Making money online, the hard way

Chlapecka posts at least one short video a day
on Instagram and TikTok, where she has a combined 4.5 million followers.
Nothing dramatic happens in the videos. But Chlapecka is who you might imagine
if Lady Gaga were your favourite barista dishing out advice and zingers. (In
fact, Chlapecka used to be a barista.)

In a few seconds of video recorded at home or
in a mall, she seems at ease. Chlapecka invites viewers — particularly gay
people and women — to feel good about themselves with an online personality
that Chlapecka described as “an encouraging big sister type.” (Readers, please
note that Chlapecka’s videos are not necessarily family-friendly.)

But this is also work. In addition to daily
posts, Chlapecka records rough cuts of videos to save for the days when the
creative juices might not be flowing. In line at the grocery store, she jots
down concept ideas. Chlapecka weighs in on pitches for promotional videos to
incorporate certain products or song clips that companies hope will take off.
She also told me about hosting a gig at a comedy club and creating strategies
to build a bigger fan base on YouTube and sell merchandise to fans.

For many people like Chlapecka, who try to
make a living from entertaining or sharing information online, their job is
part Hollywood producer, part small-business owner and all hustle.

“Some people really underestimate the work
that creators do,” Chlapecka said. “I wish they would understand more that this
is a real career — and it’s a serious career — and a form of entertainment.”

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Chlapecka knows that some people believe she’s
just goofing around on the internet. But it takes skill and perseverance to
come up with fresh ideas day after day, establish rapport with online followers
and stay on top of the constantly changing algorithms and tastes of internet users.

No one person is representative of the
millions who try to earn a living from their online creations. But Chlapecka
offers a glimpse at what this work is like and how creators earn money. This
job may not look like yours or mine, but it can be gratifying and maddening
like most work.

As with many online personalities, the biggest
chunk of Chlapecka’s income comes from companies that pay to have their
products or songs featured in videos. Brands typically provide a big-picture
concept and leave it up to Chlapecka to do the rest.

Chlapecka has also earned money from Cameo, a
service for people to pay for personalised videos from celebrities and sports
stars. She has experimented with selling subscriptions to followers on Twitter
and digital creator service Fanhouse. Chlapecka also collects money from
TikTok’s fund for video makers, which she described as “not enough to pay rent,
but it is nice.”

Chlapecka wouldn’t say how much money she
makes. But until about a year ago, she was working at Starbucks and a vintage
store and making TikTok videos on the side. Now online work is a full-time job.

She said she felt fulfilled by “the power that
social media has given me and the fans who love me — and I love them back.”
Chlapecka also relishes FaceTime conversations with other online creators who
trade how-to tips and sympathy for difficult days. It’s their version of drinks
with co-workers to moan about a bad boss.

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Like many other creators, Chlapecka is
harassed and threatened online, she said. Social media stars succeed by
creating intimacy with followers, but Chlapecka said that hecklers act as
though the person they see through a smartphone screen doesn’t have feelings.

“People behind the camera are human beings,
and we deserve to have boundaries and respect,” she said.

Chlapecka said that she understood how the
grind of being constantly online burned many people out. She hopes that
creators’ work can be sustainable, but she also imagines that online fandom may
open doors for pursuits in TV and music.

This is the life of creators, a staple of the
digital economy. They fill the apps that consume our leisure hours. It’s a
career aspiration for young people that didn’t exist a generation ago. It can
be all-consuming, invasive and precarious — and also, fun.

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