MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
This month on All Tech Considered, we examine the gap between how we portray ourselves online and who we really are.
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KELLY: The story of Hollywood is rife with stories of celebrities who broke down under pressure to perform and please their fans. Well, that is happening to some YouTube stars these days. As NPR's Laura Sydell reports, the pressure has reached new heights in the age of social media algorithms.
LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Being a YouTube star sounds glamorous to a lot of young people - fame, money, fun.
ELLE MILLS: Being a YouTuber is, like, my childhood dream.
SYDELL: And at 20 years old, Elle Mills has achieved her dream. She has more than 1.3 million subscribers to her YouTube channel. Her 2 1/2- to 6-minute videos are characterized by a self-deprecating humor somewhere between Lena Dunham in "Girls" and a Woody Allen film. Here she is after an attempt to levitate her childhood home.
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MILLS: Getting a group of teenagers to blow up 4,000 balloons and put them on my roof might have been a bit too ambitious. Let's just say the end result was a bit underwhelming.
SYDELL: Mills makes a living from selling her branded merchandise - hoodies and T-shirts with her signature logos, Canada's maple leaf - she's Canadian - a soda pop bottle and a camera. She had deals with Samsung and Wendy's, and she tours to meet fans. That's on top of producing the videos which can take 60-plus hours to shoot, produce and edit. While TV and film stars can take a break when the filming is over, Mills feels the pressure to post every week so she can keep her fans engaged.
MILLS: I definitely was feeling drained because I was trying to pump out an amazing video once every two weeks or, like, once every week. And that's just not attainable, especially with the hours that goes into each video.
SYDELL: It was not just the 60 to 70 hours a week that burnt out Issa Tweimeh, known as issa twaimz to his viewers. He dropped out of college at 19 to pursue YouTube full-time. He enjoyed making up silly songs like this one.
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ISSA TWEIMEH: (Singing) Happy llama, sad llama, mentally-disturbed llama, super llama, drama llama, big fat mama llama...
SYDELL: That video got over 33 million views. Twaimz is now 23. He's changed over four years. He's been grappling with his sexuality. He's more interested in putting a positive message into the world than just getting clicks.
TWEIMEH: I felt like people wanted me to do this one thing, and I was growing up and getting older. And I was like, I think I'm getting too old to be doing the same thing over and over again.
SYDELL: Twaimz fell into a depression. He still wanted to make videos. But he wanted to change his style, and the relentless pace of YouTube didn't give him time to do that. Taking a break from your own YouTube channel can be risky. Jon Brence, the director of talent at Fullscreen, helps manage careers for YouTube stars. Brence says he's noticed that YouTube's algorithm favors those who post regularly.
JON BRENCE: So if you're not actively creating or if you're going on a trip and you haven't actively created content to publish during said trip, you will go effectively back to the back of the line.
SYDELL: In a statement, YouTube says it does not program to favor people who post more often. However, viewers on YouTube may prefer channels that post more often, and that does impact what the algorithm favors. Still, the company knows there's a problem. It's even got a whole section on YouTube where creators can get information about burnout and watch videos like this one about noticing the signs of it.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Do you ever feel like you just can't create anymore? Well, that would be one of the signs of burnout.
SYDELL: YouTube also offers suggestions on how to avoid burnout and live a balanced life. Despite the risks of losing some of her audience, Elle Mills says she had to take a break.
MILLS: To be honest, at that point, I needed that break so bad that it didn't really matter.
SYDELL: In a moment of desperation, she turned to her fans to explain it to them.
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MILLS: Now, I don't want to worry anyone. I am getting the help I need, and I have a bunch of people looking after me. And I will be putting my mental health first for a bit.
SYDELL: Talent manager Brence says for certain stars like Mills, turning to her fans helps.
BRENCE: She has a fan base that cares about her first and foremost. And when she's saying, I'm going to take a break, they're willing to take the break with her.
SYDELL: But Brence says there are other stars who are much more dependent on the algorithm. Brence says some stars just burn bright and then burn out after two years, and you never hear from them again. Elle Mills says after a month off traveling and talking with friends and family, she's back and feeling better. On her return, Mills once again opened up to her fans.
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MILLS: As long as I'm having fun and I'm passionate about what I'm making, everything's going to be all right. And now I finally feel content again.
SYDELL: And Mills says her fans have come back along with her. Laura Sydell, NPR News.
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