in a situation similar to Burns.
“YouTube feels like this: Once you get on the train, you have to stay on,” Rice told Polygon over Discord. “Otherwise, it will derail and crash if you take a break from driving it. You have to keep going, but I just had to take a break. This happens to a lot of YouTubers. If you take a break, you just stare at your channel. You just absolutely stare at it. It’s fine at first ... but then it starts to get into the red. You see the red, and all the red numbers, and it starts to really hit you, like, ‘Oh no, what am I going to do? Should I just quit because I can’t rejuvenate it?’
“When I came back, I immediately went into a sort of daily upload mode just to remind people like, ‘Hi guys, I’m still here. Please.’”
There’s an immediate pressure to continue working, even when creators are unsure of what they want to actually create or when they aren’t simply feeling themselves. That becomes even more intense when there’s an audience waiting for, reacting to and commenting on each video.
“YouTube isn’t a walk in a park, and I think that’s what a lot of people believe,” Rice said. “I do it because I’ve always loved YouTube. I’ve loved it since I was 10 years old. I do it now because I don’t want to disappoint my peers because I’ve put so much effort into it, and they’ve all supported me. I just don’t want to let them down most of all.”
Outside pressure to conform a channel into something that viewers want is extremely common. Burns has spoken about this in past videos, and most recently addressed his growing anxiety in a conversation with fellow YouTube creator Johnnie Guilbert.
This anxiety is only aggravated by negative, unavoidable comments and hate videos dunking on people’s channels. Guilbert addressed popular coping mechanisms — “don’t read the comments” or “don’t feed the trolls” — but said those methods don’t work.
“You’re always judging yourself, and then the comments are judging you, too,” Guilbert said. “You’re always like, ‘I don’t need to care,’ but it’s impossible not to because you’re just going to look at the comments, and they do hurt. They do affect you, and the [hate] videos do, too. I know that sounds super lame, but it’s true. I can’t shut it off; I’ve been trying to for four years.”
Those comments often lead YouTubers with sizable audiences to focus on one specific topic. It’s partially why Burns faced backlash when he went from specializing in commentary to vlogging. It wasn’t a form of content his fans were used to, and that backlash affected him, as he explained in past videos. Rice doesn’t have the audience size that Burns has, but said he does feel like he needs to remain consistent with his channel’s current direction. Although he sprinkles in creative projects from time-to-time (he’s also a musician), everything comes back to commentary.
It all comes back to young creators trying to find a way to entertain their audiences, while ensuring they’re creating the type of videos they enjoy making. Finding that balance between staying true to themselves and performing for an audience is a major contributing factor to many creators’ anxiety.
“You’re not really being yourself, because you’re being a different you a little bit,” Guilbert said. “You’re still you, but you’re not you. You can be yourself, but you’re still a different version of yourself, because you’re trying to entertain the camera. Even on Instagram, you’re trying to look a certain way.”
There’s pressure in being a YouTube creator, and that stress only escalates the bigger an audience becomes. So do the hateful comments, angry videos and non-stop barrage of mentions on social media, which are also integral to successful YouTube careers. It’s a 24/7 vocation. That’s why Burns said he put a spotlight on the often demoralizing pressures, as seen in his YouTube experiment. It’s also why he wants to have more sit-down conversations with other creators to talk openly about the personal difficulties that come with growing up and living in front of a camera.
“This is what makes YouTube YouTube,” Burns said, gesturing between the camera and himself. “It’s the communication [between creator and viewer]. This is a thing I’ve wanted to do for a really long time. I just want to sit down with all of the YouTubers that I’ve known my whole life by watching on YouTube, and just talk to them on camera. I think that’s something you guys can learn a lot from.”