Just weeks before 2013 became 2014, a video was posted on YouTube. A thudding bass plays over a white screen as superimposed videos of a brown-haired girl form dizzying kaleidoscopes of shapes. Wearing a ruffled maroon top and patterned headband, she peers up into the camera. After 25 seconds of highly edited shots that show her jumping and dancing around in various outfits, an announcement appears to end the video: Bethany Mota, the YouTube sensation with millions of followers, is releasing an exclusive collection with Aeropostale.

Mota, who first rose to fame under her screen moniker Macbarbie07, was just 19 years old when her collaboration line was released. The move was novel for a YouTube star at the time—after all, it was 2014, when products shown on-screen were just products and not extensions of partnerships, before copyrighted music became a de-monetizable offense, and when the term “creator” was just three years old. But the response to Mota’s deal with a mall-based retailer whose financial and cultural footprint had been shrinking rapidly was groundbreaking. Her subscribers poured into malls across the country to purchase the line, which included beauty accessories as well as apparel. By the end of 2014, Mota was the most searched fashion designer on Google, surpassing names like Kate Spade, Valentino, and Oscar de la Renta.

She wasn’t the only one who experienced profound career metamorphosis in the year 2014. This was the year when affiliate marketing was formalized and introduced to the world through founder Amber Venz Box’s system LikeToKnow.it, the year when Snapchat began monetizing its story function for brand sponsorships. Creators were no longer just floundering young people sharing the things they liked with the world—they were becoming a class of celebrities in their own right, an untapped stream of clicks-to-cash for major brands to utilize. Mota’s collaboration was just the tip of the iceberg. Top-subscribed YouTube fitness influencer Cassey Ho, known as Blogilates, began spinning off her channel into a line of activewear and appearances at Sundance Festival. Zoe Sugg, known as Zoella, shattered all expectations by becoming the fastest-selling debut author in Nielsen BookScan’s history, outselling J.K. Rowling. At a One Direction concert, the audience at Staples Center chanted for Tyler Oakley upon learning he was among the crowd.

Looking back now, when our feeds are a perpetual washing machine of sponcon, paid partnerships, and videos hashtagged #ad, the digital world of 2014 feels like a relic. Over the past decade, social media has waffled into a multitentacled corporate entity, becoming not just a factor but often a key player in our politics, interpersonal connections, and self-perceptions. Yet much of this was incubated in 2014, the year of Gamergate, the Ice Bucket Challenge, and that one inescapable Oscars selfie. It was the first year that showed us the power viral moments have to fuel awareness, hate-fueled harassment, and star power alike. And for some random people on the internet, it was the moment they began to realize that they weren’t just one-off viral hits—they were on the precipice of something greater.

“I didn’t even know how to edit,” Ho tells me, sitting in front of a white-paned window in her Texas home, her hair blown out to perfection. “All I knew how to do was chop the beginning and the end on Windows Movie Maker. It was so bad.”

The internet was at a different point when Ho first started posting in 2009. She was active on Facebook—“everyone was full force on Facebook, making albums of what they did over the weekend,” she says—and eBay. She explored Los Angeles by printing out a list of recommendations from MapQuest. Even her first Pilates instructor job, the one that spurred her to upload her first YouTube video, was a result of answering a Craigslist ad. She had no idea that the videos would turn her into 2014’s top-subscribed fitness channel. Being a full-time fitness influencer was never really the plan. It wasn’t even a part of any YouTube star’s vocabulary—searches for the term influencer began to rise on Google in late 2015. Not until 2016, a year later, did the Oxford University Press acknowledge the term’s application to social media careers, while Merriam-Webster updated its definition in 2019. Ho had loved drawing and designing first and even continued to make merchandise offhand in the background as she uploaded workout sessions to YouTube.

That was also the story for Oakley, who uploaded his first video from his freshman dorm at Michigan State University. “YouTube was the best surprise in the world,” he tells me on a call from Los Angeles. “As someone who grew up poor and was working since they were 14 and was in debt from college … it was like, Oh my God, I hit the jackpot of finding a hobby. A hobby that you love, that can become your job … and then this job is not only giving me financial security but also opening doors to opportunities that I never dreamed of.” It’s a feeling frequently shared by influencers who found virality during the nascent creator economy: The idea of becoming an influencer wasn’t even on their radar. No one was prepared for it, let alone aware that it could lead to actual money (and a lot of it). Within the span of a decade, things moved quickly. Oakley went from his dorm room to a nationwide tour in 2015, publishing videos with everyone from Modern Family’s Jesse Tyler Ferguson to former first lady Michelle Obama.

Lauren Riihimaki was a college student in Toronto when she decided to start posting under the moniker LaurDIY in 2011. Her first brand deal was also in 2014, promoting the release of the first Divergent movie with Entertainment One. “It was definitely during that period that I started to see more brands warm up to the collaborations between brand and creator,” she says.

So much happened during that year, so Riihimaki uses an old Facebook album to jog her memory. “I secured my first major brand deal working with P&G Canada, making content for CoverGirl, Pantene, Herbal Essences, and Olay,” she lists off. “[I] visited L.A. for the first time to attend a makeup award show with NYX, created content for Duck Tape, was featured in Seventeen magazine as part of their campus MVP program, and overall started to gain a deeper understanding of the career I had the opportunity to build.”

She was still in school and individually was blown away by these new opportunities, which were so different from her life eating dollar pizza slices in her friends’ apartments. But on a wider scale, Riihimaki says there was a thrill in the air among creators who were starting to realize the longevity of their hobby. “The energy was definitely high,” she says. “The culture around collaboration was also really buzzing, and viewers loved seeing their favorite creators come together to make videos. I think for me, coming to L.A. to be amongst like-minded creators was also such a novelty, especially when I would only visit for a week or two at a time.”

It was around this era when Los Angeles also became cemented as the go-to destination for creators who wanted to expand their burgeoning businesses. Riihimaki was one who made the jump; Oakley moved in 2013. Content houses like David Dobrik’s Vlog Squad and Jake Paul’s Team 10 formed in 2015 and 2016, respectively. Coachella began to be acknowledged online as the Influencer Met Gala, where brands like Revolve and Sugarbear Hair Vitamins shelled out big money to invite creators to attend and record the festival. Influencers were being followed to the same degree as Hollywood stars now, and for many of them, it felt like one big glittering adventure that could only get bigger and bigger.

Eyeballs drew in money, which in turn attracted more eyeballs, this time from traditional pillars of media and consumer product industries, and once again, influencers were being observed under an entirely new level of scrutiny. After entering a bikini fitness competition and documenting the entire experience online, Ho began gaining back weight in an effort to heal. “Mentally, I was super messed up, just not eating enough,” she says. “I needed to get myself back to a healthy place, mentally and physically. … I started to gain weight on camera as I was teaching Pilates videos, and people were just like, Why are you getting fat? Why are you so fat?” The hate was reaching new corners of the internet, and cyberbullying quickly turned into death threats. Ho said she was forced to call the police at times. She hired a bodyguard. Her 2015 response video, “The ‘Perfect’ Body,” showed Ho as she imagined photoshopping herself in front of a mirror; it found its way onto Good Morning America, in a segment that describes how one of “YouTube’s most popular fitness phenoms” was combating cyberbullying. “Really important message,” one of the hosts says. “If you are on your computer and writing something, you are sending an arrow”—perhaps a quaint lesson in hindsight, but a novel one at the time. A couple of summers later, Ho stopped filming workout content and began sharing videos about designing her apparel line, POPFLEX, instead. “When I made the switch from not making fitness videos to making design videos, the comments stopped about my body, and it’s been really nourishing and just like a safe space for my mind,” she says. “Now the comments are more like, That thing is ugly. It still hurts, but it’s not as bad.”

At the time, this type of hate campaign was chalked up to cyberbullying and was a relatively new area to be researched. As such, it was often dealt with as a case of young people bullying other young people—in campaign videos featuring clips of children crying, episodes of Glee, stock photos of young people curled up against a wall. This kind of hate was often considered to be an isolated phenomenon. As a result, platform guidelines were responsive rather than preemptive. But we know now that this rhetoric, when privilege and outward hatred gather in online spaces and are occasionally endorsed by creators, has the power to manifest in all kinds of violence, including orchestrated hate campaigns and physical movements. Terms like “doxxing” began to evolve with the internet, entering the mainstream. In particular, the culture of harassing female creators online has not ceased since. Consider creator bestdressed, who stopped posting on YouTube three years ago because of threats to her personal and physical safety after her fashion channel took off. In a stream in 2022, Twitch creator Kaitlyn Siragusa came out about the extreme abuse she experienced at the hands of her manager and husband.

Conversely, there was a rising wave of accountability that began in 2014. In March, female YouTubers and fans came forward in videos and on Tumblr to accuse more than 40 male YouTube creators of sexual harassment and misconduct. The subsequent YouTube apology videos in the years that followed—from Shane Dawson’s in 2014 to Austin Jones’s in 2015, and the slew of apologies from Pewdiepie, Zoella, Jake Paul, Jeffree Star, and the Fine Bros in 2016 and 2017, and on and on—would become an ever-continuing meme as more creators in power were held to account. But it also simultaneously bred a culture of inter-influencer arguments online, where creators aired out their problems with one another in front of the camera while tea and drama channels synthesized all the content-house infighting and accusations for viewers to snack on. “The drama and calling out other YouTubers, all of those things, were really growing as part of YouTube culture, and that’s just not something that I ever really wanted to lean into,” Oakley says.

Oakley mostly pivoted away from YouTube at the end of 2020, opening a Twitch account and spending time on his podcast, Psychobabble. “I was just reaching a point where I’m feeling so burned out and like, what else is there left to say?” he says. “There was a shift happening on YouTube. It was something that I started to feel in 2016—for me, the pinpoint was the election. I feel like the internet changed overnight. And my perception was like, Oh, the type of content that is really thriving now feels drama fueled, like reality TV, and not so earnest.”

Ho says that even well into the 2020s, she sees male fitness influencers shaming her on their platforms. “On TikTok, bodybuilding guys were taking my videos, ripping me apart, my workouts, my body, and talking about me,” she says. “I will never understand how people online can be like that to you, because not once ever, in my entire life, has anyone said that to my face.” She knows that a part of the reason she still sees this content come up is because engagement attracts money. She watched the business of influencing become more complex during the mid-2010s. Virality became more common, numbers more lucrative. After many creators faced backlash for improperly reporting their affiliations with brands, the FTC put out a new set of guidelines for influencers in 2019, recommending an #ad or #sponsored disclosure in the caption. Ho says she watched brand deals morph from a simple flat rate to a whole obstacle course of briefings, rights, and branding negotiations. “Back in the 2010s, getting brand deals was super exciting,” she says. “And then beginning in 2014, 2015, they got really specific. They had all these briefs; you had to talk to legal and a million people.”

She remembers one sponsorship video when a brand sent a camera crew to her house to film for her. She felt conflicted; on one hand, it was a sophisticated shoot with a 20-person camera crew, but on the other, she was worried that it would be too much of a shift from the home videos that she and her brand’s ethos were known for. “During that shoot, I remember this brand was like, Oh no, no, no, don’t stand like that,” she says, miming the way she was posed to stand at a 45-degree angle. “Turn this way. Now stand like this and now speak to the camera.”

When the video came out, commenters were quick to call her a sellout. “That was the first time I got the sellout comment,” she says. “I was like, never again am I going to let someone film my videos.” Ho no longer does sponsored videos. Not specifically because of that one partnership, but certainly, it was part of the reason.

Still, the blossoming industry lit up the way for younger creators as well. Remi Cruz, who was a rising sophomore at the University of California–Riverside at the time, says 2014 was the year she decided to take a gap year from school and fully commit to trying to make her lifestyle YouTube career happen. “I found myself at a crossroads between continuing college or dedicating myself to YouTube, especially because content creation was becoming a more viable career path for people,” she says. “I set myself a challenging goal—to fully sustain myself through YouTube within a year or else return to school. I aimed to upload five vlogs a week and produce two to three videos for my main channel. I remember being at Michaels almost every day to help support all my DIYs.”

Now with more than 2.5 million subscribers, Cruz has established her career but has also seen the creator economy totally shake up once more, particularly with the introduction of TikTok and other short-form video platforms. “Now, overnight successes are becoming more common,” she says. “It’s interesting to observe how quickly individuals can gain large audiences, yet building a loyal following, which takes much longer, remains the true challenge. Numbers don’t carry the same weight they once did. I also find that those who achieve overnight success often struggle more and are more prone to burnout.”

Kim Larson, YouTube’s global head of creators, tells me that the creators who go viral now are entering a far more advanced market that offers new learning curves and opportunities. “There’s a sophistication difference,” she says. “If you hearken back to 2014, the primary way that creators made money was through AdSense. Now, we have over 10 ways for creators to monetize. You’re running a business, so your ability to use those different tools, to take advantage of them and connect with your audience, just requires a level of sophistication and commitment that I think is very, very different from what we had available for creators in 2014.”

Cruz says that the brand collaborations of the mid-2010s were a memorable moment for her. “These creators changed how people perceive the influencer industry and helped set trends worldwide,” she says.

Larson says that certain trigger points have become identifiable markers in the evolution of a creator’s lifespan: when they hire an editor and a business manager and begin to expand their digital footprint. “[An editor] now opens them up into a whole different sort of upload cadence, creative possibilities. They’re able to really focus on creators being creators and leave the editing to someone that has expertise,” she says. “Then you may get a business manager. That enables you to be more aggressive around brand deals and thinking about, you know, an agent and all of that. At each intersection or an inflection point, the technology that you can take on and be a part of gets infinitely more complex and more interesting, frankly.”

“Evolving is everything on the internet,” Riihimaki says. “Consistency—with the exception of taking necessary time off for your own sanity—paired with the ability and willingness to pivot and try new things is what creates a long-standing career.” For Riihimaki, that meant going beyond the digital and into areas like hosting television shows, collaborating on product lines with brands, and angel investing. It meant learning the ins and outs of establishing a business structure, filing corporate taxes, and working with managers, agents, lawyers, and publicists. It’s a new industry that is scooping up a few and putting them on a global stage. “Building new branches of the business and staying connected with the audience and growing with them has been key to maintaining a business,” she says.

Oakley returned to YouTube seven months ago, but has not posted since. He does not intend to, as he tells me. He’s having fun on Twitch, starting totally anew, creating a different kind of space that feels in line with him as a person but new as a community. His channel is a mix of new and old subscribers, some who have been watching him for well over a decade, and others who are just becoming acquainted with him now. “It’s eerie, looking back now, because I feel like I’m living it again with Twitch,” he says. “And I get to carry with me all of the lessons learned, whether they were easy or hard to learn. And I get to bring with me all of the boundaries that I’ve learned.”

In a way, Cruz feels as though she’s grown up watching the expansion of the creator economy alongside her followers. “Nowadays, if you ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, many will tell you they want to be content creators,” she says. “It’s become a legit career option. Back in the early days, the platforms available for creators were quite limited. Now, it feels like everyone has the opportunity to be an influencer. The landscape has dramatically transformed, opening up endless possibilities for creators around the world.”

“Initially, I was stubborn about changing my ways, but I quickly realized that failing to adapt meant being left behind,” Cruz says. “Additionally, throughout the past 11 years, every action I’ve taken and every piece of content I’ve created has been subject to judgment. It took me a long time to understand that I don’t owe people anything. Learning not to take things personally has been a crucial part of my growth.”

Does Oakley feel that he understands the algorithm now, after all these years? “No!” he says with a laugh. Ho says she cried to her husband just two weeks ago about a video that didn’t perform well, about her frustration that she didn’t know what she was doing—even after 15 years of being online. He told her to wait until next week, when the algorithm would shift again. “Of course it was fine,” she says with a laugh. “My relationship with the internet, it just is.”

Steffi Cao is a culture writer based in Brooklyn, previously with BuzzFeed News. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, CNN, Forbes, The Daily Beast, and more.

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