College students find ways to turn social media fun into cash

Students fill lecture halls across college campuses every day. A few scribble notes into notebooks while the rest stare at glowing laptop screens and tap away on keyboards. Some students take diligent notes, hanging on to their professors’ every word. Others are mindlessly surfing the Web. But a select few are earning a little extra cash while they sit in class.

For some, not paying attention in class could lead them to a career path in the new world of social media.

Students read tweets, browse blogs and watch YouTube videos every day. Things happen practically every moment and those moments get posted online. According to the YouTube blog, over 48 hours of video content get uploaded to the site every minute.

People also need to consider that putting their lives online is not always easy and one needs the right temperament for it. Becca Mattson, a junior at BYU from Cypress, Calif., majoring in wildlife and wildlands conservation, does enjoy blogging, but she never plans to monetize her blog.

“People would have to read it and I would have to write it [regularly] and those are two things that I do not want,” Mattson said laughing.

But the difference between the students who use social media for fun and students like Jeffrey Wisenbaugh is this: For the past 4½ years, he’s been getting paid to use it.

Wisenbaugh, a junior majoring in psychology at Michigan State University, started making YouTube videos in his basement in 2007, when he was just a junior in high school. When other kids at his high school found out, they thought it was weird and teased him about it. Fast forward to 2012 and Wisenbaugh now promotes his videos all over the place, whether that is on Twitter or his Facebook fan page, not caring what others think.

Thanks to YouTube, Wisenbaugh even started writing, filming and editing videos for the Big 10 Network. Producers at the Big 10 Network at Michigan State saw his videos and asked if he would like to do work for them. Just last year, Wisenbaugh won an Emmy for his work on the show.

“They actually saw my YouTube videos and [basically] said, ‘Hey, we like your style. We want you to not change what you do but make it fit a different format.’”

It is not just students making the money, though. Through YouTube, online charity projects thrive.

The Project for Awesome, started by John and Hank Green, the Vlogbrothers, in 2007, began as a simple video project every December. They invited their viewers to create videos promoting their favorite charities and upload them on the same day. Since then, the Vlogbrothers have helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for charities around the world.

The Green brothers gained so much success because of their online community known as Nerdfighters. In an FAQ video made by the Greens, they explained Nerdfighters: “Instead of being made out of bones and skin and tissue, [a Nerdfighter] is made entirely of awesome.” Basically, Nerdfighters try to make the world a better place. Kristi Sherwood, a senior at BYU from Albuquerque, N.M., majoring in psychology, calls herself a proud Nerdfighter and said she hopes more people will see the benefits of YouTube in bringing money in to charities and other things like them.

“The Vlogbrothers raised half a million dollars over the last Project for Awesome,” Sherwood said. “People come together in a real community on YouTube. I don’t think you could raise that kind of money anywhere else. It may not seem like it but a lot of good can come from simple YouTube videos.”

The Vlogbrothers’ greatest number of admirers and contributors are those around college age. These students use their video making, graphic design, writing, and photography skills to help further the cause of making the world more awesome. Little known YouTubers have found great success, in number of viewers and subscribers, after their videos are featured during the charity project.

Karen Kavett is one such online creator. A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design student and a current visual designer at YouTube, Kavett got her start photoshopping pictures and doing art for the online Harry Potter community. In 2008, she started her own YouTube channel and got involved with the Nerdfighters. Her most popular videos are about graphic design. All of this work was just for fun.

But once the Green brothers stumbled upon her work, they were impressed to say the least and started having her do graphics for some of their videos. This work was just stuff she did in her spare time while at college. But it paid off. YouTube hired her about a month after she graduated from RISD in July 2011.

Hayley Hoover, a junior at Ohio University majoring in creative writing, is another college student whose use of the Internet brings in a little extra cash. Like Wisenbaugh, Hoover began making videos in 2007 and soon moved on to tweeting and, perhaps her now favorite thing, blogging. Whether she’s blogging about her journey losing 25 pounds or exclaiming her love for NBC’s Thursday comedy night line-up, she knows how lucky she is to have the support she does. Hoover’s readers are fiercely loyal and question her incessantly in YouTube comments and on Twitter about when she’ll post again.

“It’s really reassuring to be told every once in a while that all the time you spend talking to the Internet isn’t a waste,” Hoover said.

However, making money off YouTube and blogging is not that simple. While anyone can post a video or write about their day, it takes time to build an audience and find people who, well, care. In order to build an audience, quality beats quantity. One viral video does not necessarily set someone up for a fruitful YouTube career. According to the official Google blog, in August of 2009 Google and YouTube began paying people who uploaded popular videos. For a substantial amount of money to be made, the video would need to get millions and millions of views. It takes most people months, even years, before they see any regular income from making videos. While it may not be easy to create videos on a regular basis, and possibly even harder to create videos worth watching, it definitely is worth it to try.

Travis Neumeyer, a student at Bowling Green University majoring in computer science and English, is another collegiate YouTuber. In 2010, Neumeyer started to make a little extra money, for what he still considers a hobby, when he became a YouTube partner. He thinks the only way to get involved in YouTube, whether in watching videos or creating them, is to “just go for it,” but to remember that money is not everything.

“The best content creators are the ones who don’t start creating for the money,” Neumeyer said. “The biggest pitfall I’ve seen is that someone thinks that no one would want to hear what they have to say or that no one would care, but that is the biggest misconception one can have when it comes to YouTube.”


This story was the result of semester-long project for a research journalism class at BYU between January and April 2012.